By Katharina Friege
The British photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer had an artistic eye. In her studio, she ‘posed her subjects as she would for a painting’ and specialised in modern portrait photography. Gone was the old-fashioned stiffness of theatre props and elaborate backdrops. Instead, form and light stood front and centre. In her personal life, meanwhile, Ker-Seymer sought out fun and bohemian brilliance. She loved jazz and the cinema, attended raucous parties, and was considered one of London’s ‘Bright Young People’ in the 1920s and 1930s. In the more conservative 1950s, she became a single mother and reinvented herself as a canny businesswoman. Born in 1905, the course of her life coincided with some of the big artistic and social transformations of the twentieth century. At the same time, she was decidedly and unalterably unique – until her death in 1993, Barbara Ker-Seymer insisted on shaping life to suit her terms. It was this, more than anything, that made her thoroughly modern.
Thoroughly Modern is also the title of Sarah Knights’ new biography of Ker-Seymer. Restless and contradictory, the photographer is an elusive subject, but Knights reverses the metaphorical camera lens to compose a larger-than-life portrait of her own. The author’s fascination for her chosen protagonist is abundantly justified by her careful attention to detail and well-developed critical empathy. Yet there is something static about Knights’ portrayal of the gilded bohemian pockets of interwar London, with its cinematic party-scene backdrops and upbeat jazz soundtrack. Foregrounding the ‘Bright Young People’ is a narrative choice that follows a well-trodden path, and it here precludes a more critical engagement with the society of the time. It is no small irony that Ker-Seymer strayed from social convention more radically after the Jazz Age had ended than she had during its intoxicating heights.
Barbara Ker-Seymer was called ‘Bar’ by all her friends – and she had many. Knights quotes Bar on living in interwar London with a tight-knit group of her nearest and dearest, most of them men, most of them gay, all of them artistically gifted. ‘We were much less solemn than people now are,’ Bar reflected. ‘We were very, very frivolous, or apparently very frivolous.’ The tension between surface-level frivolity and underlying solemnity runs through the book like a dependable cliché – Knights quotes the same passage about being ‘apparently very frivolous’ an additional three times, thus setting up the biography’s inevitable conclusion. As it turns out, and as Bar herself acknowledged: ‘we were very serious, underneath’.
Frivolity was inherent in the parties. One such gathering encapsulates the group’s wider spirit of playful provocation. Bar began this evening wearing ‘a black diamanté-encrusted flapper dress’, but once ‘the nice girls and boys [had] drifted off’, the ‘almost-naked party’ began. Guests donned pyjamas only to take them off again. A gramophone played the same record on repeat so that there was no break to the ‘glorious’ dancing until the door was opened to find sunshine pouring in, the milkman waiting, and ‘a policeman with a notebook saying “complaints from the neighbours sir”’.
Frivolity was also part of Bar’s friendships with other ‘Bright Young People’, with whom she exchanged sharp witticisms and amusing letters. Most notable amongst her friends were the artist Edward Burra, the choreographer Frederick Ashton and the dancer William Chappell. To Bar, they were simply Ed, Fred and Billy. Although largely defined by silly in-jokes, Knights reminds us that such friendships were also incredibly serious. For example, Bar always kept a spare room ready for Ed and took care of him when he appeared drunk on her doorstep – a not-infrequent occurrence. Ed, Fred and Billy were surrogate family. Yet Knights’s surprised discovery of ‘seriousness’ beneath ‘frivolity’ feels belaboured, because is not a balance between these two poles exactly what a friendship naturally entails?
In the interwar period, underlying seriousness was most evident in Bar’s commitment to art. As Knights describes them, her photographs seem inspired by sculptures: focused, striking, with an almost three-dimensional quality. She experimented with new photographic techniques, such as solarisation – this involved over-exposing the negative to reverse light and shade. Other modernist techniques, like negative printing and multiple exposures, were also part of her distinctive style. In 1935, the painter and art critic Paul Nash named Bar as part of an ‘outbreak of talent’ that characterised the contemporary vanguard.
Other serious factors, however, like social class and politics are relegated entirely to the side lines. Knights occasionally touches on class privilege, but it remains on the periphery of her story. The ‘Bright Young People’ were unconventional and even radical. But they were also well-educated, rich, and able to spend their time and energy on art and parties. Bar was herself never vastly wealthy, and yet she travelled frequently to the Côte d’Azur, visited friends in their country houses, and mingled with aristocrats at fancy dress parties. By neglecting to emphasise the role class played within this particular sub-culture, Knights implicitly perpetuates the assumption that life as a ‘Bright Young Thing’ was attainable for anybody, and that this glamorous world was an accessible one. She further neglects to account for politics, beyond reassuring her reader that Ker-Seymer ‘was vaguely left-wing’ even though ‘within her circle politics were rarely discussed’. This may well have been true, but it is also an oversimplification. Just because politics were not discussed does not mean they were not present. Glimpses of a more complex political breadth in Ker-Seymer’s extended social and professional world are quickly dismissed and thus remain concealed beneath the frivolous surface.
