Florence. I didn’t think chasing this image through the ether would end up causing me to run slap bang into Florence – but there you go. We all know Florence – Florence Nightingale, the Lady with the Lamp, the heroine of the Crimea, the godmother of nursing. Most of us, with only the merest knowledge of history, would know those details of her. But delve a little deeper and there is much more of interest. She was an early advocate for feminism, but not quite in the way one would suppose in these modern times. She believed that it should be male driven, rather than being championed by her own gender – women, such as those pesky suffragettes, had no business meddling. Still, she used her influence to improve the lot of her gender. She was also a dab hand at the old mathematics and experts have concluded that she was almost certainly a virgin till her dying day in 1910. From her time tending to wounded troops till the day she passed she was invariably in fragile health – and as she aged, so the amount she was bedridden increased. At the end she was glued to her London bedroom, but before she left this world an unlikely event occurred – an event that links her with that photograph sent on to me.
This image also led me to Maude. What a stunner! Even by today’s standards she’s a head-turner, an exquisite beauty. Look at her face, framed by the voluminous locks popular at the time. Wow! This gorgeous woman was born Maude Mary Hawk in Memphis, Tennessee – a long way from the Crimea or London, in 1883. Her folks had a theatrical bent. It wasn’t too long before she became better known to the world as Maude Fealy – star of the stage and for a time, the silver screen. She featured in eighteen silent movies between 1911 and 1917. But treading the boards was her first love. As well as performing in plays she also scripted them. There is evidence she also invented the first wheeled travel luggage – but even all this couldn’t save her from a troubled marital history and she bore no children.
But let’s take a step back to Fealy at the turn of the century. Now look again at the accompanying sumptuous image of her. It happens that between 1901 and ’05 Maude made several tours of the UK. She acted for companies that were prominent at the time, such as those under the auspices of William Gillette (for whom she performed in an early production centred on Sherlock Holmes as hero) and Sir Henry Irving. And it is during this period her paths crossed, indirectly, with Florence and Camille.
The latter was born two years later than Maude in another faraway location, Antwerp. And it was her image that started this whole process. This was dispatched to me by my writerly darling daughter with the words, ‘Here Dad, see what you can do with her.’ And she certainly piqued my interest – just look at that hair! Her investigation resulted in the coming across of that other damsel, as well as the redoubtable Florence. I do wonder if Ms Fealy and Camille crossed paths – perhaps they even knew of the other.
In the early 1900s Camille managed to win $2000 in a magazine contest. This, in turn, led her, by 1902, to also becoming a popular actress, performing tours of the US – and later the UK. And here comes the rub – the linkage. In London she paid a visit to the same establishment as our Maude.
But first things first – back to that couple of grand – a tidy sum in those days. That takes us to a gentleman by the name of Charles Dana Gibson – his surname may give you, dear reader, a clue to her claim to fame. If we add that this gentleman was also an illustrator may help enlighten as well. Gibson loved drawing the women of his era – women with largish bosoms, slender waists and ample posteriors – and disporting thems in the latest fashions. The woman thus portrayed would be calm in a storm, sporty, independent and confident – and of a mental make-up that definitely would not lead her to embrace the suffragette movement. These creatures, both on the page and in real life, became known as Gibson girls. Gibson himself felt that his creations should be equal partners in any relationship with the male – but always a teasing, coquettish equal. She would be inspired by such luminous beauties of their times such as Evelyn Nesbit and Mary Astor – but soon, in the public’s eyes, all others would be overshadowed by our statuesque Belgian delight – Camille Clifford. With her high coiffure and elegant gowns, wrapped around an hourglass figure, once she attracted the judges’ eyes and won that competition for the best real-life miss to represent the ideals of a Gibson girl, she became the model for their creator’s vision. In this Camille was in two-step with Mary Pickford. What esteemed company.
So sometime, in the period under discussion, both Maude and Camille, during their Old Blighty tours, were chaperoned into the Gainsborough Photographic Studios at 309 Oxford Street to have their beauty captured for all time by its proprietor, Lizzie Caswall Smith. From her sessions with this talented duo, and numerous others, hundreds of post-cards would be produced – huge money-spinners for above and below board professional camera pointers in their day. Lizzie was one of the best in a game – a game largely dominated, as in most areas, by men. Celebrities of those Edwardian days flocked to her premises. Lizzie was a woman ahead of her era, but, contrary to the ethos of the Gibson Girls, was also a strong supporter of suffrage. So there’s the tangible link between Camille and Maude – but what of Florence?
In 1910, for a very rare occasion, Lizzie left her studio for an assignment. And with it our tale comes full circle. She travelled a short distance from her base and set up her equipment in that afore referred to bedroom of the now close to death Florence Nightingale. We are not sure why this came to pass, given the subject’s hatred of posing for the camera. She was also, in her later years, gun-shy of publicity. The resulting images have only recently come to light, having remained all the intervening decades in the care of Lizzie and her descendants. The camerasmith, having retired in 1930, died in 1958. Lizzie once confided to a friend that her time with Florence was so remarkable that, ‘I shall never forget the image.’ And now this photograph has become famous in its own right, be it as it was taken just a few days before the iconic figure’s last breath.
So my gratitude goes once again to my dear Katie for her supply of another enticing image, leading me to a fascinating journey of discovery through the ether. The only disappointment in the whole process was that, about Lizzie herself, I only encountered scanty information and no portrait. I guess back then selfies had not been thought of. It’s left me wondering ever since.
YouTube tribute to Camille Clifford = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmdJvyuCWIc
The Story of the last photograph of Florence = http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/2776782/Rare-photograph-of-Florence-Nightingale-for-sale.html