Humphrey Spender

Photojournalist, painter and textile designer
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The Independent Online

John Humphrey Spender, photographer, painter, textile designer and teacher: born London 19 April 1910; married 1937 Margaret Low (died 1945; one adopted son), 1948 Pauline Wynn (died 2003; one son), 2003 Rachel Hewitt; died Ulting, Essex 11 March 2005.

Humphrey Spender will be remembered as one of the leading photojournalists of the 1930s, but he was also an award-winning textile designer and a prolific and idiosyncratic painter.

Whereas his brother Stephen became a prominent public personality, Humphrey was a retiring figure who had learned the art of self-effacement while working for Mass-Observation. Recruited by Tom Harrisson in 1937 to join that famous "independent, scientific, fact-finding" project, he began haunting northern English towns, taking surreptitious photographs with a Leica carefully concealed within his voluminous mackintosh. One of his principal aims was to remain invisible and he often declared a photograph spoiled when any of his subjects had become aware of his presence and looked directly at him. The photographs he took for Left Review, Picture Post and, as "Lensman", the Daily Mirror made him one of the outstanding chroniclers of British life between the wars.

The youngest of the four children (three boys and a girl) of Harold Spender, a Liberal journalist and sometime politician, Humphrey Spender was born in Hampstead, north London, on 19 April 1910 - Primrose Day, as he liked pointing out. He was given his first camera at the age of nine, and was taught how to use it by his eldest brother, Michael, a scientist who made a career in photo- interpretation. A year later, Humphrey was used by the artist R.H. Sauter as the model for Jon (the son of Young Jolyon Forsyte) in the numerous illustrations for John Galsworthy's Awakening (1920). Galsworthy was a friend of, and possibly in love with, Spender's mother and the young boy spent several days at Galsworthy's house in Hampstead happily posing for the illustrator.

He was educated at Gresham's School, Holt, after which he spent a year in Freiberg studying art history. He enrolled at the Architectural Association, but although he qualified as an architect he never practised. Instead he set up a portrait and commercial photographic studio in the Strand with his fellow student and lover Bill Edmiston.

In 1934 he was invited by a probation officer to photograph the East End of London in order to provide evidence of housing conditions among the poor which were thought to contribute to crime in the area. He was then commissioned by Left Review to take pictures of the Jarrow hunger marchers and the British Union of Fascists' rally at the Albert Hall. He became the Daily Mirror's "Lensman" in 1935, travelling around the country in "an open two-seater Alvis 12/50 with dickey wire wheels and constantly failing brakes" taking photographs to brighten the newspaper's pages.

A rather more realistic record of life in the 1930s came with Mass-Observation. He was sent to photograph people in the emblematic "Worktown" (in fact Bolton) and in Blackpool, contributing to Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson's ambitious anthropological field study of working-class England.

He later became one of the best-known photographers for Picture Post, contributing to a series on British towns written by poets such as Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Grigson. He wanted to take unposed photographs of ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in streets, markets, pubs, at funerals and sporting events, and to achieve this he frequently had to resort to disguises and tricks. He hoped that his work would help to make the world a better place, and the steadiness of his photographic gaze got him into trouble with the Mayor of Newcastle, who thought too much emphasis was being placed on the city's poorer districts.

At the same time, his photographs are suffused with his natural warmth, wit and humanity. A volume of those he took for Mass-Observation was published in 1982 as Worktown People, and in 2004 he was enrolled as an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Spender spent much of the 1930s travelling in Europe, witnessing the political upheavals of the period, often in the company of Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, whom he notably photographed in Berlin and on Rügen Island, as well as in Portugal and Amsterdam. He designed the dust-jacket of Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin (1939), and his iconic photograph of Isherwood standing at a window was reproduced on the jacket of Christopher and His Kind (1973).

One of his more hair-raising assignments was in June 1935, when he was sent by the Mirror to Morocco in a two-seater Puss Moth aeroplane piloted by a drunk. Spender kept two diaries (complete and expurgated) during this trip, describing his adventures in the company of Moroccan guides and Foreign Legionnaires. These were eventually published side by side, along with the photographs he had taken, in a magnificent limited-edition book, Morocco (2004), designed by the typographer David Jury, who also produced In Darkest England (1998), a Mass-Observation miscellany which included a long interview with Spender and several of his photographs.

