Quantities of Quant

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Until 16th February 2020, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is celebrating the career of Dame Mary Quant whose work as a fashion designer led her to become a powerful role model for women. Spanning twenty years from 1955 onwards, the Mary Quant exhibition displays clothing from her experimental brand Bazaar, Parisian couture and her success across the pond. Popularising the mini-skirt, hot pants and other fun fashion trends, Mary Quant revolutionised fashion throughout the world.

Barbara Mary Quant was born on 11th February 1930 in Blackheath, London to Welsh teachers Jack and Mildred. Her early life was marred by food and clothing rationings due to WWII, however, she was determined to become a fashion designer. Her parents, who studied at Cardiff University in order to earn first-class degrees and become teachers, were disappointed with their daughter’s ambitions and encouraged her to think about more conventional career choices for women. As a compromise, Quant attended Goldsmiths College to study illustration with the intention to train as an art teacher. College life introduced Quant to new and exciting people and prospects, resulting in an apprenticeship at Erik, a high-end Mayfair milliner.

Mary Quant’s ambitions to become a fashion designer were realised shortly after meeting her future husband and business partner Alexander Plunket Greene (d.1990) in 1953. The couple married in 1957 and later had a son named Orlando (b.1970). Two years before they became husband and wife, Quant and Plunket Greene teamed up with a friend, Archie McNair, to open a boutique called Bazaar. The shop was situated on the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road in Chelsea in a building above the basement restaurant Alexander’s, owned by Plunket Greene.

Quant began sourcing materials, quirky garments and jewellery from wholesale warehouses and art schools to fill her new shop, as well as producing unique works of fashion. Bazaar was described as “a bouillabaisse of clothes … and peculiar odds and ends,” and stock sold out during the opening night. Encouraged by this, Quant continued to make masses of dresses in her own home to sell in the shop. Every day, she bought fabric from the department store Harrods in Knightsbridge, opposite which, three years later, she opened her second boutique.

Whilst Bazaar was successful, allowing Quant to purchase expensive fabrics, the constant repetition of selling during the day and making new stock overnight was exhausting. Nonetheless, Quant persevered and was rewarded with a flourishing business. Due to making each garment by hand, there was usually only one of each design. The examples shown at the V&A are labelled with the name of the person who wore the piece. It was not until the 1960s that Quant began to work with machinists, who were able to produce her garments more rapidly. By 1966, she was working with 18 different manufacturers, which allowed her to mass-produce her popular designs.

Quant’s designs were influenced by London’s youth culture, which included dancers, Beatniks and the Mods (Modernists). Her clothes were modern and totally different from the acceptable style of dress for women during the war years. Simple and easy to wear, Quant aimed to produce clothes that were “relaxed … suited to the actions of normal life.” More women were going to work and needed appropriate clothing but Quant believed that did not mean they could not be stylish too.

As can be seen throughout the exhibition, Quant experimented with scale, proportion, and style. She incorporated features from the clothing of previous decades and centuries with modern ideas. Collared shirts and bodices were combined with short skirts, bright fabrics, and tights. Quant also recreated some of the clothes she wore as a child, altering parts to make them suitable for an adult. She also styled dresses on men’s clothing, for example, long male cardigans or jumpers.

By “borrowing from the boys”, Quant introduced tailoring cloth, which was intended for suits or military uniforms, to women’s clothing. In doing this, Quant broke fashion hierarchies and gender rules; no longer were certain materials reserved for particular people or classes. Items that were once only considered wearable by the upper classes were suddenly available to everyone. With clothing slightly bordering on satire, Quant allowed women to dress as bankers or barristers as well as the more feminine secretary.

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In 1963, Quant launched her Ginger Group collection, which was mass-produced and available in 75 outlets across the UK. The name comes from a political term for a pressure group, using the term ginger as a verb meaning to “pep things up”. Whereas Quant’s clothing was already popular, she wanted to produce modern and edgy clothing for a wider clientele.

Quant’s inspiration for the first Ginger Group collection was American sportswear. Rather than all-in-one dresses, she designed items that could be paired together with different things, thus the wearer could mix their wardrobe up without exceeding their bank balance by buying several outfits. The name of the collection led itself to an unusual “ginger” colour palette, which involved a range of red and orange tones.

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Ginger Group Crêpe Dress, modelled by Patti Boyd with the Rolling Stones

Having conquered London and the rest of Britain, Quant set her sights on the United States of America. In 1960, Quant and her husband flew out to New York, just two years after the first commercial transatlantic flight. American journalists had previously written about Quant’s “kooky” look and she was welcomed to the States as a celebrity.

During her first trip to America, Quant pitched her ideas to US department stores and met fashion editors interested in her “ready-to-wear” system. Rapidly, her clothing was purchased and displayed in store windows throughout New York.

In 1962, Quant signed a contract with the American department-store chain JC Penney. When her Ginger Collection launched the following year, her clothing was suddenly at the forefront of the mass market. By 1965, Quant was regularly flying between London and New York.

Quant shared the success of her Ginger Collection with the manufacturer Steinberg & Sons, who assisted with production, supplies, and exports. By 1965, Quant was producing 50 designs a year for the Ginger Collection as well as her other dresses. Working six months ahead, Quant produced sketches for future lines, which were costed and approved at the Steinburg head office before being sent to their seamstresses. The V&A includes a couple of Quant’s sketches in the exhibition.

In 1963, not only was Quant working on her Ginger Collection, she was establishing her Wet Collection too. A new material called PVC (polyvinyl chloride) was gradually making its way into the fashion industry. It had previously only been used for protective garments but Quant was fascinated by “this super shiny man-made stuff and its shrieking colours … its gleaming liquorice black, white and ginger.” The Wet Collection was launched at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, and only contained garments produced in this plastic-coated cotton material.

Despite being unlike anything they had seen before, fashion editors and buyers were inspired by the “space-age” look and orders flooded in. This collection earned Quant her first magazine cover for British Vogue, which featured her bright red PVC rain mac. Unfortunately, there was a delay in launching the collection on the high street due to a problem with the seams of the garments. Standard sewing machines could not tightly seal the seams and often caused the material to rip or melt. Specialist machinery was needed, which was eventually found through collaboration with Alligator Rainwear in 1965.

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In 1963, The Sunday Times had awarded Mary Quant with an International Award for “jolting England out a conventional attitude towards clothes” but in 1966 she received a more prestigious award. Wearing a cream wool jersey dress with a low waist, short gathered skirt, high collar and bell-shaped sleeves with blue top-stitching and brass zippers, Mary Quant arrived at Buckingham Palace with her husband and their business partner. Hours later, Quant left with an OBE (Officer for the British Empire) as an award for her contribution to the UK fashion export trade and supporting the British economy.

Already known across the world, this event promoted her clothing further in international newspapers. Using the opportunity of all the media attention, Quant began to produce other items under her brand name. Recognised by her big Daisy logo, Quant began to sell makeup (male and female), hats, bags, stockings, underwear, colouring books, knitting patterns and so much more.

