The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon – ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ (Mann, 1968)

Sobakevich: Are they all as pretty as you [in London]?
Caroline: No. I’m the only one.

A Dandy in Aspic marked a turning point in Mia Farrow’s career, for although her name was widely known through her role (1964-66) as Allison Mackenzie in US soap opera Peyton Place, this 1968 spy film was her first major screen role and within months, she had followed it up with the starring role in Rosemary’s Baby. However, the film merits a closer look for many reasons, not the east of which is the magnificent array of fine couture on display.

The film’s production and Mia’s career

Mia left Peyton Place abruptly in order to marry Frank Sinatra in July 1966, after which it soon became clear to her that he was not happy with her pursuing a full-time film career. However, it was soon equally clear to Sinatra that his young wife had a mind of her own and was not afraid to stand up to him. Eventually a compromise was reached, and it was agreed that she could appear in one film a year. When casting for A Dandy in Aspic took place in January 1967 it seemed ideal: the schedule would involve Mia in ten days filming in London followed by three days in Berlin, so the couple wouldn’t be apart for long. Also, her co-star would be Laurence Harvey, who had been a friend of Sinatra’s since they worked together in The Manchurian Candidate (Frankenheimer, 1962). She said her goodbyes, and left Los Angeles for London in the middle of February.

As a matter of fact, Mia had not been the first choice for the character of Caroline: the part was offered to Julie Christie, who turned it down. She had already worked with the two males stars, having played opposite Laurence Harvey in Darling (1965) and Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar (1963), films that positioned her as the incarnation of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ girl. However, Dandy in Aspic would have been a very different film had she accepted the role. Christie’s sultry intensity was not what the film needed: Mia was an inspired choice.

A Dandy for Aspic is a cold war thriller, adapted by Derek Marlowe from his own 1966 novel of the same name. Harvey plays Alexander Eberlin, a.k.a. Krasnevin, a Russian double agent working for the British intelligence service. Homesick and weary, he wishes to return to Russia but finds himself in a desperate position after he is despatched to Berlin – to track down and catch Krasnevin. His British colleagues include the imposing intelligence chief Fraser (Harry Andrews, from Saint Joan), his partner for the Berlin trip, Gatiss (Tom Courtenay) – who is openly hostile towards Eberlin from the first moment they meet – and the suave and lecherous Prentiss (played with relish by Peter Cook). Unfortunately Eberlin’s KGB bosses aren’t any friendlier, making it clear that they have no use for him back in Russia and the door to the east is closed…

As this brief synopsis indicates, this is very much a man’s world, bleak, dour and humourless, populated by men whose duplicitous lives have made them cold and cynical. Mia brought to the film not only a much-needed feminine presence in the character of Caroline, but also warmth, colour, humour and charm which would otherwise be conspicuous by its absence.

After her arrival in London, she flew out to Paris with Laurence Harvey where they were both fitted out with costumes by the legendary designer Pierre Cardin.

Pierre Cardin (left) fitting Mia and Harvey in Paris

Although Harvey was already an experienced star with over forty films to his credit, the red carpet was rolled out for Mia, whose unique charisma and striking looks was already recognised: she was welcomed by the French ambassador’s wife, Madame Alphand, who Cardin deployed to deal with his most prestigious clients. As part of her contract, Mia was allowed to keep the Cardin outfits, some of which will be discussed below. After leaving Paris, Mia unexpectedly flew back to New York before travelling onto Miami where Sinatra was performing at the Fontainebleu Hotel. However she soon rejoined director Anthony Mann and the rest of the cast in London, and filming began.

Anthony Mann (1906-67) directing Mia in London. Although probably best remembered now for his westerns, Mann excelled in the film noir genre, demonstrating great skill in visual composition and unsettling camera angles, There are traces of this flair in A Dandy in Aspic.

Caroline Hetherington

Mia’s character, Caroline, is a London socialite and photographer, the daughter of Lady Hetherington, who first meets Eberlin at the Café Royale in Regent Street. Clearly intrigued, she asks if he is married, and engineers a meeting in the lobby as he prepares to leave. While most of the diners are in formal evening wear and finery, Caroline stands out in a short, sleeveless floral dress, over which she later slips a white fur-lined cape. Eberlin’s lack of interest in her reverses when he realises he is being followed, and he accepts her invitation to return to her flat, which doubles as a photographic studio.

