A Very British Glamour

By Benjamin Schwarz
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[c] Norman Parkinson Ltd, courtesy Norman Parkinson Archive, London

To view images from Norman Parkinson: A Very British Glamour, click here for a slide show.


Louise Baring has written Norman Parkinson: A Very British Glamour (Rizzoli), which is now the best book on my favorite fashion photographer. (Robin Muir wrote a shorter, discerningly assembled book on Parkinson in 2004, but Baring's is more penetrating and far more comprehensive).

Cecil Beaton rightly described Parkinson as "a bit flash," and Baring (also rightly) asserts that "Parkinson was not a deep man, preferring instead to skate on the surface of life." Nevertheless, Parkinson, whose career stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s, adored and, more important, admired women: "They are more courageous, more industrious, more honest, more direct," he said.

That admiration allowed him to capture the charm, wit, and—above all—intelligence of feminine beauty. He did so most profoundly for his greatest muse, his wife, the model and RADA-trained stage actress Wenda Rogerson. Parkinson would shoot her on top of an ostrich or draped over a 1907 Rolls-Royce, in a butcher shop, outside the Sherry-Netherland, beside a cow, in the fog in front of the National Gallery, in a working-class pub, in the muck of the fields. She'd always look at once cool and warm, elegant and jaunty. Together they'd establish what Rogerson appositely called a "witty underplay" to their shots.

Parkinson and Rogerson, together with Parkinson's friend Irving Penn and his wife, Lisa Fonssagrives, are the two most successful photographer/model collaborations in the history of fashion. Both were lasting unions: Penn married Fonssagrives in 1950, and they'd remain married until her death, in 1992; Parkinson married Rogerson, his third wife, in 1947, and they remained married until her death, in 1987. Both teams infused their photographs with a decidedly grown-up sexuality. Rogerson and Fonssagrives were hardly ingénues: their husbands took some of their most celebrated pictures of them when they were in their forties. Different world—when haute couture was meant to be worn only by the femme du monde.

Here is a slide show of some of Parkinson's best work. Most photographs are of Rogerson, and all are from Baring's superb book—and all support critic John Russell Taylor's assessment that Parkinson was John Singer Sargent's "logical successor."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/a-very-british-glamour/36891/