In 1966, Quant trademarked her daisy emblem, which became easily recognisable, attracting more customers to her brand. This was one of the first designer logos and it helped to establish the authenticity of her clothing and mark them apart from rival brands. The daisy logo lent its name to Quant’s next big idea, the Daisy doll. Quant moved to the toy market in 1973 with “the best-dressed doll in the world”. Daisy enabled the next generation to connect with her brand. The doll wore miniature versions of Mary Quant designs and the launch at the Harrogate Toy Fair involved models dancing down a catwalk wearing life-size versions of Daisy’s wardrobe.

“The shock of the knee”

Of all Mary Quant’s designs, she is undoubtedly known best for the miniskirt. Since the war years, the length of women’s skirts had gradually shortened to knee-length, however, Quant took it even further. Based on children’s pinafores, Quant rose her hemlines well above the knee causing scandal amongst the older generation. The teenage dance scene of the 60s, however, embraced the new fashion and by 1966 many young women were wearing the newly titled miniskirt. The style also became an international symbol of London’s youth and women’s liberation.

With the miniskirt becoming accepted in society, Mary Quant used a new type of wool jersey to produce a new style of her signature minidresses: the Jersey Dress. In keeping with her previous sporty theme, the machine-knitted dresses allowed for fluidity of movement at the same time as being fashionable. They were practical, affordable, and most importantly, crease-free.

Quant experimented with different shapes and colours. Some jersey dresses had a skater skirt, whereas others were more like long jumpers or shirts. The material allowed for embellishments, such as buttons, collars, and zips, which also became a recognisable element of her brand.

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The miniskirt was not the only new fashion Quant introduced to the modern generations. Already mentioned are her PVC rainwear but one of her greatest ideas were tights and long socks. Previously, women had to suffer fiddly suspender-belts and nude coloured stockings but Quant wanted to change this. Marks and Spencer had already introduced tights to the market, however, at 12 shillings a pair (three times the price of stockings) they had not yet caught on. Quant proposed brighter coloured stockings and tights – bright mustard yellow, ginger, and prune – that would match her miniskirts and jersey dresses.

Partnering with the Nylon Hosiery Company, Quant designed stockings and tights that enabled women to dance, run and move. The company developed a technique of making self-supporting long stockings that joined together at the top; therefore, women no longer needed to use suspender-belts.

Another of Quant’s contributions to fashion is trousers for women. Historically, trousers were a male item of clothing and, whilst Quant did not invent the female version, she pushed to make them more acceptable. Women, particularly students, were comfortable wearing trousers, however, most only wore them to informal occasions or at home. Quant wanted to make trousers acceptable for women in the workplace, at parties and other formal events. Not many Mary Quant trousers exist today, however, the result of her determination to make them a regular part of female fashion can be seen in every clothes shop today.

The last of Quant’s major contributions to fashion were hotpants and loungewear. Combining the miniskirt and trousers, Quant produced extremely short shorts that bemused department stores; which section should they sell them in?

“As I love breaking down barriers all this was great fun. Quite soon this collection was promoted as ‘underwear as outerwear’ and vice versa.”
– Mary Quant, Quant by Quant, 1966

Never before had people worn such revealing clothing but the trend caught on quickly amongst the younger members of society. Today, shorts and hotpants are acceptable forms of clothing for women but in the 60s and 70s, this was a risky, although successful, move for Quant.

Loungewear combined trousers, jersey dresses, and hotpants to create stretch towelling one-piece suits. Some had full-length legs that included feet (a precursor of the “onesie”) and others were short zip-up versions. Their purpose was to be worn when lounging at home, which was a foreign concept in Britain at the time. Women only had dressing gowns, which were worn last thing at night and first thing in the morning. The thought of laying around during the day was alien enough, let alone having special clothes in which to do it.

Quant’s inspiration for loungewear came from Babygro (invented in the US in the 1950s). This was the adult version of a baby’s outfit. When reflecting on her designs, Quant once said, “I didn’t want to grow up, perhaps that’s something to do with it.” This explains many of her designs, not just loungewear.

Most of Mary Quant’s greatest fashion achievements occurred within the twenty years shown in the exhibition. Throughout the 70s and 80s, she decided to concentrate more on homeware and make-up than only clothing. This included the duvet, which she dubiously claims she invented.

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In 1988, Quant designed the interior of the Mini (1000) Designer. Dubbed the Mini Quant, it featured black-and-white striped seats with red trimming and red seatbelts. The steering wheel featured her signature daisy.

In 2000, Mary Quant resigned from Mary Quant Ltd, selling the company to a Japanese business; there are currently over 200 Mary Quant shops in Japan. Nonetheless, her fame lives on in Britain and she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to British fashion. Quant is also a Fellow of the Chartered Society of Designers and the winner of the society’s highest award, the Minerva Medal.

The Mary Quant exhibition is a must-see for those who grew up wearing or being influenced by Quant’s designs. It is also interesting for the younger generations who were not around to experience the fashion first hand, but who benefit daily from her contributions. Mary Quant is a phenomenal woman who single-handedly became known and loved for her designs long before they were mass-produced. She knew she wanted to be a fashion designer from a young age and she made her dream come true.

The V&A are exhibiting Mary Quant until 16th February 2020. Standard tickets are £12, although concessions apply. The exhibition takes place on two levels but it has been made wheelchair friendly.

Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure

Ahoy there, Simeon! The Cutty Sark restoration team have come across a strange document wedged in behind the ship’s figurehead. A map of an island and set of directions allude to “The Green Witch Treasure”. But which witch? Do they mean Greenwich? And what treasure? Can you follow the trail for a spell and see where it leads – and maybe you’ll earn some bounty in return?

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After receiving a copy of the map and directions from Treasure Trails, Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) wasted no time in getting himself to Greenwich to discover the mystery of “The Green Witch Treasure”. (Naturally this included a trip on the Emirates Airline and the Thames Clipper; after all, he is a very adventurous gibbon.) From the Cutty Sark to the Royal Observatory, Simeon raked over the ground, climbed up steep hills (he was carried) and investigated several buildings. He studied the Meridian line, appreciated the architectural beauty of the Queen’s House, Naval College, and the Maritime Museum, and resisted the temptation to jump into the River Thames (it was a hot day). Eventually, Simeon unearthed the location of the treasure but, along the way, he found and learnt about the hidden treasures of Greenwich.

Greenwich, located 5.5 miles from the heart of London, is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Merdian (0° longitude) and Greenwich Mean Time. It was the birthplace of many of the Tudor Royals, who once spent time at the Palace of Placentia. During the reign of Charles II (1630-85), the palace was demolished and a new building erected, now used by the University of Greenwich.

With reference to a place named Gronewic in a Saxon charter of 918 AD, it is believed the area of Greenwich has been populated for over 1000 years. It is recorded as Grenviz in the Domesday Book of 1086, and later as Grenewych in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291.