Interested in all aspects of Weimar culture, Spender was nearly arrested at the notorious 1937 "Entartete Kunst" exhibition in Munich when he was overheard praising the so-called "Degenerate Art" on display. A fluent German-speaker, he was also called upon to help out when - in a case of mistaken identity - his brother Stephen was arrested for murder. In Austria during the Anschluss, he took a striking photograph for Tom Hopkinson's Weekly Illustrated of a crowd unenthusiastically saluting the invading Germans. The photograph could not be published at the time, however, because it was feared the people in it might be identified and shot.

He remained with Picture Post during the Second World War, taking some of the most enduring and evocative photographs of life in the services among RAF pilots and seamen on destroyers and minesweepers. In 1941 he was called up, and served as an official photographer for the War Office. He worked in photo-interpretation and he was proud that on one occasion his skills had prevented the RAF from bombing a prisoner-of-war camp which it had incorrectly identified as an ammunition dump.

After the war he continued to work for Picture Post and while on an assignment in Warminster in 1952 he and Geoffrey Grigson were arrested (twice) on suspicion that they were the "missing diplomats" Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. Often short of money, he frequently - and to his subsequent regret - sold negatives and original prints. He began to concentrate more on his painting, and examples of his work were acquired by the Tate Gallery and other major collections.

While awaiting de-mob, Spender noticed an advertisement for a textile-design competition judged by Henry Moore and, "having nothing better to do", submitted an entry. The resulting publicity when he won attracted the attention of Robin Darwin, Rector of the Royal College of Art, who invited him to join the textile department, where he spent 20 years as a tutor. Spender won four awards from the Council for Industrial Design for textiles and wallpapers, which were manufactured by such companies as Sandersons and the Edinburgh Weavers.

Among his public works were the mural for the Television Pavilion at the Festival of Britain, and a huge textile inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry (and worked by a group of local needlewomen) to commemorate the millennium of the Battle of Maldon in 1991. He also designed murals and mosaics for the P&O liners Canberra and Oriana and co-designed the National Portrait Gallery's "Young Writers of the Thirties" exhibition in 1976.

A major retrospective of his photographs was mounted at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut in 1997 (catalogued by Deborah Frizzell as Humphrey Spender's Humanist Landscapes: photo-documents, 1932-1942), and exhibitions of his work were held in both London and New York.

He also held shows of his paintings, drawings and "dotty objects" (small sculptures made from circuit boards, marbles and other junk) at his striking modernist house and studio, designed for him in 1968 by the young Richard Rogers, and built in the orchard of his previous home, a Victorian rectory in Ulting, Essex. A passionate gardener who enjoyed flouting what he disparagingly called "good taste", he made frequent use of natural forms in his pictures, and was constantly experimenting with techniques, mixing painting, drawing, etching and collage. Although very modest, he was utterly committed to his art and continued to work right up until his brief final illness.

In 1937 Spender married Margaret (Lolly) Low, whom he had met at the AA and who had an architectural practice. They adopted a son, but Lolly shortly developed Hodgkin's disease and died on Christmas Day 1945, a tragedy commemorated in what many consider Stephen Spender's finest poem, "Elegy for Margaret". Humphrey subsequently married Pauline Wynn, an actress who under her married name became a radio dramatist, and they had one son.

Spender had told his wives before marrying them that he was bisexual and he had affairs with both men and women throughout his life, numbering Frederick Ashton and Paul Robeson's wife amongst his conquests.

After the death of his second wife, he married Rachel Hewitt, whom he had met when she was 17 and he was in his seventies. Herself a talented photographer and artist, she also became his amanuensis and took charge of his archive, which was in considerable disarray.

A handsome young man, Spender came in old age to resemble a compressed version of his famously tall brother Stephen. They had a similar laugh, and Humphrey particularly delighted in anecdotes displaying "a nice malice" and what he called "dotty situations". He had a phenomenally clear memory, which, combined with an engagingly reckless candour both about himself and his large circle of acquaintance, made him hugely entertaining company and an invaluable interviewee for anyone writing about literature or the arts in 20th-century Britain.

Peter Parker

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