Vandamm, the Suffragist?
I admit to a historical prejudice—I really wanted Florence Vandamm to be a Suffragist. A woman running her own business in London, 1908, it just seemed natural. But the road to verification had surprising detours. The self-portrait that is the blog channel's key image gave me clues, but the Internet gave me proof and a great pay-off.
In the 1908–1915 scrapbook, there were newsprint copies of two sets of poses, of Adeline Bourne. One group were in harem-y clothes and showed her in costume for Salome (February 27–28, 1910). Others, including one that illustrated a magazine article, were in a white-on-white embroidered day dress. Research verified that the costume was from her celebrated Feminist production of Oscar Wilde's Salome, in London, 1910. They were in costume but not in character, and probably used to promote the production, not to document it.
I knew the name of Adeline Bourne, only from that Salome, but quickly learned that she was the co-founder of the Actress Franchise League (with Nina Boucicault). Her attachment to Suffrage was cited in the article with which the pose was published, The Lady's World (March 1911). I went to the highly detailed Suffrage pages in Spartacus, an Internet history source for British teachers, and followed links and leads. One brought me to a chat group that included a posting from Bourne's great-great niece, Libby Asher, who generously sent me scans of photographs by other contemporary London studios.
Some were in the same outfits and allowed me to make direct comparisons between Vandamm's portraits and those of Dover Street Studio.
To be honest, none of the Salome photos were animated. But I saw one immediate difference in the white dress photos—the Dover Street was flat, while Vandamm profile portrait showed a light source aimed at Bourne's forehead, the Edwardian ideal's "noble brow." That was not only flattering, but fit the Suffrage trope that activist women shone light on the inequities of society.
Was the unusual lighting of Vandamm's self-portrait a clue? Was it artistic, flattering or symbolic? Was Bourne a colleague or just a client?
One of the best things about research is the community that grows around every topic. Adeline's Bourne's great-grand niece forwarded my contact information to a doctoral students at the University of Manchester who was writing on the Actress Franchise League, Naomi Paxton. She is a performer turned scholar, who was editing an anthology for Methuen of Suffrage plays. During her research at the Women's Library, London Metropolitan Library, she discovered a reference to a photography gallery in the Children's Welfare Exhibition, Women's Kingdom, organized by the Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, April 1914. Indeed, Vandamm had exhibited 20 platinotypes in the show. Her participation was also cited in 2 contemporary articles about the Women's Kingdom (thank you, databases), which named 2 additional photographers. Both were eminent in their fields—Mrs. Aubrey LeBlond was a famous mountain climber and Mrs. W. N. Shaw was a mathematician who wrote on popular science. Both were also signators of the Woman's Covenant and well known as Suffragists. It is unlikely that Vandamm would have been included if she was not also known as a supporter of votes for women. I was convinced. A huge thank you to Libby Asher, Naomi Paxton and the staff of the Women's Library, London Metropolitan Library.