As Simeon discovered at the top of Greenwich Park after a long uphill walk, the ground is full of huge mounds and craters, making it appear as though they were the foundations of an old house. Further research reveals these are tumuli, also known as barrows or burial mounds. These are thought to be early Bronze Age barrows (3000 BC), which were later appropriated by the Saxons in the 6th century AD.

During the reign of Æthelred II (the Unready; 966-1016), a Danish fleet (i.e. Viking) anchored on the River Thames and camped on the hill in Greenwich for three years. During this time, they attacked the county of Kent and took the Archbishop of Canterbury as their prisoner. This was Archbishop Alphege (or Ælfheah; 935-1012), who was kept prisoner for seven months until he was stoned to death for his refusal to allow his ransom of 3,000 pieces of silver to be paid.

Shortly into Simeon’s treasure trail, he entered St. Alfege Passage and came across a church bearing the sign “open”. Being the lazy little gibbon that he is, Simeon decided it was a great opportunity for a rest but what he found inside was so interesting that he barely sat down at all! The church is built on the site where Saint Alfege was allegedly killed and a memorial stone marks the spot inscribed with the words “He who dies for justice, dies for Christ.”

The current building, which is undergoing restoration work, was not the first church on the site. No one knows when the first was built but records state the second building was built during the 13th century. It is highly likely that Henry VIII (1491-1547) and other Tudor royals were baptised in this church and one of the stained glass windows depicts this event.

Another stained glass window depicts Thomas Tallis (1505-85), the “father of English church music”. He was the organist at St. Alfege Church during the reigns of four Tudor monarchs: Henry VIII, Edward VI (1537-53), Mary I (1516-55) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603). On display is an old organ that may date to Tallis’ time. This was replaced after the Second World War, however, the current organ was transferred to the church from Eton College in the year 2000.

The second church building was destroyed in 1710 when a gale caused the medieval roof to collapse. A new church was proposed and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), was chosen to be the architect. The building was completed by 1714, however, on 19th March 1941, an incendiary bomb hit the roof of the church and destroyed a lot of the architecture. In 1946, rebuilding began but many of the original features had to be replaced.

Fortunately, much of the altar survived the bombing during the Second World War. The iron rails were designed by Jean Tijou, a French Huguenot ironworker who also produced screens for Hampton Court and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The original trompe l’œil painting around the alter by James Thornhill, famed for his work in the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, had to be carefully restored.

There were many things that caught Simeon’s eye around the church, including a Coventry Cross made from the medieval nails of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed during World War II. Simeon enjoyed seeing the stained glass depicting Thomas Tallis and Henry VIII’s baptism. There were also windows commemorating the marriage of Princess Mary (1496- 1533), the fourth child of Henry VII (1457-1509), to the Earl of Suffolk, and General Charles George Gordon (1833-85), who was baptised there in 1833.

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At the back of the church is a memorial to General James Wolfe (1727-59), who is also remembered with a statue at the top of Greenwich Park. General Wolfe was 32 when he died after leading his troops to victory at the siege of Quebec in 1759. Wolfe, who had moved to Greenwich in 1738, worshipped at St. Alfege Church and is subsequently buried in a vault in the crypt. Thomas Tallis is also buried in the crypt, as is Sir John Julius Angerstein (1735-1823), the “father of Lloyds of London”, and Samuel Enderby (1719-97), the founder of Samuel Enderby & Sons. Other famous worshippers at St. Alfege’s include Reverend John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal; MP for Canterbury Sir James Creed (1695-1762), for whom the steep street Simeon climbed is named; and Sir John Lethieullier (1633-1719), a sheriff of London. In Charles Dicken’s (1812-70) novel Our Mutual Friend, a wedding takes place in St. Alfege Church.

Up near the statue of General Wolfe in Greenwich Park is Charles II’s Royal Observatory. Initially, this was the site of a tower erected by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447), the half-brother of Henry V (1386-1422). It was at this observatory that the Greenwich Meridian was determined. A prime meridian and its antimeridian create a full circle that divides the planet into two sections: the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere. The Greenwich Meridian passes through the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ghana and Antarctica. There is an opportunity to stand on the spot that the (invisible) line passes through, however, Simeon was in too much of a hurry to find his buried treasure to stop and join the crowds of people awaiting their turn.

From the highest point in Greenwich Park, the only hill overlooking the Thames on the eastern approach to London, there is a magnificent view over London. Simeon spotted the towers of Canary Wharf in the background, however, he was most impressed with the buildings at the bottom of the hill. One of these buildings is called the Queen’s House and was commissioned by the wife of James I (1566-1625), Queen Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). The house, designed by Inigo Jones (1573-1652), is one of the surviving buildings belonging to Greenwich Palace. Unfortunately, Anne did not live to see the final outcome and Charles I (1600-49) gave the completed house to his wife Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69).

The Queen’s House did not remain Queen Henrietta Maria’s house for long due to the English Civil War, which began in 1641. During this time, Greenwich Palace was used as a prisoner-of-war camp as well as a biscuit factory. Later, throughout the Interregnum (1649-1660) the palace and park were seized for the Lord Protector’s use as a mansion. By the time of the Restoration, the remains of the old Palace of Placentia had been pulled down and Charles II began to oversee the construction of new buildings, including the aforementioned Royal Observatory.

Prince James (1633-1701), the Duke of York and future king, was the person to propose the idea of creating a Royal Naval Hospital in the buildings closest to the Thames, however, it was not until his daughter Mary (1662-94) was on the throne that the work began. The construction of the hospital was eventually finished in 1696.

A century later, the Queen’s House, as it is still known, was transformed into the Royal Naval Asylum, a school for children orphaned by war, by George III (1738-1820). This was later amalgamated with the Greenwich Hospital School before eventually being renamed the Royal Hospital School by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) in 1892. As well as the Queen’s House, the school inhabited the building next door, which is now the National Maritime Museum.

The National Maritime Museum was opened during the reign of George V (1865-1936). The Royal Hospital was moved to Suffolk so that the museum could inhabit the buildings in Greenwich. Forming part of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and Royal Museums Greenwich, the museum contains some of the most important items in relation to the history of Britain at sea. The two million items include maritime art, maps, naval manuscripts and navigational instruments. Two of Britain’s greatest seamen are also celebrated in the museum: Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and Captain James Cook (1728-79). Although the museum is free to enter, Simeon passed up the opportunity in favour of finding his hidden treasure.

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Despite his persistence in continuing the treasure trail, Simeon had time to give a cursory glance to the granite statue of William IV (1765-1837) at the back of the museum. The statue was made by Samuel Nixon (1804-1854) and represents the King in the uniform of a high admiral. Although this statue is impressive, another artwork had caught Simeon’s eye.

