Wilding, Dorothy (1893–1976)

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Wilding, Dorothy (1893–1976)

British photographer . Born in 1893 in Longford, England; died in 1976 in England; self-educated; married Walter Portham, in 1920 (divorced 1932); married Thomas "Rufus" Leighton-Pearce (a designer and architect), in 1932 (died 1940).

Began to specialize in theatrical portrait photography in her London studio (1914); expanded her operation to seven studios within greater London; photographed members of the royal family (1937); was admitted to the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (1930); opened studio in New York City (1937); photographed coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (1953); retired (1957).

Dorothy Wilding was born in 1893 in Longford, England, the youngest of a long succession of Wilding children. She was uprooted at the age of four when she was sent by her harried parents to live with a childless aunt and uncle in Cheltenham, where, as Wilding would later note, she "was more or less taking the place of a pet dog." It was perhaps this early sense of being cut loose from security that made Wilding determined to be a success on her own terms, independent of her family, and in a way that would use her creativity. Fame of some sort became her goal, and the purchase of a camera in 1909 provided the then-16-year-old Wilding with the means of achieving that fame.

After three years teaching herself photographic methods, Wilding moved to London and found employment as a photo retoucher for Ernest Chandler. A term working alongside American portrait photographer Marion Neilson provided Wilding with the studio experience that would prove so invaluable when she embarked upon her own career as a portraitist, spending £60 in savings to open her first studio in London's West End, in 1914. Stashing her personal belongings behind a light green curtain at one end of the long room, Wilding set about building a clientele, fueled by her optimism and the sophisticated and innovative style that characterized both her personal and professional life.

Other studios soon followed, as Wilding quickly found herself in demand as a portraitist, particularly among young actresses expanding their portfolios. Many of her sitters were aggressive young women, self-made like Wilding herself, and against the white backdrop in Wilding's studio they were transformed into elegant, modern women of the world, their angular beauty emphasized by the stark setting and richly draped evening gowns they wore. Wilding's work also found its way into magazines such as Sketch and Tatler, and she was hired to do advertising photographs. Married in 1920 to Walter Portham, she moved her main studio to a set of rooms on Bond Street, long considered the fashionable section of London, where she began to be visited by individuals who included screen actors Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Pola Negri , and Tallulah Bankhead . A divorce from Portham in 1932 left her free to marry again, this time to interior decorator, architect, and painter Thomas "Rufus" Leighton-Pearce, who designed the modern interior of several of her studios. They would remain together until his death in 1940.

A talented visualist and an enterprising businesswoman, Wilding was soon grouped among England's most well-known photographers. Made a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1930, she was honored with a solo exhibition at the society that same year. These accomplishments brought her to the attention of Great Britain's royal family, who commissioned Wilding to create portraits of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1937. By the late 1930s, Wilding's renown had crossed the Atlantic, and she was encouraged to open a studio in New York City as well. She continued to work through 1957, with her major work of that decade being the coronation photographs of Queen Elizabeth II .


Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers. NY: Abbeville, 1994.

Williams, Val. The Other Observers. London, England: Virago, 1986.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut