‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma’ exhibition

Well, it’s almost time now to close down the exhibition, ‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma’, which has been running at the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, University of Exeter , since 5 March 2013.

For this exhibition, artist Matt McLaren produced a remarkable series of over thirty pictures illustrating scenes from some of Walbrook’s best known films, including Gaslight (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948.)  The pictures were created by an unusual technique involving paper cut outs and miniature sets, which are then photographed. Matt recently graduated from the MA illustration programme at Camberwell Art College .

Anton Walbrook (1896-1967) – whose biography I am currently writing – was an appealing, enigmatic star, popular in two warring countries under two different names. Born Adolf Wohlbrück in Vienna , he trained under theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt and achieved great success on both stage and screen in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, appearing in hit films such asWalzerkrieg (1933), The Student of Prague (1934) and Michael Strogoff (1935.) Leaving Germany in 1936 to escape the Nazis, he became Anton Walbrook and arrived in Britain via Hollywood in early 1937. Walbrook quickly won the hearts of British film goers with his portrayal of Prince Albert in two lavish biopics of Queen Victoria and his role in the hugely popular Dangerous Moonlight, but perhaps his best work was done in partnership with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made four films between 1941 and 1955. His postwar career involved work for the theatre, film and television in France , Germany and Britain , including two films with director Max Ophuls. He died in Germany following a heart attack on stage in Münich but – in accordance with his wishes – his body was returned to England and he was buried near his home in Hampstead.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds a wealth of material relating to Walbrook’s life and career, including early German cinema magazines, postcards, films stills, theatre programmes and presscuttings. A selection of this material was on display alongside Matt’s artwork. As well as curating the exhibition, I provided the accompanying text. Some of my personal collection of Walbrook memorabilia will also be on display, including an original costume worn for his role as Prince Albert . Now that the exhibition has ended, I plan to use this blog to share some more of my memorabilia collection and also provide updates on my progress with the biography.

Le Chagrin d’Amour

Following on from the last post, this is another image of a nun seated in her cloister garden, but this time with the soft pastel shades of romantic sentiment. Clearly a studio creation, I like how the prop artists have applied a few daubs of brown paint to try and link the autumn leaves at her feet with the tree on the painted background behind her. Blatant artifice aside, it is an exquisite image nonetheless and I was delighted to pick this up at a postcard fair earlier in the year.

A Nun of Anglot

Recently I came across this unusual carte-de-visite, showing a Bernardine nun at a French convent at Anglot, a small village between the rival cities of Bayonne and Biarritz. The convent was founded in the 1830s, some twenty years before Napoleon III drew attention to Biarritz by building the Empress Eugenie a summer residence there. It became a popular resort for holidays, and my grandparents had their honeymoon there back in the 1920s.

An aristocratic Australian, Lady Fairlie Cunninghame, wrote about the Bernardines at Anglot in the 1890s, noting: “Photography is another of their industries, and very good photographs of the sisters and the convent, done by themselves, can be bought here, as well as dolls, dressed in the habit of the order, and many other prettily made ornaments and bits of work.” [Brisbane Courier 21 June 1892.]

It is therefore possible that this photograph may have been taken by one of the nuns around this time. When I wrote my thesis on 19th century clergy-photographers – including monks and friars – I was always on the look-out for female religious, but never came across much evidence for this in the UK. Over in France, thanks to the massive devotional interest in the canonised Carmelite nun Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97), I know that her sister Céline took a camera into the convent when she became a nun in 1894, although as their mother was the prioress, it is possible that this was an unusual exception! Over the next few years Céline (Sister Genevieve of Saint Teresa) took numerous photographs both of her pious younger sister and of scenes of Carmelite life, although it is clear now that many of these were considerably retouched and/or doctored. (Sophia Deboick has written a very interesting thesis on this: Image, authenticity and the cult of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897-1959 (University of Liverpool, 2011).

The commercial use of photographic images by the nuns of Anglot raises some similar questions – to what extent were these images authentic snapshots of convent life, posed photographs intended to convey the picture of religious life that they wished to promote, or staged tableaux designed for commercial appeal? Who posed for the photographs, and was it a matter of personal choice or religious obedience? Presumably the photographs were developed inside the convent – one of the interesting things I wrote about in my thesis were the range of odd times and places in which monks managed to carry out their darkroom activities. I wonder how many of these photographs from the nuns of Anglot are still in circulation?


This week saw the publication of ‘Egyptology and Photography: Two Founding Fathers’ in Ancient Egypt magazine.  This project had its roots in a visit I paid to the house of a family friend many years ago, when I caught sight of a painting hanging on their wall. The portrait was by Reinhold Lepsius, one of the children of the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius.
I was – and remain – absolutely captivated by this portrait and was keen to learn more about the artist and his family. I had heard of Karl Lepsius and knew a little about his pioneering work in the field of Egyptology, but as I began reading more about his personal life and achievements, my attention was caught by references to his attempts to use photography in his seminal expedition to Egypt in 1842.  Accounts of photography in the Middle East seemed to have overlooked this plan by Lepsius, largely because he returned without any photographs: the expedition’s findings were published in a monumental twelve volume work, Denkmaler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (1849-58) which included nearly 900 plates, based on drawings and paintings undertaken on location. It is easy to see why Talbot wanted to support Lepsius, given his interest in Biblical archaeology, ancient languages and eastern antiquities.  Research for the article brought back memories of the passion I used to have for the same topics – how I had travelled to Durham to visit the Gulbenkian Museum, to Oxford to gaze upon the Weld-Blundell prism, to Dublin to see the magnificent Book of Kells…and I felt humbled in a way, that my entire experience had come solely from museums and libraries. The hardships and dangers endured by Lepsius and other contemporary travellers makes for hair-raising reading at times.