Situated on a plinth outside the new Sammy Ofer Wing of the National Maritime Museum is Yinka Shonibare MBE’s (b.1962) Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle (2010). Originally commissioned for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, this scaled-down replica of Nelson’s HMS Victory sits protected from the elements in a large, corked glass bottle. HMS Victory was the ship on which the war hero died during the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. The impressive ship had 80 cannons and 37 sails, although they would not have been as richly decorated as the sails in the model. Shonibare chose to use a pattern inspired by Indonesian batik, which was mass-produced by Dutch traders during Nelson’s lifetime. This alludes to the negative usage of ships such as these, which enabled colonialism, industrialisation, and the misuse of cultural appropriation. Today, this model is one of the most photographed artworks in London.

At the exit of Greenwich Park near Park Row, our little friend was distracted by several enormous anchors. Each one was once used upon a British ship and they now serve as a memorial to the ships used between the 18th and 20th century. Early seafarers would have used stone, wood or lead to make their anchors, however, as seen here, they soon discovered that iron served the best purpose.

The most common shape of an anchor is known as the Admiralty-pattern and consists of a shank with a stock and ring at one end and a crown with flukes at the other. A length of cable would lower the anchor by its ring into the water and the flukes on the crown would dig into the seabed, eventually pinning the ship in place. Anchors on display include an Admiralty-pattern recovered off the coast of Sheerness in Kent dating to approximately 1750, an Admiralty-pattern from the Kathrena Anne (1805), a single-fluke anchor from 1820, and a 4-tonne anchor from the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert (1899).

The one that intrigued Simeon the most was the bright red and yellow, many-toothed cutterhead from a cutter suction dredger. Although more than heavy enough to be used as an anchor, the cutterhead’s purpose was to remove materials from the seabed in land reclamation projects in the Far East. It eventually became obsolete in 1995.

Simeon’s treasure trail eventually led him to the riverfront where Thames Clippers and other boats sail throughout the day. From Greenwich Pier, a number of riverboat services take passengers to Westminster via Canary Wharf, the Tower of London and Embankment. For those who wish to travel to the opposite bank of the Thames, a foot tunnel was designed by civil engineer Sir Alexander Binnie (1839-1917) and opened in 1902. The tunnel exits in Millwall on the Isle of Dogs, which was once home to the West India Docks. The entrance to the tunnel can be found inside a glass-domed shaft beside the famous Cutty Sark.

The Cutty Sark is a British clipper ship built in 1869 that has been preserved on dry land for the benefit of visitors and conserving British maritime history. Although a major fire destroyed a large part of the ship in 2007, a restoration team returned the Cutty Sark to her former glory.

Simeon, of course, had no time to pay the interior of the Cutty Sark a visit, however, he was content to view the impressive ship from the outside. From there, Simeon had a great view of Nannie Dee, the ship’s figurehead, which has been attributed to carver Fredrick Hellyer of Blackwall. The Cutty Sark was named after Nannie Dee, who’s nickname was Cutty-sark, a term that means “short undergarment”. Her story can be found in the poem Tam o’ Shanter (1791) by Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-96).

Her cutty sark, o’ Paisley harn,
That while a lassie she had worn,
In longitude tho’ sorely scanty,
It was her best, and she was vauntie.
Ah! little kend thy reverend grannie
That sark she coft for her wee Nannie
Wi’ twa pund Scots (’twas a’ her riches)
Wad ever graced a dance of witches!
– Tam o’ Shanter

The figurehead is completely white, with hair flowing back as though moving at speed. In her outstretched left hand is a clump of long black hair from the tail of a horse. In the poem, Tam has come across a group of dancing witches and falls in love with Nannie Dee. Whilst watching them from afar, he forgets himself and calls out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” Alerted to his presence, the witches chase him and, although he survives, Nannie Dee managed to grab hold of his horse’s tail and pull it off before he had crossed the river to safety.

“Fascinating,” thought Simeon. “But on with the trail!”

Eventually, Simeon located the position of his much sought after treasure. Completely elated, he was not concerned that he never found out who the elusive “Green Witch” was; perhaps she was Nannie Dee? On his two and a half-mile trek, Simeon enjoyed discovering the history of Greenwich and finding some hidden gems. As well as seeing all the historical buildings and taking in the view from the top of Greenwich Park, Simeon had the opportunity to have photos taken with various statues, explore the town centre and admire the Georgian houses while he was being carried up Croom’s Hill. He was also able to walk through Greenwich Market and look at (but not buy) a range of wares.

It is believed that a market has existed in Greenwich since the 14th century. The present market, however, dates back to 1700 when a charter was agreed by Lord Henry, Earl of Romney (1641-1704) that the Commissioners of Greenwich Hospital could hold a market every Wednesday and Saturday. Today, the market runs daily and is surrounded by Grade 2 listed buildings. In the early 1900s, a roof was added to the market place so that sellers could have a dry place to sell their articles at all times of the year. Selling predominantly antiques, fashion and food, the market opens daily at 10am.

Treasure Trails allows people to explore areas around the United Kingdom at their own pace whilst solving clues in order to find fictional treasure or solve a murder mystery. Simeon thoroughly enjoyed the Greenwich Treasure Trail and wholly recommends it, although be aware that there is a rather steep hill. Thanks to the intricate trail, Simeon and friends discovered things about Greenwich that they would have otherwise missed. To top it all, Simeon is now the owner of yet another Treasure Trail certificate!

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Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden

For more information about Treasure Trails and the areas they cover, please visit their website.

Simeon Investigates Covent Garden

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Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) was beyond excited to receive a letter from Treasure Trails with a number of clues to solve a mysterious murder in the heart of London. Famous detective novelist Lotta Twist (fictional but don’t tell Simeon!) has died under baffling circumstances and it was up to Simeon, with a little help from his friends, to work out which suspect was the murderer and what weapon they used.

After hunting high and low between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, Simeon solved the mystery but, along the way, he discovered many exciting streets and buildings. Of course, the biggest and most popular of all was Covent Garden’s central square, London’s main theatre and entertainment area. The Covent Garden Piazza is full of luxury shops, street entertainers, market stalls and hundreds of excited tourists; and amongst them, was a little wide-eyed detective, Simeon.

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Apple Market, Covent Garden Market traders inside Inigo Jones’ “handsomest barn in England”.

Covent Garden is the name of a district in the capital that stretches from St Martin’s Lane near Trafalgar Square and Drury Lane, towards Camden. Although it is now a popular shopping and tourist area, it used to be famous for the former fruit-and-vegetable market in the central square. Simeon was intrigued to discover the market stalls selling homemade wares was still known as Apple Market.

The history of Covent Garden dates back to 400 AD when the area near St Martin’s-in-the Fields was used as a Roman gravesite. Excavations have also suggested that there were Anglo-Saxon settlements nearby. From around 600 AD, the land stretching from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych was a trading town called Lundenwic, however, during the reign of the King of Wessex, Alfred the Great (c.847-899), the boundaries of the capital were shifted and the town was abandoned, eventually becoming a field.