It should be noted that there is no reference to her being a photographer in Marlowe’s novel, and it seems likely that the decision to introduce this theme into the film was inspired by the recent Blow Up (Antonioni, 1966), in which David Hemmings played a fashion photographer in ‘Swinging’ London. Caroline’s neat studio and her references to portraits of writers and actors positions her among the same sort of glamorous circles as Hemmings’ character Thomas, who was clearly based on David Bailey. The photography theme is not tossed aside, as it provides the motive for Caroline’s journey to Berlin – where she bumps into Eberlin again, apparently by coincidence – and she continues to carry and use her camera throughout the film. For those who are interested, she uses a 1965 Nikon F camera, with a Nikkor-S 50mm f / 1.4 lens, and fitted with a Photomic T viewfinder.

Caroline asks if she can take a photograph of Eberlin who refuses, prompting her to admit that she already has one of him that she took when he was on holiday in Tunis. (In the book, she glimpsed him in Tripoli and there was no photograph.) He asks if he can have it for reasons of vanity, but then destroys it when he leaves, without – as we suspect Caroline wished – having spent the night. Their encounter raises some intriguing questions about their motives. Firstly, it is suggested that Eberlin felt no romantic attraction to Caroline and only accepted her invitation to get away from the intelligence agents who wished to speak to him, while his pretended interest in her photographs was only a ruse to destroy evidence that he was in Tunis, where he actually carried out the assassination of a British agent. (A futile act, given that a) Caroline almost certainly retained the negatives of her work and b) his colleagues were already aware that he was in Tunis.) Regarding Caroline, however, few viewers are likely to believe that her repeated meetings with Eberlin are coincidence – and she must be fairly adept at clandestine photography if she can take a close-up portrait of a spy without him noticing. Is she in fact deliberately stalking him as part of another operation? This is something that is left open throughout the film. Evidence suggests otherwise, but the romance that develops between them is always underpinned by a vague sense that at least one of them is pursuing a secret agenda.

As a little nod towards Mia’s home life, Frank Sinatra’s 1966 album Strangers in the Night – which had just won two Grammy awards – is visible on the table as she picks up her camera.

Despite the bleakness at the heart of the story, Mann did not follow the well-trod path of other cinematographers who convey this coldness through draining their films of colour. Both in London and Berlin the locations positively pop with vibrant tones, acting as a counterpoint to Eberlin’s increasing ennui and exhaustion.

Caroline is (apparently) over in Berlin for a photo-shoot, and manages to bump into Eberlin several times in different places across the city. She is accompanied by her photographic assistant Nevil, played by a young Richard O’Sullivan, a former child actor who would soon gain fame in TV sitcoms such as Man About the House and Robin’s Nest.

Nevil, Caroline (in another Cardin creation) and friend, on location in Berlin

She goes along willingly with Eberlin’s new identity of ‘George Dancer’ but falls foul of Gatiss, who disapproves of her being around and is determined to keep Eberlin focussed on his task of finding Krasnevin. The double agent’s sojourn in Berlin is a bizarre sequence of furtive meetings, violent murders and grim conversations alternating regularly with romantic encounters with Caroline, some of which border on the surreal. He leaves her in bed during the night to despatch another agent in the bathroom along the corridor, while on another occasion he wanders off and finds her dressed in a cloth cap and fisherman’s sweater, sitting in a tree by a lake. No explanation is given either for her outfit or her presence there.

One has the sense that Eberlin knows there is no way out, and finds solace in Caroline’s quirky and unpredictable behaviour. It is clear too that there are genuine affections on both sides, although by this time it seems unlikely that there will be a happy ending. In one telling scene, they are interrupted in bed by Gatiss, who forces Eberlin to leave before telling Caroline: ‘I do believe you two would have got on well together. You haven’t got a past, and he doesn’t have a future. None at all.’

Mann was superb at composing these complex shots

Their final meeting takes place at the AVUS race track just outside Berlin – which was also used in Anton Walbrook’s film Allotria (1936). These scenes blend real footage of races with a specially-filmed crash that appears to have been caused deliberately – and which will have fatal consequences for one of the party.

