1938, Vanity Fair
National Portrait Gallery (at a temporary exhibition)
The National Portrait Gallery’s Vanity Fair Portraits exhibition was a true reminder of the quality of photography that has been pushed and encouraged by such magazines. High-profile interviews come with high-profile portraits; playful, beautiful and often incredibly accurate in their portrayal, they are intriguing in placing each figure in an individual moment in their career. The exhibition painted the history of the magazine, illustrating the changes and development in style – a fact more than evident in this cover image. To find a painting on the cover of a magazine, rather than a glittering photograph of the ‘cover girl’, is a shock; especially when the image is a realist painting that is both expressive, humorous and, of course, quintessentially glamorous. In a Norman Rockwell style the figures have the faux clarity of wax-works, with the crisp texture of material in the creases of the red jacket and layers of yellow tulle almost super-imposed. What is rather wonderful about this image is its spontaneity, its stance of being un-posed. The couple are reaching the end of dinner, sharing conversation over last sips of coffee, smoking. The gentleman is poised for a question; the lady looks vacant, made up, though relaxed, she appears naturally nonchalant. There is a wonderful openness to the image, no ‘unsightly’ detail is left out; their expressions are left un-smoothed, the cigarettes and discarded bits on the table left rather than cleared. It is a snap, a flash-bulb photo but without the camera; deliberately un-staged but, due to the medium, obviously contrived. The oversized champagne bottle and the waiter’s blatant eavesdropping confirms the wealthy and humorous decadence, allowing the image to perfectly reflect the words that sit above it; it is Vanity Fair.