A document dating from 1200 AD states that the land became the property of the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of St Peter, now known as Westminster Abbey. Over the next century, a square garden, approximately 40 acres long, was gradually established, combining orchards, meadows, pastures and arable land. Adopting the Anglo-French word for a religious community, the quadrangle became known as “a garden called Covent Garden”. The name has stuck ever since.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, meant the land belonging to Westminster Abbey, including Covent Garden, became the possession of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). Just over a decade later, however, Henry’s son Edward VI (1537-53) granted the land to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford (1485-1555). The Russell family, who were eventually elevated to the Dukes of Bedford, held the land until 1918.

The land, including Covent Garden, did not remain farmland under the Russell family’s ownership. In 1630, Francis Russell, the 4th Earl, commissioned the English architect Inigo Jones (1573-1652) to build a church (St Paul’s Church) and houses around a large square. Initially, these houses attracted the wealthy, however, they lost their appeal after a market was set up in the square, coffee houses and taverns were opened, and prostitutes moved in.

As a result, due to the seedy establishments, Covent Garden became known as a red-light district and gentlemen had a wide choice of brothels to visit in the area. Things improved after a more permanent trading centre was built in 1830. Later, in 1913, the 11th Duke of Bedford, Herbrand Russell (1858-1940) agreed to sell his estate to the MP Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley (1863-1937) for £2 million. Not long after, it was sold in 1918 to the Beecham family for £250,000.

The Beecham family, the proprietors of Beecham Estates and Pills Limited, managed the properties around Covent Garden until 1924 when they gradually began to sell them off. By 1962, the main bulk of the district, including the market place became the property of the newly founded Covent Garden Authority at a cost of £3,925,000. Since then, redevelopments have been undertaken and the main market building was opened as the shopping centre it is today in 1980.

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Simeon was intrigued to discover the original rules, orders and bye-laws of the market on the wall of one of the tunnels leading into the centre of the market place. Despite the warnings of various penalties, it appears the rules are no longer enforced.

Notice is hereby given that in persuance of the Act of Parliament passed in the ninth year of the Reign of King George the fourth entitled “An Act for the Improvement and Regulation of Covent Garden Market” the several Rules, Orders and Byelawes hereunder written have been constituted, provided and ordained for the purpose in the said Act mentioned. Dated this 22nd Day of May 1924

Simeon thought it rather naughty of the stallholders to disobey the rules that were clearly stated on the wooden sign. “No Fruit, Flowers, Vegetables, Roots, Herbs or other thing shall be placed, pitched, exposed for sale, or sold in any part of the said Market on a Sunday.” Well, that’s a 40 shilling penalty everyone should be paying, deemed Simeon in disgust.

“No person shall sleep or lie down on any Stand, Footpath or Gangway in the said Market or on the said Terrace or Steps leading thereto.” Just as well Simeon did not need a nap, otherwise, that would have cost him five shillings.

“No person shall carry, use or have any lighted Candle or other Light except in a Lanthern …” Try telling that to the fire juggler!

Of course, these rules were written when the market sold fruit and vegetables and not the hand-crafted commodities of today. Covent Garden now boasts some of the best luxury clothes shops in London, including Chanel, Mulberry UK and Sass & Belle. There are also independent stores, such as Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop, which sells creative, theatrical and educational toys that nurture storytelling.

Opposite the Covent Garden piazza is Jubilee Hall, which contains Jubilee Market, the only market in London to be wholly owned by traders. The market opened in 1904 and was later taken over by the traders in order to save the building from bankruptcy. Along with the rest of Covent Garden, Jubilee Hall was renovated in 1985 and reopened by Queen Elizabeth II (b.1926) on 5th August 1987.

The stalls in Jubilee Market change from day-to-day. On Mondays, the market offers a whole range of antiques. Sold by professional antique dealers, collectables can be found from every era and style, including Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, fine china and old books. From Tuesday until Friday, the market describes itself as a General Market. During this period, traders can sell anything they wish and shoppers can find bargains on plants, greeting cards, beauty products, clothes and souvenirs.

The weekends at Jubilee Market are devoted to the arts and crafts. Traders show off their creative skills and sell their art to the public. The term “Art” in this case is rather broad and visitors can expect to find anything from hand-painted items, jewellery and fashion to metal sculptures, fossils and minerals.

Whilst the market place is the main attraction, Simeon’s murder mystery trail took him up and down streets and alleyways that were just as exciting. As well as solving clues, Simeon discovered many interesting things about Covent Garden, including statues, noteworthy buildings and famous people associated with the area.

One of the first buildings that caught Simeon’s attention looked at first to be a regular sandwich shop: Pret a Manger. The building’s history, or rather the site’s history, on the other hand, is much more noteworthy. A green, circular plaque situated on the upper level of the building reveals that this was the site of the Old Slaughters Coffee House. Whilst the plaque and present building are in Cranbourne Street, the original address of the coffee house was 77 St Martin’s Lane. The building was destroyed when Cranbourne Street was built in 1843.

The Old Slaughters Coffee House was opened by Thomas Slaughter in 1692. It was frequented by game players who would meet to partake in chess, draughts and whist amongst other things. For a time, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), the American polymath and founding father of the United States, was one of the establishment’s regular players. It was also popular with artists, including, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88), William Hogarth (1697-1764) and Louis-François Roubillac (1702-62). The English dramatist Henry Fielding (1707-54) was another regular patron of the coffee shop. Incidentally, Fielding lived in the area and came up with the idea of the Bow Street Runners, an early form of the Police Force. Eventually, Britain’s first Police Station was opened on Bow Street and manned by Robert Peel (1788-1850).

The coffee shop’s claim to fame is for its use as a meeting house for discussions that resulted in the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later the RSPCA) in 1824. The meeting was organised by the Reverend Arthur Broome (1779-1837) and chaired by the MP Sir Thomas Foxwell Buxton (1786-1845). Amongst the eight attendees was William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who was also responsible for the abolition of the slave trade.

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Almost opposite the site of the Old Slaughters Coffee House is a memorial to the writer and playwright Dame Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Unveiled by her grandson Matthew Prichard amongst others on 18th November 2012, the book-shaped sculpture by Ben Twiston-Davies celebrates the 60th anniversary and 25,000 London performances of Christie’s play The Mousetrap.

The memorial provides a brief biography of Agatha Christie née Miller who was born on 15th September 1890 in Torquay, Devon. She was educated at home, which helped to develop her lifelong passion for writing and reading. She also developed an interest in poisons, which secured her with a position as pharmaceutical dispenser during the First World War. This, in turn, provided her with considerable knowledge to use in her novels.

Agatha married her first husband, Archibald “Archie” (1889-1962) on Christmas Eve 1914 in Bristol whilst he was on leave from the army. In 1919, their only child Rosalind Margaret Hicks was born – the future mother of Matthew Prichard and unveiler of this statue. Unfortunately, Agatha and Archie’s marriage was not to last after he fell in love with another woman. In 1930, however, Christie met Max Mallowan (1904-78) who she subsequently married.