Sadly, there was another fatality in Berlin, as director Anthony Mann died of a heart attack on 29th July 1967, midway through filming. When Mia and the others heard he had taken ill, they all raced up to his hotel room but it was too late. In her memoir What Falls Away (1997) Mia describes her reaction to seeing her first dead body. It was decided that Harvey would direct the rest of the film – he also oversaw the final edit – with some assistance from Mann’s widow. This was uncredited at the time, and it is hard to know exactly which parts were filmed by Mann and which were the work of Harvey.

‘Go home, Caroline. Go home. I envy you.’
Her pale pink outfit emphasises her air of vulnerability and innocence.

When Eberlin and Caroline part, there is sadness on both sides, although perhaps for different reasons. Some commentators have suggested that Harvey’s cold and emotionless performance presents Eberlin as someone who is unable to feel anything for anyone – obviously sentimentality being a drawback for those working in espionage. Yet to me there is a sense of sadness, not only over his fate but also because his short time with Caroline has revealed to him what he has lost – both in her and within himself. A Dandy in Aspic is a film about identity rather than espionage – about the struggle to find one’s real self and the dangers of not being true to who you are. As Caroline remarks when she first meets Eberlin: ‘I’d say you’re definitely a Gemini. You know, two people in one.’ The fact that both Mia and Harvey were dressed in Pierre Cardin creations marks them out as a pair, two halves, and sets them apart from their friends and colleagues – Eberlin’s sartorial elegance (such as polo necks and lined collars) distinguishing him from the regulation suits worn by the other British agents. But I also feel that Mia’s performance brings out particular qualities of Caroline – colour, warmth, spontaneity, humour, charm, candour and vulnerability – that represent the humanity that Eberlin has denied or repressed. He sees in her what he might have been, another life he might have had – by which time, of course, it is too late…

Two people in one? The Gemini and the mirror image.

The end of Caroline and Eberlin’s relationship was a portent for the demise of her real-life marriage, with Sinatra’s increasing irritation about her extended absence fuelling his resentment about her decision to pursue an independent film career. As the production ran over schedule, he rang her on set every day to ask when she was returning to the States. Other film work was to follow, with Secret Ceremony also being filmed in 1967. Ira Levin’s bestselling novel Rosemary’s Baby was published on 12 March 1967 and Mia was offered the lead role in the production, filming of which began in Hollywood that autumn.

A Dandy in Aspic received its premiere at the Columbia Cinema (now the Curzon Soho) in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, on 4 April 1968. In Arthur Marwick’s book The Sixties (OUP, 1968) he draws a distinction between the colour and optimism of the ‘High Sixties’ and the increasing pessimism and radical fragmentation of the ‘Late Sixties.’ A Dandy in Aspic offers a perfect example of a film that occupies a transition point between these two, with Mia’s innocent sense of fun and vibrant fashion sense giving way to the world-weary despair and disorientation of Laurence Harvey’s identity crisis. This is a film that really deserves to be better known. It occupies an important part in Mia Farrow’s career, both in terms of her breakout role in a major film and for its formative role in establishing her as a style icon.

This was part of the Mia Farrow Blogathon hosted by Gabriela at Pale Writer. Check out the rest of the entries here!

Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors – the archival quest for Anton Walbrook

The first ‘archival encounter’ discussed in my paper: the ephemera I was asked to catalogue in 2009 that fired my interest in Walbrook.

As most readers of this blog will know, for over a decade I have been working on a biography of the émigré actor Adolf Wohlbrück /Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), but this weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about this work as part of the Stardom and the Archive conference held at the University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020. The conference was organised as part of the Reframing Vivien Leigh research project – I have written about the relationship between Walbrook and Leigh elsewhere on these pages – and its aims are summarised here:

Conventional critical discourse focuses overwhelmingly on the findings of archival research rather than the process with scholarship telling ‘a story about what you found, but not about how you found it.’ (Kaplan 1990: 103) The Stardom and the Archive symposium seeks to challenge this convention by centralising archival process and curatorial histories in researching stardom.

The conference has seen film scholars from all over the UK and beyond, including Australia and Turkey, come together to discuss diverse aspects of archival research, curatorial practice and fan collecting in relation to stardom. The range and quality of the papers so far has been fantastic, with an imaginative scope that includes gravesites and multi-media artefacts as well as the more traditional paper-based archives.

