Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Your Favourite Actress

I couldn’t help laughing at the latest ‘offer’ from the NPG shop  [I know I shouldn’t, but…]   which is a limited edition of 30 hand-finished platinum prints after the original portraits of RUPERT BROOKE taken by Sherill Schell in London in 1913.
Brooke’s friends famously dubbed this bare-shoulder one ‘Your Favourite Actress’, after the celebrity show-biz images of the time.

Brooke was currently dating the actress Cathleen Nesbit, before his departure for the United States and beyond, in the months prior to taking up a fellowship at Cambridge. ‘How many photographs do you have taken in a month, I wonder,’ he asked her. ‘What a life!  Even we literary men, though, have our little moments.  My celebrated amateur photographer who took me for his collection of Eminent Poets has just sent me two gigantic works of Art, on eternal paper – a new process – depicting a tortured elderly man reflecting in prison on the earlier plays of M. Strindberg – me, he says.  I shall present them to the nation.  Now I’m bombarded by an American photographer called Sherill Schell (!). You know all about America – does he exist?  He says he’s in London for a month – I suspect him of being a fraud.’

A couple of weeks later, writing from the Wyndhams’ house Clouds, he told Cathleen that ‘nothing has happened: except that my American photographer has sent me a photograph of me – very shadowy and ethereal and poetic, of me in profile, and naked-shouldered. Eddie [Marsh] says it’s very good. I think it’s rather silly.
‘But anyhow, I don’t look like an amateur popular preacher – as in those others.  And no one will ever be able to put it into an interview, with the words “We want great serious drama” underneath.’

After the image gained global popularity following Brooke's death in WWI and its use in his Collected Poems, Schell gave an account of the sitting - on a foggy day in a borrowed apartment in Pimlico - saying that Brooke arrived wearing a blue shirt and long blue silk tie, and talked of the Ballets Russes and Hello Ragtime!  Using natural light and minute-long exposures, Schell took twelve frames; he claimed that for the last Brooke himself suggested the pose, 'showing his bare neck and shoulders. For this he stripped to the waist, revealing a torso that recalled the young Hermes.'

'It's positively obscene', wrote Jacques Raverat to Maynard Keynes.  'Let us write him a very insulting letter, suggesting that a photo of him completely in the nude would doubtless find a large sale.' 
Printed from the original glass negatives, the new prints are the original size – 10 x 12 inches - and cost £600.00 each, the price rising as the edition sells..  

Sadly, I haven't been able to trace the photos for Eminent Poets, apparently taken by a non-professional named Murchison.

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