Race relations also played an important role in Bar’s life. She had close African American friends and lovers and rejected racial prejudice. That said, Knights’s writing about race could benefit from a sharper critical eye; the photographer, like everyone, was a product of her time and must be read as such. Bar’s 1931 portrait of the white American heiress and socialite Nancy Cunard is a telling example. Cunard was dating an African American man at the time, and she later edited an anthology on black history with contributors including Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. The stylish heiress faced backlash for her outspoken opposition to racism, so Bar decided to make a visual statement. Her photograph used solarisation in order to reverse Cunard’s skin tone and ‘make [her] into a black lady’. The result caused a commotion and successfully underlined ‘the divide between privilege and disadvantage’. But the portrait also centred all attention on a wealthy white woman as a matter of course – the very creation of this photograph as a ‘sensational’ visual trick was born of Cunard’s privilege. Furthermore, this photograph was taken while blackface was still a widely accepted practice on stage and in film. This kind of context is missing from Knights’s discussion, which terms the photograph as a ‘masterful act’ and treats its production in too straightforward a manner.
In the first and longer part, Thoroughly Modern ricochets between riotous parties, overlapping love affairs, artistic projects, and subverted gender expectations. The second, post-WWII part explores how a middle-aged woman navigated the gradual dissolution of her generation’s hedonism. This is by far the more interesting portion of the book – it is here that the twists and turns of Bar’s life diverge from the stereotypically bohemian. Readers are now introduced to the afterlives of the avant-garde – and to the history of launderettes in 1950s London.
On 8 September 1947, when Bar was forty-two years old, she gave birth to her son Max. The new mother was excited but initially reluctant to settle into her newfound responsibilities. A spontaneous trip to Paris in 1950 was supposed to replicate her former carefree lifestyle but instead turned into a cruel reminder that she was in her mid-forties now. Her friends were taking drugs and climbing into hotel rooms at dawn; she had a three-year-old waiting for her back home. Bar recognised that it was time for a change.
Back in England, she embarked on an unexpected venture: launderettes. In the 1940s, most of London’s laundry was done by hand in a labour-intensive process that fell largely to women. When Bar heard about the growing abundance of laundromats in the United States from a friend who lived in New York, she sensed an opportunity. In the early 1950s, she opened two launderettes in Westminster and officially became a business owner. Her old friend Ed began referring to her as the ‘laundry princess’, but Bar enjoyed her second chosen profession. Work was ‘very amusing,’ she said, ‘because I met so many people’. Bar became more settled. She bought a property in Marylebone, raised Max as a single mother, and met Barbara Roett, with whom she had a long-term open relationship for almost forty years.
Knights writes that ‘the word “artistry” applies not only to Bar’s photography but also to her capacity to live a full and (mostly) grounded life’. That Bar’s ‘settled’ life paradoxically uprooted the very definition of conventionally ‘settling down’ is a testament to this artistry. On the one hand, Bar’s chosen profession of ‘laundress’ was distinctively gendered. On the other hand, a woman owning her own business defied the gendered norm. Her ‘thoroughly modern’ profession was moreover one small part of the same wave of economic expansion and technological innovation that began to relieve women of the heaviest housework. In her personal life, meanwhile, Bar did settle into motherhood, buy a house, and find a life partner. But she raised her son as a single mother in a same-sex open relationship, reimagining what a family could look like.
In these stories, Knights better depicts Bar’s multi-faceted life and personality than in earlier sections of the book, where her seeming attempt to present her protagonist as progressive on 21st-century terms leads the author to bracket out political inconsistencies or to oversimplify the photographer’s anti-racist stance. Here, however, out from under the shadow of an oft-romanticised era, whose avant-garde sub-cultures are all too easily conflated with the social and political perspectives familiar to us today, Knights lets Bar deal with the thoroughly modern challenges of motherhood, professional transformation, and ageing on her own terms.
This book is about a photographer first, about a certain artistic youth culture in interwar London second, and about a woman’s path through life in the third instance. At times, this prioritisation feels misdirected. A good biography reveals an individual in all their complexities and intricacies. Thoroughly Modern unequivocally does so, and its portrait of Barbara Ker-Seymer is layered, well-written, and very human. A great biography, however, also draws from the study of a single life something of the universal. Here, perhaps, Thoroughly Modern falls short: its historical and contextual focus is too narrow while its insistence on fabricating tension between frivolity and seriousness masks more than it reveals. Surely, the key to universality lies elsewhere, namely in the gradual and perplexing transition from a youth where all potential lies ahead to a middle-age that need never be free from the potential for reinvention – whether as a photographer, a parent, a laundress, or someone else entirely.
KATHARINA FRIEGE recently completed her DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College. Her hobbies include eating burritos and over-intellectualising pop culture.