It was a great delight, as ever, to talk about Walbrook in the presence of such distinguished and appreciative company. My presentation was entitled Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject and discussed the different phases of archival engagement involved in writing my biography, including the challenges of dealing with gaps in the archive, the complex relationship between Walbrook’s onscreen persona, his life as a private individual and the archival record of both his life and career. It was also an opportunity to discuss the creation of my own Walbrook collection – an archive of my research as much as a fan collection – and share some of its treasures.

My collection includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, photographs, film stills, presscutting files and 16mm film reels, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films, and I raised the issue of how the agenda of the collector relates to that of the biographer or researcher.

This offered a chance to revist the exhibition Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma, which I curated at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum back in 2013. Anyone wishing to know more about this should watch the excellent short film made by Olivia Luder and available to watch here. As another aspect of archival engagement, I also discussed the brilliant artwork by Matt Horan (Matt Mclaren), which he created by painting scenes from Walbrook’s films, cutting out the images and then reassembling them in 3-D scenarios which were then photographed and turned into prints. My paper ended with a call for more collaborations like these, in which scholars, archivists, curators, artists and fans can learn from one another through sharing their different passions and fields of expertise.

Now it’s time to return for Day Two of the conference, which will close with the launch of the new Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition!

Rollerball Revisited

I first watched Rollerball (Jewison, 1975) on VHS at a friend’s house in the early 1980s and naturally, at that age, was struck most by the spectacular gladiatorial game sequences. Although I have seen a few snippets here and there over the years, for various reasons I never managed to find an opportunity to sit down and watch the film again in its entirety. Last year would have been ideal, given that the film is set in 2018, but ideals are rarely realised and it was only a few weeks ago when I succeeded in returning to Rollerball, this time on the Blu-Ray released in 2014 by Twilight Time.

A quick summary of the plot may be in order for those unfamiliar with the film. The screenplay was written by William Harrison – adapted from his own short story, ‘Roller Ball Murder’, published in Esquire magazine in September 1973 – and a portrays a futuristic world in which nation-states have been replaced by six global corporations: Energy, Food, Transport, Communications, Housing and Luxury. The world has been transformed in the wake of what is referred to as ‘the corporate wars’, although no-one seems able to recall precise details. There are no more conflicts being fought in the world – except for Rollerball, a violent sport in which two teams on roller skates and motorbikes battle it out in vast circular arenas. The game is filmed and broadcast weekly, providing a distraction for the masses as well as a vicarious means by which social tensions, aggression and potential protests are safely channelled away from the corporations.

The futuristic ‘computer centre’ where Jonathan goes to seek information about the history of the Corporate wars is actually one of the BMW buildings in Munich built for the 1972 Olympics.

There are many echoes here – the cynical ‘bread-and-circuses’ of the Roman elite, the use of recreational drugs to control the populace in Brave New World, the anti-capitalist critiques of Marx and others, although the actual details of how this all came about, and how it functions, are (perhaps wisely) left vague and unclear.

Returning to the film after some thirty five years – a period in which my own world has been transformed considerably – it was only natural that this historic sense of world-building would draw my interest. Although the film’s reputation has been built upon the violent action of the game sections, these only comprise a small proportion of the film’s running time, and what really struck me on rewatching Rollerball is how much of it is subdued and restrained. Take the opening shots: instead of jumping headlong into the action, the film begins with scenes of preparation in the stadium as engineers and technicians prepare the stage. Then we see the bikes, but they are almost totally hidden in shadow as they run through the tunnel. A great deal of the film is dialogue, and in between the game sequences the pacing is slow – almost too slow at times, it must be said.

The narrative follows Jonathan (James Caan) the leading Rollerball player, whose skill in the game has made him a fan favourite, earning the disapproval of the head of the energy corporation, Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman). Pressure is put on Jonathan to retire, but his refusal leads to the Rollerball games becoming more dangerous as the rules are adjusted to make death or serious injury inevitable. Jonathan’s increasing unease with the situation leads to him carrying out his own investigations into the history of the ‘corporate wars’ as well as some of the circumstances surrounding the departure of his ex-wife.

