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Elisabeth Welch

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Elisabeth Welch

by Humphrey Spender
bromide print on card mount, June 1933
7 7/8 in. x 5 3/4 in. (200 mm x 147 mm)
Purchased, 1981
Photographs Collection
NPG x14268

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Humphrey Spender (1910-2005), Photographer, artist and designer. Artist of 15 portraits, Sitter in 3 portraits.

This portraitback to top

The photograph was taken at the behest of the artist John Banting, who was a fan.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 110
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 96 Read entry

    Born in New York, the theatre and cabaret singer Elisabeth Welch (1904-2003) made her Broadway debut in Runnin’ Wild in 1923. She launched the Charleston craze, sang Cole Porter’s ‘Love for Sale’ on the nightclub circuit, appeared in cabaret in Paris in 1929, and later in London, in Porter’s Nymph Errant (1933). A starring role in Ivor Novello’s Glamorous Night (1935) secured her success, which grew when she became the first black performer to have their own radio series – Soft Lights and Sweet Music, broadcast by the BBC in 1936 and 1937. In films, from 1934, she twice played opposite Paul Robeson, and in 1979 appeared in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest, performing ‘Stormy Weather’, which she had first sung in the all-black review Dark Doings in London in 1933. Broadway’s version of her London hit, Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, won her a Tony nomination in 1986. Never overtly political but always determined, she presents, according to author and critic Bonnie Greer, ‘another pathway … for any young black woman, any woman, any person who wants to go their own way in life’.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 204 Read entry

    From her stage debut in 1922 to her final appearance in 1996, singer Elisabeth Welch was an important figure in the world of popular music. Born in New York, she helped to launch the Charleston on Broadway and popularised Cole Porter’s scandalous ‘Love for Sale’. In 1933 she introduced the song ‘Stormy Weather’ to British audiences. This photograph of Welch, taken by Humphrey Spender (1910–2005), marked the beginning of her sixty-year career in British musical theatre as well as the start of Spender’s career in photography.

    In the 1930s the composer and actor Ivor Novello wrote songs for Welch, while the actor Paul Robeson was her leading man in films, and she enjoyed popularity as a cabaret star of London’s café society. In the post-war years, Welch starred in stage plays including Tuppence Coloured (1947) and Penny Plain (1951). Later, in 1979, her appearance in Derek Jarman’s film of Shakespeare’s The Tempest won her new fans. Welch defined her art quite simply as ‘telling a story in song’.

    Humphrey Spender, brother of the poet Stephen Spender, became well known in the 1930s working as a photojournalist for the Daily Mirror and Picture Post.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Subject/Themeback to top

Events of 1933back to top

Current affairs

Sir Norman Angell is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Angell was recognised for his book, Europe's Optical Illusion (or The Great Illusion) first published in 1910 and updated in 1933, which argued that war between modern powers was futile as neither the looser or victor would gain economically from it.

Art and science

British Art embraces abstraction with the establishment of 'Unit 1', the first group of British Artists dedicated to producing abstract art. The critic Herbert Read formed the group by bringing together the artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and the architect, Wells Coates.
The Duveen Wing extension at the National Portrait Gallery is opened by King George V.


The Nazi party comes to power in Germany as part of a coalition government with Hitler as Chancellor. Over the next year, the party consolidated its position through the Enabling Act (allowing them to pass legislation without the support of the coalition), by banning and purging opposition, and by making Hitler Führer in 1934: granting him the combined powers of Chancellor and President.

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