Obituary: Ursula Powys-Lybbe

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The Independent Online
In 1947, the English photographer Ursula Powys-Lybbe set off for the Australian outback. Fresh from a career as a portraitist of London high society, she offered the services of her aptly titled "Touring Camera" to the isolated homesteaders of the bush country. Uninhibited by her surroundings, she provided home portraiture with panache for those who had long since abandoned urbanity.

Travelling and living in her unwieldy but rugged ex-army Dodge command car, Powys-Lybbe enjoyed an idyll of freedom. With her partner, the Australian broadcaster Clare Mitchell, she delighted in the unconventionality of her life, and exulted in her independence. In the bush, she discovered an eerie world. The mysterious landscape of the outback contrasted fantastically with the stolidness of the draped drawing-rooms which, decades out of date, and forever English, presented themselves daily to her camera.

Out and about with her Rolleiflex when the portrait sessions were over, Powys-Lybbe made an Australian documentary which was cogent and assured. The skeletal forms of dead gum trees, robust farmers seen in silhouette across the sheep range, the tawdry facades of small towns - all were objects of her curiosity.

Looking through the pages of her family photograph album in 1986, Ursula Powys-Lybbe remembered her girlhood as a glowing time of vitality and comradeship. From the yellowing snapshots emerged a seductive portrait of a secure and gracious world. It was a childhood utopia, and one to which her photographs continuously referred, throughout her long and successful career.

During a life which involved much roaming - to Egypt in the Thirties, to Australia after the Second World War - she clung tenaciously to the structure and order of family photography. Eschewing the chic of a nattily decorated studio in Bond Street or Berkeley Square, by the mid-Thirties, she had become itinerant. As the "Touring Camera", she became adept at photographing Society at Home. To the satisfaction of both portrayer and portrayed, her visits to country estates and town mansions produced pictures of lives untrammelled by exigency, untroubled by modernity. Strong chins, aquiline noses, and a profusion of handsome pets dominate this early work. Heady with an ominous partnering of glamour and power, her characters inhabit a secret and exclusive world.

Powys-Lybbe was unknown within the constellation of British avant-garde photography in the Thirties. While Beaton persuaded Cunards and Sitwells to gyrate to his commands, and Dorothy Wilding turned starlets into madonnas of desire, Powys-Lybbe was content to allow her sitters to position themselves among favourite objects, in their everyday clothes. When she walked into the offices of the Tatler in 1937, with a composite portrait of Lady Mary Lygon which showed not only womanly beauty but also some of the most appealing aspects of being rich, the magazine promptly commissioned her to produce a series. To her great delight, it ran until the outbreak of war. Modish and stylish (though highly traditional in outlook), the photographs presented an image of High Society which was exactly suited to the times. Modern, but without challenge to the status quo, sitters gazed from their portraits invulnerable in their own fashionability.

During the war she joined the WAAF and took part in photographic interpretation at Medmenham, identifying 96 - virtually all - of the V-1 flying-bomb launching sites, an experience she later described in The Eye of Intelligence, published in 1983.

After the war, Powys-Lybbe returned to portraiture with undiminished enthusiasm. Impatient with post-war cultural angst, she eagerly seized new opportunities. As plain Ursula Powys, she happily abandoned Mayfair salons for the bushland of New South Wales, where she had originally travelled to join her recently wed husband. When the marriage swiftly fell apart, she embarked on new photographic projects, along with Clare Mitchell, who had interviewed her on the radio.

It was unfortunate that her eventual return to England in the late 1950s coincided with the collapse of studio portraiture in Britain. It was not until she was in her seventies that her work was again seen in public. Showing in the National Museum of Photography's Women Photographers exhibition in 1986, the style and subject-matter of her work became the subject of energetic debate. A buoyant, confident and irascible woman, she furiously opposed all attempts to place her work within a feminist context.

In her Thirties photography, Ursula Powys-Lybbe created a compelling picture of an English Dream. Mirage-like now, the young men and ladies of her portraits are without ambivalence. Through the lens of her camera, their aspirations, their vanities, their pleasures and their achievements are eternally celebrated. With her admiring and innocent gaze, she created an elegy for elegance.

Val Williams

Ursula Margot Powys-Lybbe, photographer: born Streatley, Berkshire 27 November 1910; married 1947 Druce Buckland; died Danehill, Sussex 13 January 1997.

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