Following his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Caan was a major star, but his break-out came playing Randall O’Connell in Lady in a Cage. According to Hedda Hopper in the Los Angeles Times (25 March 1963), Olivia de Havilland admired Caan’s performance and sought to get him the leading role in Youngblood Hawke after Warren Beatty dropped out – although it was in fact James Franciscus who got the part. Caan’s skill at playing volatile mavericks fitted well with the role of Jonathan in Rollerball, although the film’s air of restraint meant that the actor rarely found opportunity to show much in the way of real emotional depth or range in his character.

And perhaps it’s that aura of quietness and uneasy languor that made the most impression on me this time round. When I first watched Rollerball I was barely in my teens and, naturally, my attention was drawn chiefly to the exciting game sequences. While these attracted controversy at the time and produced the film’s most famous and abiding images, they comprise only a tiny proportion of its content: less than xx minutes out of a total running time of xx. As one grows older

My enjoyment of the film was much enhanced by reading Andrew Nette’s excellent study of Rollerball, written for the Constellation series. As well as providing an excellent guide to the film’s production, structure and narrative, the book places the story within the wider context of contemporary science fiction cinema and political anxieties, draws fascinating parallels with contemporary issues over ‘fake news’ and reality TV, and – especially welcome – includes an interview with Norman Jewison as well as many insights drawn from the William Harrison archive.

Janus: looking forward, looking back

AW was born in Vienna on this day 123 years ago. It is my sincere hope that by the time this anniversary comes around again next year, his biography Anton Walbrook: a life of masks and mirrors – will have been published. As this decade-long project nears its end, there is a sense of impending closure: there will come a point when the draft chapters and back-up files can be discarded, when the envelopes stuffed full of handwritten notes can be sealed up and sent for recycling, and the computer files of drafts, plans and synopses can safely be deleted. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to illustrate this post with the latest photograph of AW that I have in my collection. This was taken in 1967, during the production of A Song at Twilight, and therefore just a few weeks or months before his death.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the biography should not mean the end of my blogging about AW, his life and films – quite the reverse in fact: few biographers would consider their work to be the final word on their subject, and I see A LIfe of Masks and Mirrors as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. There will no doubt be feedback, amendments, revisions and corrections, and hopefully the publication of the biography will encourage others to start talking about, and looking into, those areas in AW’s story that need to be further explored. A new phase of my Walbrook research will start, so this year marks a beginning as well as an end, a time for looking forward as much as looking back.

As part of this process of retrospective reflection, I will be giving a talk at the University of Exeter next February entitled Paper trails, masks and mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject – Anton Walbrook which will look at the role played by archives in my research: from the first archival encounter that started me off on AW’s trail, through the time spent searching through various archives while writing the biography, to the cumulative creation of my own personal archive of AW papers and memorabilia. This talk will be part of the Stardom on the Archive symposium, being held to mark the end of the 20-month Reframing Vivien Leigh project that has been exploring how how the legacies of Vivien Leigh are archived and curated by different archival institutions. Readers of this blog may remember that AW and Leigh met on many occasions, both at theatrical events and at the actor’s home in Hampstead. Those familiar with Leigh will know that she was more widely known for her screen roles but really saw herself primarily as a stage actress. One of the topics I look at in the biography is the relationship between AW’s stage and screen work, tracing his approach to acting back to his childhood and the significance of his theatrical ancestry – and of course the importance of Vienna, where he was born on 19 November 1896: and not 1900, which was the year erroneously circulated by the media for much of his career – although that’s a story for another day….

Henrietta Ross (1815-94): photographer

After a great many years of neglect, photographic historians are gradually uncovering and sharing the individual histories of early women photographers whose lives and work have been languishing in the shadows. As yesterday marked the 125th anniversary of the death of Henrietta Ross (1815-94), this seemed a good occasion to write a little about her life and photographic activities. Some of this has appeared in my 2004 article on Horatio Ross, and Henrietta will be treated in more detail if I ever manage to finish writing Horatio’s biography, but in the meantime I have put together this brief sketch in the hope that it interest some readers.

