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  • Writer's pictureMegan Stevenson

BOOK REVIEW: 'Thoroughly Modern: The Pioneering life of Barbara Ker-Seymer, photographer, and her brilliant Bohemian friends' by Sarah Knights



A much-needed biography has finally been written on the brilliant Barbara Ker-Seymer. Ker-Seymer has often flown under the radar in conversations about the Bright Young Things and 1920/30s photography, despite having produced a wide array of strongly lit, sculptural studio portraits and relaxed, affectionate images of friends.


Described by biographer Sarah Knights as both ‘sympathetic and unshockable,’ Ker-Seymer cultivated lasting friendships with those she met at the Chelsea School of Art and the networks which fanned out from this. As young people in the 1920s, Ker-Seymer and her friends dedicated themselves to exploring all forms of popular culture, exploring cinema, jazz, cabaret, and ballet. The influences of these seep into her photography; her use of chiaroscuro (interplay of light and dark) strongly harks back to the lighting in her beloved silent German films.


Attending the parties of Olivia Wyndham (who she would go on to train under and take over the photography business of), Ker-Seymer became familiar with the Bright Young Things, their parties, pleasures, and liberal sexual attitudes. Modernism, hedonism, and all things bohemian were together hand-in-hand, and Ker-Seymer was perfectly placed to photograph it.


This biography describes friends supporting one another in their artistic pursuits. Tangents are littered throughout, creating a sense of a fun and playful environment for Ker-Seymer to develop her photography in. In one instance, friend Frederick Ashton helps her practise her fashion photography by posing in a black velvet curtain and goatskin rug, complete with a paper bag on his head.


Despite working in close proximity to famous photographers Dorothy Wilding and Yevonde (indeed, Ker-Seymer Studio opens at 15A Grafton Street, across the road from Wilding’s studio), there is little discussion in the book of Ker-Seymer’s connection to her contemporaries. There is reference to Ker-Seymer admiring the work of Germaine Krull and Berenice Abbott, and of her photograph Billy’s head served up on a plate being influenced by the work of Edwin Curtis Moffat, but this kind of art historical context is not the focus of this biography. Knights rather places Ker-Seymer’s work in the context of blossoming young people’s culture, modernism, and the exploits of friends. This placement feels appropriate for Ker-Seymer’s work; her posed portraits are playful, and her photo albums in the Tate Archive are filled with images of friends living their lives, holidaying, and posing for one another. She was also an embracer of new techniques. Knights suggests that Ker-Seymer was the first photographer working in London to adopt solarisation as a technique.


An unexpected area that this biography focuses on is the sexualities and complex intertwined relationships of Ker-Seymer’s network (‘it was the norm for relational reassortments to occur’). It was a lovely surprise to have explicit reference to a diverse array of queer people, and a pleasant change to have relationships stated outright rather than couched in the language of friendships or working partnerships. In this way, Knights did not shy away from non-monogamous relationships, both when Ker-Seymer was having affairs, and when she was ethically involved in open relationships. However, multiple chapters dedicated to the love-lives of Ker-Seymer and her friends did begin to drag. It’s one thing to hear about the relationship drama of your own friends, but to read about the dramas of a group from almost a century ago, most of the people involved being those I have no interest in the lives of, became tedious quite quickly.


This biography has three distinct parts: Ker-Seymer’s twenties and thirties with friends, the complicated relationships of her network, and the post-war years. The Second World War came down like a hammer on the lifestyle of Ker-Seymer’s social circle, scattering them across the map and drawing a line under their carefree years. Limited supplies and even more limited demand ruined Ker-Seymer’s photography business. She worked for Larkins Studio, making stop motion animation for information films. Despite global upheaval, her character as the social heart of groups remained, and her London flat became a popular spot for African American GIs to hang out, including Allan Morrison, one of the few black war correspondents working.


In 1947 Ker-Seymer has a son. Without the father in the picture, she starts a laundrette business to support herself and her child, and it becomes a great success. She doesn’t return to photography. There’s a sense that it was part of a pre-war life now lost. However, the friendships she had remain, and it is in this part of the biography that some beautiful vignettes emerge describing the life Ker-Seymer has built for herself. She begins a relationship with Barbara Roett. As Knight writes, the pair ‘had no expectation of exclusivity […], although they had developed a deep devotion to one another.’ It is Roett that donates Ker-Seymer’s archive to the Tate after her passing.


Ker-Seymer, her son, and Roett move into a home together in Charlton Place, Islington, in 1964. They renovate the house, and it becomes a hub for Ker-Seymer’s old friends to gather – one friend, Bunny, even moves into the spare room. Just like that, the book has come full circle, immersing you in the world of this friendship group and returning to the heart of Ker-Seymer’s life. It is in these moments that Knights’ writing is most compelling, you feel the care these people had for one another, you appreciate the decades that have gone into these friendships, from cinema trips while studying at art school to dinner parties forty years on.


As someone who did some work researching Ker-Seymer last year myself, I can appreciate the value this biography has in providing information on this interesting and under-discussed woman. Knights does a brilliant job of bringing her roaring world to life and giving context to her photographs. Especially interesting was the artistic successes of Ker-Seymer’s many friends, such as painter Edward Burra and ballet dancers Frederick Ashton and William Chappell. I have not detailed these in this review, but it is wonderful to read about so many intersecting lives from one distinct period and place.


Next up we need a book specifically on Ker-Seymer’s photography. This biography severely lacks images to illustrate the photographs being described: we never get to see Frederick Ashton donning a velvet curtain and goatskin rug, paper bag on his head, nor do we see Billy’s head served up on a plate. As photography researchers, we can extrapolate a lot from this book to learn about Ker-Seymer’s work, but I sense a more photography specific exploration is due to give Ker-Seymer’s work the recognition it truly deserves.

 

Thoroughly Modern: The Pioneering life of Barbara Ker-Seymer, photographer, and her brilliant Bohemian friends, by Sarah Knights was released in hardback in June 2023, and comes out in paperback in August 2024.

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