Due to being an archaeologist, Mallowan was required to travel extensively, particularly in the Middle East. Christie accompanied her husband and the places she visited became the settings for some of her murder mysteries.

At the time the memorial was erected, Agatha Christie’s books had sold over two billion copies in 100 languages. She is famous for her characters Hercule Poirot, the all-knowing Belgian detective, and Miss Jane Marple, the all-seeing village spinster. The Mousetrap, amongst many other plays and books, shot to fame during Christie’s lifetime making her one of the most successful and best-loved writers of all time. Agatha Christie was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1971, five years before she died on 12th January 1976.

Almost immediately around the corner from Agatha Christie’s memorial is the St Martin’s Theatre where The Mousetrap has been performed continually since March 1974. Having moved there from the Ambassadors Theatre on Charing Cross Road, the play is now the longest-running production in the world.

Opposite the theatre is another building Simeon found of interest. Situated in a narrow, slightly triangular building is The Ivy, a restaurant popular with celebrities and theatregoers. It was opened as an Italian cafe in 1917 by Abele Giandolini “Monsieur Abel”. Over the years, it has become the haunt of many famous names, including, Laurence Olivier (1907-89), Vivien Leigh (1913-67), Marlene Dietrich (1901-92), Terence Rattigan (1911-77) and Noël Coward (1899-1973).

In 1950, The Ivy was sold to Bernard Walsh who made it part of a chain of fish restaurants. The establishment changed hands twice more before closing in 1989. Fortunately, it was saved from permanent closure by Jeremy King and Chris Corbin who renovated the building and reopened it the following year. Today, The Ivy is owned by multi-millionaire Richard Caring (b.1948).

The Ivy can seat up to 100 guests at a time, plus a further 60 in the private dining area on the first floor. No mobile phones or cameras are allowed in the building and there is a strict dress code. Simeon, wearing absolutely nothing, decided not to try his luck in securing a table for lunch.

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There are many other pubs and restaurants around Covent Garden and, if Simeon had been a drinker, his murder mystery trail could easily have turned into a pub crawl! According to Trip Advisor, some of the best bars and pubs in the area are The Kings Arms, Mr Fogg’s Tavern (named after the fictional explorer Phileas Fogg), Crown and Anchor, Lady of the Grapes and The Long Acre Bar & Kitchen. Some of these establishments are easy to find, whereas others are hidden away in the city’s courtyards and backstreets.

The Lamb and Flag (formerly The Coopers Arms) was established on Rose Street in 1833. Despite being small and out of the way, the pub earned a reputation for staging bare-knuckle prize fights, earning it the nickname “The Bucket of Blood”. The covered alleyway (mind your head!) to the side of the building also has a sinister history. It was here that the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) was attacked by thugs in 1679. It is believed the 2nd Earl of Rochester, John Wilmot (1647-80) was responsible for hiring the thugs. There had been a long-standing conflict between the two men.

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Simeon enjoyed investigating all the little alleyways and discovering where they led. Whilst trying to solve a mystery, Simeon also unearthed other mysteries, for example, Monty Python’s house. Simeon’s first question was, “Why did a python named Monty have a house in Neal’s Yard?” His second question, after establishing that Monty Python is a British surreal comedy group who created the sketch comedy television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “How can ‘Monty Python’ have a plaque stating that the filmmaker ‘lived here 1976-1987’?”

The answer: Rather than commemorating a person as the plaque implies, it is indicating the location of the Monty Python studios in Neal’s Yard. This is where the British surreal comedy group created their BBC sketch show, which first aired on 5th October 1969. Broadcast until 1974, the series was written and performed by a group of six people known as “the Pythons”: Graham Chapman (1941-89), John Cleese (b.1939), Terry Gilliam (b.1940), Eric Idle (b.1943), Terry Jones (b.1942), and Michael Palin (b.1943). The show pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time, influencing British comedy of the future.

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As well as being part of Covent Garden, Neal’s Yard and the surrounding streets are also known as Seven Dials. This is a junction where seven streets converge, forming a circular space at the centre. The land originally belonged to the estate of the Worshipful Company of Mercers, however, in the 1690s Thomas Neale (1641-99) designed a new layout consisting of six residential roads to replace the open farmland. Although the plan was for six roads, Neale added in a seventh road in order to own and lease out more properties. This area was used as the setting for Agatha Christie’s The Seven Dials Mystery (1929).

“The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time…”
– Charles Dickens

In the centre of Seven Dials is a sundial column, however, because the original plan was for six roads, there are only six faces or dials. The column itself is said to be the gnomon (the piece that casts the shadow) of the seventh dial. The original column was built by the stonemason Edward Pierce who based the design on a Doric column. Today, a replica sits in its place. The column itself is 20 feet high, however, it is sat on top of an 8-foot plinth, making it appear even taller.

Intrigued about the sundial, Simeon was pleased to discover a plaque on the wall of a nearby pub containing instructions for using the dial to tell the time. “The Sundials show local apparent solar time. To convert this to Greenwich Mean Time (G.M.T) use the graph below. Find today’s date and add or deduct the number of minutes shown (+ or – on the graph) to the time showing on the sundials to obtain G.M.T. ” Each of the faces is accurate to within ten seconds. It is impossible to get a totally accurate reading because the sundial is positioned to the west of Greenwich, thus making it 3.048 seconds behind G.M.T.

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There is so much more to discover around Covent Garden and Simeon, being only a little gibbon, had only enough energy to walk up and down a few of the streets. Nonetheless, there are a couple more highlights Simeon wishes to mention. The first is a beautiful statue of a ballerina opposite the Royal Opera House.

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Also situated near the Royal Ballet School, Young Dancer by Italian-born British sculptor Enzo Plazzotta (1921-81) is a statue of a ballerina sitting on a stool while lacing up her shoes. Plazzotta is remembered for his fascination with movement and portraying this with bronze. Although this particular model is not in the process of moving, ballet and dance were Plazzotta’s favourite subjects. This statue was unveiled in 1988, seven years after the artist’s death. There are a number of other sculptures by Plazzotta around the capital, including, Crucifixion outside Westminster Abbey, Jéte (a ballet movement) near the Tate Modern, a homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man in Belgrave Square, and Camargue Horses near the Barbican.

Whilst Simeon enjoyed posing with the young dancer, his favourite thing about his trail through Covent Garden was knowing he was walking in the footsteps of famous and important people of the past. Many names have already been mentioned, however, before he reached the Covent Garden Market, Simeon found one more person to add to his list.

Along Henrietta Street above what is now the designer men’s shoe and clothes shop Oliver Sweeney, is where the novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) stayed between 1813 and 14. In 1813, Jane’s older brother Henry lost his wife Eliza after a long and debilitating illness. After her death, Henry moved into the rooms above Tilson’s Bank on Henrietta Street, which is where Jane and her niece Fanny Knight visited him.