Henrietta Macrae was born on 17 April 1815 in Demerara, an island off the north east coast of Brazil which was ceded to Great Britain under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty. Her father, Colin Macrae (1779–1854), had helped broker the treaty, which was signed in London on 13 August 1814. Colin hailed from the West Highlands: his parents were Farquhar Macrae of Inverinate, and Mary, daughter of Alexander Mackenzie of Davochmaluack. As head of the Inverinate branch of the family he had a rightful claim to be recognized as Chief of the Clan Macrae. Like many young Scotsmen he sailed abroad to seek his fortune, finding work as a merchant and planter in Demerara.  He became a colonel in the colonial militia and was also appointed to the colonial legislation. His status is indicated by his marriage in 1805 to Charlotte Gertrude, daughter of John Cornelius Vandenheuvel, Dutch Governor of Demerara from 1765 to 1770.

They resided at Cumingsburg, in the capital Stabroek (later renamed Georgetown) where they raised a large family of eleven sons and daughters, many of whom went on to take prominent positions in the colonies. Some of their time was spent in New Haven, Connecticut. Colin Macrae published a short tract, Suggestion of a Plan for the Effectual Abolition of Slavery in all of the British West India Colonies in 1830 and soon after returned with his family to Scotland, where he divided his time between Edinburgh, Perth and Nairn. Henrietta was in her late teens when she met her future husband, Horatio Ross (1801-86), who was then MP for Aberdeen Burghs and one of the more remarkable men of his age.

Ross’s accomplishments were extraordinary. His father Hercules – like Colin MacRae – had left Scotland as a young man to seek his fortune overseas. Through a blend of enterprising trade and marine activities bordering on piracy, Hercules Ross made a fortune in Jamaica, where he succeeded in winning the friendship of the young Captain Horatio Nelson, then a naval lieutenant. Hercules Ross returned to Scotland on his own 32-gun frigate, a wealthy man, and married Henrietta Parish, a beautiful heiress whose portrait was painted by Raeburn. They settled near Montrose on the east coast of Scotland and set about building Rossie Castle.

Rossie Castle

They had four daughters before a son was born in December 1801. Nelson agreed to be godfather to Ross’s son – hence the name Horatio. Hercules Ross was an enthusiast for the volunteer movement, and after an embarrassing scene when five year old Horatio ran away at the sound of guns on the lawn at Rossie, he had his valet fire guns daily over the head of his son. Horatio developed an interest in shooting and turned out to be a brilliant marksman. His feats with a gun became the thing of legend and he was reckoned the best pistol shot in the British Empire. In 1821 he joined the army but grew bored with barrack life and resigned in 1826. He was then able to devote himself fully to the sporting and shooting activities which were his joy, among the most notable of which include the first ever recorded steeplechase, a 97 mile non-stop walking competition and some astounding feats of marksmanship with both pistols and rifles. Some of these were documented in my article, ‘The Delight of their Existence’: the photography of Horatio Ross of Rossie (1801–86) Studies in Photography (2006) and will be treated at greater length in my biography of Horatio Ross, which I hope to complete one day.

Perhaps in need of a greater focus for his talents he stood as a Reform candidate for Aberdeen burghs and was returned in 1831. His contributions to parliamentary debate reflect his interests in rural affairs – he spoke forcefully on matters such as game laws and hemp tax, but was also appointed to a commission of inquiry into child labour in factories. Other members included Robert Peel, who became Prime Minister a few years later and remained a friend. Ross was well-connected and moved among high social circles. He dined with Thomas Carlyle in London, corresponded with leading peers of the realm, and took part in adventurous sporting activities with aristocratic gentry from both Scotland and England.

Although now in his early thirties, he had still not found a wife. Although it was later said that he sought a wealthy heiress, the woman with whom he fell in love was far from that. Henrietta Macrae was in her late teens when they met.  She married Ross in Nairn on 26 December 1833. They had five sons: Horatio, Edward, Hercules, Colin and Robert Peel.

Having left politics in 1835, Ross was in possession of a little more leisure time when photography was invented four years later and unsurprisingly was one of the first in Scotland to take it up. Beginning with daguerreotypes, he switched to the calotype process, but continued to concentrate on landscape photography. Naturally, he was fond of hunting scenes, and took numerous photographs of deer both living and dead. Some of these photos were used by his friend Sir Edwin Landseer as an aid for painting. Henrietta appears in one of his earliest known images, an 1848 daguerreotype entitled ‘Craigdarroch’ which show her with a rifle in the (clearly posed) act of shooting a stag.

