Presentable

Emma Tennant

Lenare was founded in 1924 by Leonard Green, whose portrait baptises this collection of society photographs. Facing him is an Unknown Woman, captured at the War’s end in an inverted pigeon’s nest and furs: she was presumably the first and certainly the last unknown woman to confront his lens. Lenare wanted fame and wealth to pose for him, and they did. Pearls glowed on old necks smoothed to youth. Girls with lacrosse-stick arms were, mysteriously, sylphides. And to show that this was no parlour for women, duchesses and children only, a posse of field marshals and lords, Smuts and Slim and Brocket, an admiral (Bowes-Lyon) and a braid of Excellencies stood and sat before the undemanding tripod. For Lenare wanted wealth and fame to feel there was safety in these attributes, and none of the perils exposed by a starker, colder camera (the tycoon’s incipient five o’clock shadow presaging a wild, unshaven face, the face of a kidnapped man): in Lenare’s calming view, diamonds and fine silks on the ladies are demonstrably there for ever, and are not the casual property of a lessee, a girl with her eye on the Main Chance, an obvious future divorcee, doomed to mope in C&A while her successor drawls in Hardy Amies. In the absolute stillness of the portraits, group photographs and weddings lay the secret of Lenare’s powers of reassurance. These quiet, well-mannered frescoes could know no Pompeii – but it is surprising to find Frankie Howerd here, and if one takes him at first for a duchess in drag, it becomes suddenly easy to see him, with one lift of the eyebrow, bring the whole marzipan edifice tumbling down.

To look at these pictures, chiefly of the Thirties and the Fifties (what could have been the cataclysm that changed hair-styles in between – these plump arms can have suffered no rationing), is to enter a world as distant as that of the Shining Prince. What form of communication existed between these people – were they subtle and melancholy as Sei Shonagon, witty as Lady Murasaki – did their houses have corridors or blinds, what did they whisper behind? Did they go from place to place slowly, as the Japanese courtiers did, composing in the endless lurching of the oxcart a tender thought, a poem to present on arrival at the summer palace? Where are the maids who must have gone with them, in the days before nylon or denim, to press out the creases accrued on the long journey from St Pancras to the North? No answers show on the blank faces of the sitters (we must exclude Virginia Woolf from the charge of blankness – she looks merely irritable). The mothers, who had passed lists of Suitable and Unsuitable Young Men to their daughters at the Season’s start, and had warned by means of the initials NSIT (Not Safe In Taxis), have settled back in brocade and parures to a future of quails’ eggs, strawberries and champagne diluted by wild winds and rain at the Derby and Ascot. They have not composed an elegant haiku for their girls to emulate on taxi-rides, sometimes three times round the park, a Not Safe way of getting home which could make an ox-cart appear efficient. In no way, it seems, have they prepared the next generation for anything other than more of the same. The young women give as little away as their mothers. Does Miss April Brunner, thoughtful and wistfully lovely, hump-backed by tulle, know what lies ahead of her? Did Miss Fiona Edmonstone, for example, a severe beauty of the mid-century mark, receive and hand on knowledge which her cautious, handsome eyes deny? Or did they, as did I (included here in moss silk, cabbage-leaf hat and gloves, a salad without a cause), hear only the vague rumours of the circuit? ‘My Fanny’s smoking’ was one of these – not so much a murmur from a privileged Court as a word from the World of the Shining Nose.

In my day (1956) Presentation at Court was on its last legs and knew it. This did not prevent great numbers of girls and their presenters turning up: but the train and the ostrich feathers had gone and the older and younger women were not able to be statuesque or maidenly, or distinguishable from one another as they bobbed before the dais where the Royal Family (perhaps they were replicas in wax) sat without losing a smile or drumming a finger for hours on end. ‘Prince Philip smiled at me,’ gasped and groaned the presented in the flux of raspberry taffeta, forearms in a roly-poly of white buttoned kid. My presenter, the wit and author Violet Wyndham, daughter of Ada Leverson, author of The Little Otleys and Love at Second Sight, was much amused by all this. It was an odd way to spend a day, in the oxcart queue up the Mall to the Palace, in a salon where nerves ran to such a pitch anyone would think we were due to audition for Lady Macbeth; and then the flustered curtsey before returning to the jam-packed courtyard and home. Had we lost an innocence, by being shown to the Sovereign in this way? Possibly we had.

At about this time there was the scandalous case of the debutante who changed her sex. The longest journey, indeed: but she had said, this Scottish double-barrelled young woman, that she suffered a strange agony in her ball-dresses, that ‘something was wrong’ as she quick-stepped with this duke or that, or had Margaret, Duchess of Argyll or Raine Legge, present stepmother of our future Queen, pointed out to her as models for a happy and successful life. I sympathised, wondering what would be the consequences of walking out of the Ladies at the Hyde Park Hotel and returning, presumably after the attaching of a small, semi-limp penis, to the door marked Gentlemen. Would I be much in demand, with this new appliance, as a provider of food and pearls for a lucky contestant? Would I be considered Not Safe? How would I fare at Highland Balls, in kilt and sporran, not forgetting the instant give-away of tartan socks slipping down my non-hirsute legs. I could think of no worse fate than being taken for a pansy in Perth. And so I abandoned the scheme, looking ahead to my future as a bride and, as the Lenare collection shows, quite likely a mother too, and an owner of pets, if one can go by the large numbers of satin pages and named animals that crop up over the decades. For a moment, seeing the photograph entitled ‘The Countess of Inchcape and Sheba’, one’s pulse quickens: has something exotic happened here, something bestial and Eastern, involving a long journey? No, the Countess is quite within the bounds of propriety. Sheba is a sheepdog, as tall and stately as an 18-year-old girl.