While she was visiting her brother, Jane took the opportunity to do some shopping, writing to her sister, “I hope that I shall find some poplin at Layton and Shear’s that will tempt me to buy it. If I do it shall be sent to Chawton, as half will be for you; for I depend upon your being so kind as to accept it . . . It will be a great pleasure to me. Don’t say a word. I only wish you could choose it too. I shall send twenty yards.” The shop she mentioned was also on Henrietta Street. Today, a plaque marks the apartments in which she stayed.

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Where’s Simeon?

Simeon (and friends) thoroughly enjoyed the murder mystery trail around Covent Garden set by Treasure Trails. This was not the first trail the little gibbon has completed, nor will it be the last. The trails allow you to solve fictional murders or find buried treasure, at the same time as discovering the hidden secrets of cities and towns around the United Kingdom. There are over 1000 trails to choose from that provide a fun way to explore all parts of the country.

Simeon has learnt that Convent Garden is not only a market but a whole district. He found hidden alleyways, beautiful statues, impressive buildings and interesting historical facts but, most importantly, he caught the killer. Simeon highly recommends Treasure Trails and cannot wait to go on his next adventure. I wonder where that will be?

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Catch up with Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp

For more information about Treasure Trails and the areas they cover, please visit their website.

The Real Cindy Sherman

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Until 15th September 2019, the National Portrait Gallery is exploring the photography of Cindy Sherman in a retrospective that explores the development of Sherman’s work from the mid-1970s to the present day. With over 150 photographs on display, the exhibition focuses on the artist’s manipulation of her own appearance and range of cultural sources, and investigates the balance between façade and identity.

Despite investigating four decades worth of work, the NPG fails to tell visitors much about the photographer herself – a little personal digging is necessary for those wishing to know more. Cynthia Morris Sherman was born on 9th January 1954 in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, although shortly moved to Huntington Beach, Long Island. She was the fifth and youngest child of Dorothy and Charles Sherman. Her father was an engineer for Grumman Aircraft and her mother taught handicapped children to read.

From an early age, Sherman loved to dress up, particularly in clothing dating from the 1920s. As she got older, she enjoyed searching for costumes in second-hand shops and experimenting with make-up. She quickly learnt that by combining the right clothing and make-up, one could change one’s appearance entirely. This realisation was the starting point in Sherman’s career. Rather than photographing other people, she uses herself as a model wearing remarkably convincing costumes and inventing numerous personae.

The earliest works in the exhibition date from around 1975 during her university days. From 1972 until 1976, Cindy Sherman studied in the visual arts department at the State University College at Buffalo, New York. Initially, she began working with paint but felt frustrated with the limitations of the medium and soon abandoned it in favour of photography.

“[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting] … I was meticulously copying other art, and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.” – Cindy Sherman

It was during her time at university that Sherman’s interest in manipulating her appearance and creating alter egos took flight. Taking a photograph of herself impersonating the American actress Lucille Ball (1911-89) showed her the potential of transforming herself as a work of art. Rather than imitating other people, Sherman began inventing fictitious individuals, both female and male, practising with exaggerated use of make-up. The idea was to draw attention to the deceptive nature of appearance.

One of Sherman’s university works was inspired by murder mystery plays. After writing a plot for an 82-scene play involving thirteen characters, Sherman dressed up and photographed herself as each individual in a number of poses. Each character had a particular style of dress and she used make-up and wigs to create distinct appearances. For one character, she donned an apron and held a tea tray to transform herself into a maid, and for another, a blonde wig and heavy make-up changed her into an overexcited actress. Other characters included a detective, a butler, and a photographer amongst a range of suspects. The photos were originally cut out and stuck together to create a scene, however, the exhibition shows a handful of the original frames.

Sherman produced several series of similar works during her time at university and also experimented with film. Three short, grainy films show her acting the part of different personas. In one, she is an ambiguous young woman mouthing the words “I hate you” and eventually shedding tears. In another, she is dressed as “an unattractive prostitute that nobody finds appealing”. The third is a more successful stop-motion animation that depicts Sherman as a cut-out doll that dresses up and admires herself in a mirror.

After moving to New York in 1977, where she still lives and works, Sherman began working on a series called Untitled Film Stills. Continuing to be fascinated with her ability to change her appearance and create fictional personae, Sherman took 69 black-and-white photographs that resembled shots taken on film sets of stereotypical female roles in 1950’s and 60’s Hollywood, Film Noir and B Movies. Characters include librarians, office girls, housewives, seductresses and so forth in a variety of settings, including Sherman’s apartment and locations around the city.

Cindy Sherman never titled the individual photos, wishing to preserve their ambiguity. The model – Sherman herself – is always looking away from the camera, suggesting an unspecified narrative open for individual interpretation. In a reflection of her work, Sherman discussed her intentions, thoughts and feelings:

I was wrestling with some sort of turmoil of my own about understanding women. The characters weren’t dummies; they weren’t just airhead actresses. They were women struggling with something but I didn’t know what. The clothes make them seem a certain way, but then you look at their expression, however slight it may be, and wonder if maybe “they” are not what the clothes are communicating.”

Shortly after graduating from art school, Sherman created a series of works known as Cover Girls, which were displayed on the inside of the top deck of a bus in November 1976. The series incorporates the front covers of five women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Family Circle, Redbook and Mademoiselle. Each magazine was represented by three similar covers; the first was the original but in the second, Sherman replaced the model’s face with her own, using cosmetics to make it look as similar as possible. The third cover also featured Sherman, however, this time, she pulled a “goofy face”.

Take, for example, the cover of Vogue. The original shows the heavily made-up model Jerry Hall (b.1956) staring into the camera. On the second cover is Cindy Sherman looking remarkably like Jerry Hall, replicating the same pose. In the third, however, Sherman pulls a face and winks, thus making a mockery of the original photograph. The idea was to emphasise the artificial nature of magazines, which constantly try to convey an impression of beauty, glamour and sophistication.

In the 1980s, Sherman began working with coloured photography. Similar to her Untitled Film Stills from the previous decade, Sherman produced a series of close-up photographs that appear to show an actress in a film against a projected background. The actresses, of course, are all pictures of Cindy Sherman with cosmetically altered features. Her idea was to show how artificial some films can appear, enhanced further by the inclusion of herself as a “fake” actress.

In 1981, Sherman was commissioned by Artforum magazine to produce photographs to spread across the centre pages. Rather than portraying sensual female models as the magazine expected, Sherman photographed herself in the guise of vulnerable-looking women. She tried to make it appear as though the (male) magazine readers were intruding on someone’s personal pain, sadness or reverie. The magazine eventually declined to publish the photographs.

Over time, Cindy Sherman has worked for a number of fashion magazines. This has involved working with various designers, such as Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Marc Jacobs. In 1983, Sherman was commissioned by the New York boutique owner Dianne Benson to produce the photographs to be used in advertisements for clothes by Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Whilst Sherman did provide photos of the clothes worn by her personal model (i.e. herself), she created images that parody fashion photography. Her invented characters wear stylish designer-label clothes, however, they appear upset, unstable and absurd.