Many of Horatio’s photographs are labelled Glen Dibidale, which was the site of a lodge in the Ross-shire highlands at which they spent much of their time. Some years ago I acquired Henrietta’s own Bible, which was signed and inscribed while she was staying. The Bible is of interest because it contains many marginal notes and pasted in scraps, giving some idea of Henrietta’s own spiritual inclinations.


Queen Victoria’s residence on Deeside had made this part of the country increasingly popular, but Ross had already been shooting deer here for over two decades. Horatio and Henrietta Ross joined the royal household for a shooting party at Mar in October 1850; Her Majesty noted in her diary that ‘Mrs Ross is a very pretty ladylike person, & an excellent shot herself, but without any ‘prétention’. Her husband, no longer a young man, is considered the best deer stalker & best shot in Scotland.’ (Journal entry for 5 October 1850.)

As well as being an excellent shot, Henrietta soon began to try her hand at photography. Her husband did a great deal to promote Scottish photography and in 1856 Ross helped found the Photographic Society of Scotland (PSS). This gave a great boost to photographic activity in the country, bringing photographers together for meetings and talks, allowing them to discuss methods and arrange for annual exhibitions. Although she was not a member of the Society, Henrietta displayed her work at some of the PSS exhibitions, as the comments below indicate:

‘Mrs Ross of Rossie’s works are not alone in showing that photography has been most succesfully pursued by the fair sex.’ Scotsman 21st December 1857

‘Mr and Mrs Horatio Ross also exhibit a considerable number of well chosen river and burn scenes. To portray running water properly by the camera – more particularly falls – is a difficult matter; indeed, the latter cannot be accomplished with any degree of success – the rapid motion of the descending and broken water giving a blurred appearance to the picture. In No.348, ‘Highland Burn and Waterfall’ by Mrs H. Ross, may be observed what we regard as a great improvement when a better cannot be offered. The falling water is touched by the pencil, which gives it much better effect, and throws a spiritedness into the photograph which it would otherwise lack.’ – Caledonian Mercury, 25th December 1857

Regarding another photograph on waxed paper, Cat. No. 350 ‘Highland Burn’ – probably the same image of that title that Henrietta exhibited at The British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Aberdeen in 1859  (cat 161, waxed paper) – critics noted its ‘pleasing landscape… sugar-white stones on the heathery brae… gleam on the water

Henrietta Ross, ‘A Photographer in his Studio’ (1858)

At the third exhibition in December 1858 Henrietta Ross had on show a fine portrait of her husband entitled A Photographer in His Studio, depicting Ross in the act of preparing a collodion plate. Apart from its clever composition, making use of the overlapping ‘V’-shape of tripod legs, deer antlers and a funnel, the picture is also of interest for demonstrating the sheer size of a contemporary camera. This image was later designated a self-portrait by Horatio Ross, although there are grounds for disputing this.

Henrietta’s sons inherited their parents’ shooting skills. Edward was the best, winning the Queens Prize at Wimbledon in 1860 and taking a prominent role in the development of the National Rifle Association. Colin and Hercules also joined their father at shooting competitions during the 1860s. The youngest son Peel took less interest in shooting and entered the Church, being ordained a priest of the Church of England in . He was Rector of Drayton Bassett from until when he retired to Inverness and took up residence at Druim, a short distance from where his parents lived at Rossie Lodge on the banks of the River Ness.

Horatio and Henrietta celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary in December 1883. Ross was now 82 but still succeeded in shooting a stag on his 83rdbirthday the following year. He was out for the Glorious Twelfth in 1884 but that was the last time. His health gradually declined, and he spent his last few months arranging his photographic negatives at Rossie Lodge before dying here in September 1886.

Henrietta left Inverness for the other end of the country, moving down to Portsmouth to be near her eldest son Horatio Jr, who worked in the Bank of England in Portsmouth. She took a house at in Southsea where she died on 17 October 1894.

There is much more to be written about Henrietta, some of which I may do another day – this has been cobbled together somewhat in haste, as most of my boxes of research notes on Ross are inaccessible following the house move. Commemorative dates are always a good spur for writing something, however, and if I can raise a little more awareness of Henrietta Ross then this raggedy little blogpost will have done some good.