Words - 20th Century Greats - Dorothy Wilding


20th Century Greats series (1999)

Dorothy Wilding (1893 – 1976)

Amongst the finest exponents of her craft, doyen society and theatre photographer Dorothy Wilding was born and brought up in Gloucestershire.

The youngest, unwelcome, daughter of a large Victorian family, she had a traumatic childhood, but her passion for independence coincided with an all-consuming love of photography.

Saving her pocket money, at sixteen she bought her first camera. It was 1909 and from the popular photographic postcards of the Edwardian age, featuring famous thespians she learned about lighting and poses for portraiture.

Although small in stature, her sky-high ambition emboldened her to brush aside parental objections. She travelled to London. Taking jobs with established portrait photographers, saving hard, at the age of twenty-one, she leased her first studio.

The premises were close to the great Oxford Street store, Selfridges. It had good natural light, which was just as well, because she could not afford to lighting. She soon came to the attention of the Selfridge family. She photographed them. After that, London Society was wild about Wilding.

A meteoric rise
Moving to larger, more central premises, she was soon employing seven assistants. It was there that she took her first pictures by artificial light, designing a system of tracks that fixed to the ceiling for her two 1,000 watt lamps with pale blue reflectors.

Her staggering success was as much dependent upon her superb lighting techniques, high standard of retouching and finishing, as her rapidly growing society and theatrical connections.

By 1923, she had the experience and the confidence to walk tall amongst the portraitists of the age. In fact, early on in her career she became convinced that women in portraiture were inherently better than ‘mere males’. With that, she promptly took premises in Old Bond Street and challenged the established practitioners already there.

An early, active member of the PPA (Professional Photographers’ Association), she fought hard for photographers’ fees and copyright issues, whilst her own images were increasingly in demand by ‘society’ magazines. At the time, she was named by the BJP as one of the top twenty London photographers.

As her business in Bond Street thrived with clientele from amongst London’s decorative, leisured classes, Wilding went further. She had mistakenly married young, but met the man with whom she would later share her life, when he created a revolutionary art deco design for her studio.

Climbing higher up the social ladder with every year that passed, she also showed her personal work and portraits at the hallowed London Salon and at similar events abroad. By 1930, a grand performer, she had been made a Fellow of the RPS.

New horizons
With her marriage to designer Leighton Pierce, came another burst of creative energy. Her 1930’s commercial and advertising images were clearly ahead of their time, preceding 1960’s eroticism by 30 years!

Early in Coronation year, 1937, Wilding was commissioned to make portraits of the Royal Family. Published world-wide, demand for the ‘Wilding look’ was so great that she was employing thirty-seven people.

The first woman photographer to be granted ‘by appointment’ status, she made yet another leap forward. She opened what was to be a highly successful studio on Fifth Avenue, New York.

In 1940, a German bomb destroyed her London studio. She took her ailing husband to New York. He died there and she dedicated much her time to building her US business. Nevertheless, awarded a Royal Warrant in 1943, she created the royal portraits for British and Commonwealth stamps.

Coasting through the late 1940’s and early 50’s on a lifelong wave of self-confidence, she may have believed herself to be invincible, but time and fashion are cruel opponents. In her twilight years, her stylised, post-art-deco images were eclipsed by a massive ground swell of post-war talent.

But, by then her mission was complete. She had stormed the bastion of male prejudice and created her own 20th century legend.

© Copyright John Chillingworth