“I’m disgusted with how people get themselves to look beautiful … I was trying to make fun of fashion.” – Cindy Sherman

Sherman’s aim was to expose designer labels who claimed through fashion photography that their clothes could make you look elegant. As Sherman proved, this is not the case. Her photographs show that the clothes have not made her look particularly attractive; fashion photography is merely an illusion.

The following year, Sherman took this idea further when she was commissioned by the French fashion company Dorothée Bis to provide photographs for Vogue Paris. Again, she dressed her characters in designer outfits, however, she deliberately made herself look ugly, dishevelled or depressed. Despite her actions and dislike for the illusions of fashion, magazines continue to employ Sherman.

By the end of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman changed direction and looked to the past for inspiration. By this time, she was married to the French photographer Michael Auder (b.1945) and was the step-mother of Alexandra and Gaby Hoffman (b.1982). During the late eighties, Sherman spent two months in Rome where she turned her attention to the visual language and style of Old Master paintings.

Although prosthetics are now a common feature in Sherman’s work, her series of Historical Portraits was the first time she really employed such an extravagant range. By combining false noses, false breasts, wigs, make-up and costumes, Cindy managed to transform herself into over thirty women and men. Characters included aristocrats, ladies of leisure, royalty and the Virgin Mary. Whilst she was inspired by the Old Masters, Cindy tended to create completely made up portraits of fictitious people rather than replicating paintings she saw in Rome. There was, however, one exception.

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Madame Moitessier – Jean-Auguste-Dominique

Cindy particularly admired a painting by the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). Madame Moitessier (1865) is a portrait of Marie-Clotilde-Inès Moitessier (1821-97), the wife of a rich banker and lace merchant. The sitter is dressed in detailed fabric and decorated with jewels. Her pose makes her appear graceful and is typical of the era.

In Cindy Sherman’s version, the sitter adopts a similar pose using a different hand and is dressed in silky material and jewels. Corresponding to the setting of Ingres’ painting, Sherman is sat in front of a mirror, so the back of her head can be seen. It is this same mirror that breaks the illusion of a historical painting because a piece of paper can be seen in the reflection.

Sherman’s deliberate parodies of historical paintings draw attention to the potential illusion of people’s appearances. Looking at Sherman’s photographs, we know she is wearing wigs and prosthetics and does not look that way in real life. The question is, how reliable are paintings from the pre-camera era? To what extent is the appearance of Ingres’ model truthful? How many inventions did Ingres add to the painting? Was Madame Moitessier really wearing that dress; did her cheeks really contain that much rouge; has her appearance been altered slightly to conform with social preferences about beauty? Sadly, we will never know.

As well as historical portraits, Sherman used fairy tales as inspiration for her work. For these, her style became more nightmarish and grotesque. Using prosthetics, Cindy created characters from the more sinister side of children’s stories, for instance, a man with a pig’s snout and a woman with dark eyes and sharp, pointed teeth.

Cindy Sherman and Michel Auder divorced in 1999 but this did not prevent Sherman from continuing with her photography projects. Between 1991 and 2005, she lived in a fifth-floor co-op loft in Manhattan until she bought two apartments overlooking the Hudson River. Today, she lives in one and uses the other for her studio. The National Portrait Gallery has recreated her studio in one of the rooms of the exhibition in order for visitors to understand how Sherman works.

From the mid-90s, perhaps developing on from her Fairy Tale series, Sherman produced numerous photographs that incorporated the use of masks. Some of the characters appear entirely artificial with, perhaps, one feature that reveals it is really Cindy Sherman. Whereas her previous work has dealt with the idea that appearances can be deceptive, the use of masks completely removes the opportunity to establish identity and other personal attributes.

Sherman was also interested in the appearance of clowns whose costumes and make-up create a whole new identity. The application of make-up or facepaint can completely change the demeanour of someone’s face. A natural expression can be transformed into a sinister-looking face or an overtly happy one.

As Cindy Sherman gets older and enters the new millennium, her photos become increasingly engrossed in the issues of age and social status. Whilst Sherman alters her appearance to appear ten or twenty years older, her characters are resorting to cosmetics to maintain an illusion of youthfulness. Despite their make-up, the women look their age, failing to appear any younger. They are also desperate to preserve their social status and appear sophisticated and wealthy.

These portraits are taken against elaborate backdrops to further enhance the impression of affluence and elegance. The attempt of these characters to appear youthful backfires and suggests they are full of insecurities about their age and position in life. Their haughty demeanour seems forced and fake, which is the opposite of their intentions.

Of course, these women are fictitious and Sherman is not yet as old as they appear. Nonetheless, as a photographer, Sherman is confronting an issue that will affect everyone in the future.

Cindy Sherman returns to the past in her most recent series of work. Taken between 2016 and 2018, Sherman experiments by dressing up as what she terms “flappers”. This term refers to young women after the First World War whose appearance and attitude went against convention. They cut their hair short, smoked in public, wore copious amounts of make-up and generally went against the norms of feminity.

Being a feminist herself, Sherman was drawn to these women, adopting hairstyles, make-up and fashion worn by women in the 1920s. The key difference is Sherman’s characters are clearly a lot older than the so-called “flappers”. This gives them the illusion of Hollywood grandes dames, desperately trying to hold on to their youth.

These latest photos also show Sherman’s professional development from a grainy, black-and-white camera to a full-colour, digitally-manipulated photograph. One image is made up of four portraits of Sherman in different costumes, grouped together as though posing for only one photograph. Again, the costumes date back to the 1920s and the similarities in appearance suggest the characters are sisters. Family acts were in vogue between the two world wars, although, in this instance, the sisters have aged considerably.

The theme of actresses runs throughout Cindy Sherman’s work, which is an apt metaphor for her own life. Despite there being hundreds of photographs of Sherman, none of them reveals her true identity. Whilst we can build up a visual appearance, we do not learn anything about her life or personality.

Having expressed her contempt for the “so vulgar” social media platforms, there is little to learn about Sherman’s true identity online. Wikipedia tells us she had a relationship with Scottish-American singer-songwriter David Byrne (b. 1952) between the years 2007 and 2011 and she enjoyed regular holidays in the Catskill Mountains.

Cindy Sherman currently serves on the artistic advisory committee of the dance firm Stephen Petronio Company. In 2012, she joined 150 artists, including Yoko Ono (b.1933), in the founding of Artists Against Fracking. This is in opposition to hydraulic fracturing in order to remove gas from underground deposits.

Despite detesting social media, Sherman has an Instagram account that documents her latest works and ideas. Other than this, there is very little insight into her life. Whilst Cindy Sherman appears in every photograph shown at the National Portrait Gallery, visitors ironically come away knowing very little about her.

The Cindy Sherman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London is open until 15th September 2019. Tickets are priced at £18 for adults. On Fridays, under 25s can visit for £5 but be aware some images are unsuitable for children.