Sector: Media (photography)
Alice Hughes was not the first British woman to earn her living from photography but her high-profile success demonstrated to a generation of women coming after her that photography was a field in which women could set up and run successful commercial enterprises.
Alice was helped in her career by her father, Edward Hughes, a well-established portrait artist. Alice was his eldest surviving child and she worked as his secretary and assistant. Her father encouraged her to take up photography not because of his belief in female emancipation but because he wanted his portraits recorded for posterity before they left his studio and headed off to castle or mansion wall, possibly never to be seen in public again.
He sent Alice off to train at the Royal Polytechnic Institution at 309, Regent Street in London. It was the site of the first public photographic portrait studio in Europe and Alice took private lessons from Ernest Farmer at the ground-breaking Polytechnic School of Photography in the late 1880s.
Edward Hughes worked out of a large studio at 52 Gower Street and Alice started her photographic work there, carrying her father’s paintings out into the garden to photograph them in daylight. She spent 3-4 years in this documentary work while gradually starting to practise on living sitters. When in 1891, aged 34, she decided to set herself up as a professional, photographing people in 3-D, rather than 2-D, she built a small studio off her sitting-room and so was able to open up in a low-cost, central location with a ready-made client base. Alice was always open about the commercial advantages this gave her when expounding on her views on photography as a career option for women.
Alice had two big rules when she started out: she only did studio work, where she could control the environment; and she didn’t photograph men: ‘I don’t like men’s clothes’, she said. Stylistically, her photographic work blended the classic tropes of 19th century society paintings and the clean lines of the photograph, carefully styled with (oft-repeated) backdrops and props.
Alice’s big break came in around 1893/4 when she photographed HRH the Duchess of Fife, Princess Louise. This might not have been the specific photograph but it is a perfect example of her style and from then on Alice regularly received royal visitors.
Alice’s father may have started her off down her career path but it would seem she more than repaid him: Edward Hughes received his first royal portrait commission in 1895 from Princess Mary of Teck, later Queen Mary, after Alice had started photographing the Royal women.
When Margaret Bateson interviewed Alice as one of her conversations with professional women in 1895, she got a taste what Alice’s clients would experience. A footman showed her into a double drawing room, ‘persian carpeted, furnished with restful many-cushioned sofas, decorated as to walls with some fine pictures.’
Margaret also saw into the packing room, ‘where every inch of wall space is occupied with stacks of photographs, pigeon-holed and alphabetically docketed.’
Alice was photographing the beauties of the day, including Daisy, Countess of Warwick, her sister Blanche and Alicia Keppel. Let’s not think the celebrity photographer is a 20th century phenomenon. She also had a gift for photographing children, distracting them with puppies and rabbits. Some of the renowned beauties of the 1920s, such as Lady Diana Cooper and Edwina Mountbatten, make their first appearance on the public stage in Alice’s studio, pin-sharp faces in frothy white fabric. Below is a great example, the innocent Albert on the left unaware of the way his life is going to be changed by the antics of his elder brother, already looking slightly mischievous, on the right.
In May 1897, Alice’s ‘beautiful photographs’ were displayed in the Victorian Era exhibition at Earl’s Court. A month later, Country Life included one of her photographs and for the next 21 years Alice’s work would be a regular feature. At her peak, Alice estimated that she saw 2,000 sitters a year and employed up to sixty women to produce the finished products, booking sittings, re-touching negatives, ‘spotting’ prints (making good on any flaws in the printing process) and dispatching the final photographs.
She was totally professional in her approach, had a clear proposition, understood how to drum up business and created valuable and long-lasting relationships with her clients. ‘The motto of every work, whatever be her degree, must be “Thoroughness”‘ she claimed.
‘Photography, almost alone among the arts – if art it can be called – has a trick of making its devotees believe that no hard apprenticeship is required in order to secure success. As an actual fact, the most experienced photographer will tell you that he is always learning; and in the case of the portraiture artist, if he is not among those willing to always add to their knowledge, he is certain to fall behind in the race for success.’
From ‘Photographic Portraiture as a Profession’ by Alice Hughes in ‘Some Arts and Crafts’ (1903)
Alice was serious about her career and didn’t have much time for women who weren’t equally committed. She received up to 100 letters a day, many from girls who wanted to know how they could become photographers. She split them into three groups: those who wanted an ‘easy means of subsistence’; those who were industrious and conscientious but were too steeped in the social norms to be able to think of photography as anything other than a way to fill in the time before they got married; and a small, third group who saw it as a way to have a long-term career. Despite being supportive of the third group, she never had any pupils, taking every photograph herself.
In 1923 she described herself as being ‘hopelessly unbusinesslike’, but this is not how she comes across in the essay she wrote in 1903 in ‘Some Arts and Crafts’. There she offers a stack of good advice for anyone starting out in the photography business (or indeed any business). She discussed the start-up capital needed, highlighted the extent to which business could be seasonal and made clear the implications if you had a high fixed cost base and warned of the risk of bad debts. She recommended cathedral towns as good places for new photographers to set up their studios because of the low levels of competition and high footfall. ‘Lack of business training will spell failure even if the work produced is of the highest artistic quality and value’, she warned.
In May 1908, Edward Hughes died and Alice was left with a large site for which she was now solely accountable for the rent. By the time the death of King George V in May 1910 cut the social season short, she had been in business for nearly 20 years and she decided to retire, closing down her studio. A competitor, Richard Speaight, bought not only her archive of 50,000 negatives but the rights to her name in most of Europe’s key cities. When in 1913 Alice decided she wanted to go back to work, Berlin was one of the few places not included in that agreement. She gamely made her way there to set up but the outbreak of the First World War cut this venture short.
Back in London, Speaight allowed Alice to start working under her own name again as long as she kept out of the West End. She set up a new studio at 104 Ebury Street but was now nearly sixty and setting up against new competitors in a tough market. She broke one of her two rules, photographing many men in uniform. She continued to experiment, working with Sir Charles Forbes on a new colour process, but never recovered her earlier profile.
Alice died in the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Tragically for her photographic legacy, the bombs that laid waste to the stained glass of hundreds of churches across the UK also turned the thousands of glass plate negatives in Speaight’s Bond Street basement, including hers, into a carpet of shards. The Royal Collection has a good collection of her work and there are some prints in the National Portrait Gallery collection. But her legacy to the industry of photography has been long-lasting, establishing it as a legitimate career for women. Many quickly followed her lead into the portrait studio including Lena Connell, who photographed so many of the suffragettes, Lallie Charles and her sister, Rita Martin and the flow has continued ever since.
If you are aged between 14 and 24 and interested in a career in photography, check out the Develop programme from the Photographers Gallery.
If you are want to know more about the photographic work of women during this period, look at Sisters of the Lens. If you are more interested in women who practise photography now, in 2018 the Royal Photographic Society created ‘A Hundred Heroines’ to celebrate contemporary photographic talent and there is now a UK charitable organisation of the same name, dedicated to advancing public awareness of women in photography.
Sources: ‘My Father and I’ by Alice Hughes (1923); interview in The Sketch (23/5/1894); ‘Professional Women Upon Their Professions: Conversations’ by Margaret Bateson; ‘Photographic Portraiture as a Profession’ by Alice Hughes in ‘Some Arts and Crafts’ ed. Ethel M. McKenna (1903).