A new display of photographs on the Royal Academy's Norman Shaw staircase gives visitors a glimpse into what life at the RA was like 60 years ago
Running away to sea may seem like an unlikely beginning for a future photographer, but this was exactly the step that the 16-year-old Edward Aubrey Russell Westwood took, joining Gravesend Sea School and then the Merchant Navy. He was to retain a love of sailing for the rest of his life and the self-reliance and social ease he gained from his early adventures would prove useful assets in his later career as a photographer.
The porter’s box in the Entrance Hall, Burlington House, 1953. © Estate of Russell Westwood. Photo: RA. Born in Lincoln in 1911, Russell, as he was always known, came from a photographic background. His father Edward Aubrey Westwood had originally trained as a draughtsman, changing career possibly through the influence of his wife Ethel Spiller, who had been a photographer’s assistant. Ethel was an experienced colourist, which was an extremely popular photographic practice in the early twentieth century. It involved applying colour tints by hand to black and white photographs, usually giving sitters in portraits healthy complexions or embellishing their clothing, and it required considerable skill. After the First World War the Westwoods established a photographic business, ‘The Weir Photographic Studio’, in Teddington, Middlesex and it was here that Westwood spent most of his childhood.
On leaving the Merchant Navy, and with no formal training, Westwood began his photographic career in the early 1930s, working briefly for the film company British Lion Incorporated and then for Warner Brothers at their studios not far from his parents’ business in Teddington. By the time of his marriage to Marjorie Fraser, a film extra, in 1938, he had established a reputation as a stills cameraman, photographing many leading British and American actors of the period. After the interruption of war work during the Second World War, including a stint in the Royal Air Force, Westwood resumed photography with Warner Brothers until the studio was bombed in 1944.
Russell Westwood at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. © Estate of Russell Westwood. In the late 1940s Westwood began to take photographs for Illustrated, a news magazine published by Odhams Press, which was originally founded in 1934 as the Weekly Illustrated by its first editor Stefan Lorant. With a circulation approaching one million in the early 1950s, Illustrated had expanded from 28 to 38 pages, but the layout had retained much of the integrity of the original. The magazine remained photography-led and the work of the photographer was considered all important. As Illustrated featured the work of many well-known photographers, such as Werner Bischof, Gerti Deutsch, George Rodger and James Jarché, it would have been an important showcase for Westwood’s photography.
At this time Illustrated mainly reserved colour for the front covers or for special features, like that of the coronation, so Westwood worked chiefly in black and white. He was, however, conversant with colour film and did produce some portraits in colour like those of his fellow photographer Cecil Beaton. Westwood chiefly used Rolleicord and Leica cameras, though he may have also been familiar with a Graflex field camera, as suggested in this photograph of Westwood at work, up to his knees, in the water lily pool at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. A legacy, perhaps, of Westwood’s earlier experience at Warner Bros was the cinematic drama that he would often employ in his photographs. Dramatic, somewhat stark lighting and choreographed figures gives an almost film noir quality to images he took of the Royal Academy in 1953, a number of which are currently on display on the Norman Shaw staircase (near the RA restaurant).
Members of the public delivering works for submission to the Summer Exhibition, 1953. © Estate of Russell Westwood. Photo: RA. Westwood took these photographs of the Royal Academy for Illustrated magazine in March 1953 when preparations were underway for the Summer Exhibition. For that year’s show over 10,000 works were submitted, from which 2,587 were initially selected over a period of five days, and only 1,349 were eventually hung. The selection procedure by a panel of Royal Academicians follows the same pattern today and the number of exhibits has remained surprisingly consistent too – currently there are 1,239. However, in May 1953 when the exhibition opened for a period of fifteen weeks, the admission charge was 2 shillings (10p) and the prices of works generally ranged between £6 and £2,000 – the latter was a considerable sum in 1953 when the average house price was £2,750.
Westwood also photographed the activities of the Royal Academy Schools. Students are shown working in the Life Room, in a tutorial with the Keeper of the Schools, Sir Henry Rushbury, and listening to a lecture by the Professor of Architecture, Sir Albert Richardson. However technically challenging, Westwood seems to have delighted in photographing the archaic and dim corners of Burlington House for the first of the two-part feature, ‘Academy Line-up for 1953’, which contrasts markedly with the light and youth in his photographs of the Royal Academy Schools for the second part, ‘R.A.’s Guide the Brushes of a Hundred Young Artists’. His imagery can, perhaps, be seen to reflect a view expressed by Stephen Bone, in an earlier issue of Illustrated, that the initiative in artistic matters had passed from the Royal Academy to other institutions and that the future of the Academy must lie in the senior Academicians recognising merit in the work of young artists, even though it differed from their own more traditional work.
A number of former students from the fifties and sixties have been very helpful in identifying their colleagues, but there remain a number of faces we would like to put names to. Should any former student recognise themselves or others please do contact the Royal Academy’s Photographic Archive (details below).
Sir Albert Richardson PRA lecturing to art and architecture students in the Royal Academy Schools, 1953. © Estate of Russell Westwood. Photo: RA. The wide range of stories that Westwood photographed for Illustrated indicates his skill; in 1952 his assignments included a fashion feature, portraits of the film stars Lois Maxwell and George Formby, the work of the Women’s Royal Army Corp in Gibraltar, and the scrapping of HMS Formidable. Westwood continued to work for Illustrated until late 1958 when it merged with the magazine John Bull to become John Bull Illustrated. The new title differed in content and style to Illustrated: news and photography were largely replaced by fiction, home-help pages and illustration. What photography was commissioned was chiefly taken by Lawrence Hanley and not Westwood. But by this time Westwood had successfully demonstrated his versatility. Increasingly, in the 1950s and 1960s he combined domestic editorial photography – like that of the lying-in-state of Sir Winston Churchill – with overseas reportage of conflicts in Kenya, Suez and Cyprus. He also continued making portraits, photographing leading members of society and performing artists of the period, building a considerable archive of the latter. A long illness, however, curtailed his later work and he died in 1982. His photography can now be found in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery, the National Media Museum and the National Maritime Museum.