Thus begins a rowdy life of photography, parties, and what might grandly be called Ker-Seymer’s love life. With society photographer Olivia Wyndham, for example, it’s “hardly an exclusive couple.” Everyone is called something like Bunny or Bumble. Parties among this batch come in all sorts of guises, including the “sick” party, where (according to Ker-Seymer’s description) “every time I would open a door, I’d catch a glimpse of someone’s head over a sink and the door flew open.” immediately”. punched in your face.” Another lover, Marty Mann, struggles to get his head out of that sink. “After six months in the hospital,” Knights writes, she “retired to a rented deck chair in Hyde Park, where she sat huddled, drinking from a bottle.” (Mann would be the first woman to become sober through Alcoholics Anonymous.)
Meanwhile, Key-Seymer strings together a career of on-and-off success—magazine imagery, publicity shoots, portraiture, and fashion photography—with the occasional inheritance and unwanted advice from Aunt Winifred, a Wodehousian aunt of importance.
Thoroughly Modern is a book full of colorful detail, but occasionally it sounds as if it was edited by a sensitive reader. “As with Dover Street to Dixie, the production, directed by white businessman Lew Leslie, was problematic” seems a peculiarly anachronistic line. Was he seen as “problematic” then? Or only now? And while it’s natural for a biographer to be sympathetic to her subject, when Knights says that “in the same way that Bar’s attitude toward sexuality was fluid, she considered the boundaries around other people’s spouses porous,” it’s an excuse. elegant to some really inelegant. behavior.
The truth is that Bar is scary to people, and they are scary too. The image-maker can’t seem to decide on her own identity: does she want to be the future Lady Milford (she falls in love with the married Wogan Philipps) or a lesbian laundress? She manages to fit in two marriages, and her second mother-in-law, Dorothy, is a standout number even in this book. When Ker-Seymer is five months pregnant and gets married, they all go on vacation to Italy. Dorothy orders a single bed in the double room of Bar and her husband John, “apparently unable to tolerate the fact that her son shared a bed with his wife”. (Unsurprisingly, the divorce will follow.)
Ker-Seymer’s friendships with Burra, Chapell and others endure, though dance genius Frederick Ashton becomes such a prima donna that they can’t buy him dinner ahead of time in case he gets the call from the Queen Mother. Ker-Seymer herself seems to have a soft spot for celebrities, and she befriends Patricia Highsmith and (strangely) artist Beryl Cook, to whom she writes a fan letter. There’s even a change in tone as our top tips on late-maturity: Has the rowdy, enterprising Bar turned into a welcoming cruise ship?
What are we left with? Ker-Seymer’s paintings of, say, Nancy Cunard or Jean Cocteau stand in contrast to what Knights calls the “dramatically embellished goddesses of Madame Yevonde”: hers are “honest and simple,” “straight” portraits. Rewardingly, too, we see her finally getting credit when some of her work has been wrongly attributed to Cecil Beaton. Otherwise, this book is a picturesque portrait of a world that sounds as utterly manic as it is modern.
Catherine Ostler is the author of The Duchess Countess: The Woman Who Shocked a Nation. Thoroughly Modern: The Pioneering Life of Barbara Ker-Seymer, Photographer, and Her Brilliant Bohemian Friends of Hers is a £22 Virago Publishing. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit telegraph books
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