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Dorothy Wilding

© William Hustler and Georgina Hustler / National Portrait Gallery, London

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Dorothy Wilding

by Dorothy Wilding
chlorobromide print, 1930s
8 1/8 in. x 5 7/8 in. (207 mm x 148 mm)
Given by the photographer's sister, Susan Morton, 1976
Photographs Collection
NPG x27403

Sitterback to top

  • Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), Photographer. Sitter in 30 portraits, Artist associated with 2177 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), Photographer. Artist associated with 2177 portraits, Sitter in 30 portraits.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Rideal, Liz, Mirror Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, 2001 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12 September 2001 to 20 January 2002), p. 73 Read entry

    Dorothy Wilding was born in Gloucester, the youngest of nine children, and at the age of four she was sent to live with her childless aunt and uncle in Cheltenham. This early experience may well account for her determination to become financially independent and well known. Her ambition was to be an actress or a painter but aged sixteen she bought a camera and tripod and became a photographer.

    Wilding moved to London in 1910, becoming an apprentice retoucher in a photographic studio and, having saved enough money, by the age of twenty-one she opened her first portrait studio. This was a success and she moved the business from George Square to Regent Street in 1918, expanding her mainly female staff to seven. Here she consolidated her style of using artificial light, and mounting her portraits first onto tissue, then onto tinted card and finally onto a larger card, which bore her specially designed logo on the reverse. She made a loveless marriage in 1920, divorcing in 1932, and that same year, aged thirty-nine, she married the interior decorator Thomas 'Rufus' Leighton Pearce, who transformed her new Bond Street studio with a clean modernist design. In 1933 she won third prize in the 13th Annual Competition of American Photography and received positive press reviews for her work.

    In 1937 Wilding took the coronation portraits of George VI and his family (she was later to become the first woman photographer granted 'By Appointment' status to the royal family). At the end of the year she moved to New York to open a studio (it was run concurrent with the one in London until 1956 and had a staff of thirty-seven). She operated a huge stand camera by means of a cable release, directing assistants to move lights, attend sitters and arrange poses. This self-portrait gives a good idea of her extrovert, sunny personality. It records an exuberant pose with a flashing smile and indicates the physical scale of her camera. Wilding's clients included Tallulah Bankhead, Gladys Cooper, Yul Brynner, Harry Belafonte, the Zinkeisen sisters and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The trademark white studio blocks that she used as abstract counterpoints to her sitters' poses became highly fashionable. She again took the royal portraits on Coronation Day and studies from her 1952 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II were used for stamps and coinage. In 1958 her autobiography, In Pursuit of Perfection, was published, and she sold her business. The National Portrait Gallery holds over 900 of her original negatives and prints presented by her sister and studio manager Mrs Susan Morton in 1976.

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Current affairs

Amy Johnson is the first woman to fly solo to Australia. She flew the 11,000 miles from Croydon to Darwin in a De Havilland Gipsy Moth named Jason and won the Harmon Trophy as well as a CBE for her achievement. She went on to break a number of other flying records, and died while serving in the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1941.

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