LADY VICTORIA Wemyss, who has died aged 104, was the subject, with her mother the Duchess of Portland, of a photograph taken 102 years ago which is probably the earliest surviving commercial work by the photographer Alice Hughes (1857-1939).
The first of many hundreds of portraits registered by Hughes for copyright between 1892 and 1911, it will be featured in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from July which will celebrate the, until now, overlooked pioneering women photographers of the Edwardian era. In the London of the 1890s Alice Hughes, who shared a house with her father, the society painter Edward Hughes (1832-1908), at 52 Lower Gower Street, was the leading society photographer. At the height of the season she employed up to 60 staff, all female, and personally took up to 15 sittings a day. Hughes was unique and revolutionary in many ways. She refused to photograph men, since she disliked men's dress, but would photograph boys until they donned what she termed the 'toga virilis'.
Hughes initiated a fashion for picturing bejewelled evening- gowned society women together with their children for the first time in naturally and elegantly devised compositions, while still managing to portray the intricate costume detailing of the highly elaborate Edwardian fashions. Her use of studio props frequently included lavish quantities of freshly cut flowers, setting a fashion for 'Alice Hughes lilies' and often involved her sitters' being posed by a huge oak tree that she had transported to her studio from Lulworth. The finished photographs were printed on the soft grey delicate tones of platinotype paper resembling a grey wash or mezzotint finish.
The Duchess of Fife became her first royal sitter in 1895, followed shortly after by the future Queen Alexandra and many visits from the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) and her three children Edward, Albert (King George VI) and Princess Mary, as well as close friends of Edward VII, Daisy, Countess of Warwick and Mrs George Keppel (pictured with her daughter Violet Trefusis).
Lady Victoria Wemyss (nee Cavendish-Bentinck) was herself an intimate of the royal circle: her father, the sixth Duke of Portland, was Master of the Horse to Queen Victoria and her mother, the Duchess, later Mistress of the Robes to Queen Alexandra. Lady Victoria, probably the last surviving godchild of Queen Victoria, was for 57 years an Extra Woman of the Bedchamber to her cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother).
Hughes's example inspired a large number of women to take up photography as a career and the success of women who adapted her style such as Lallie Charles and Rita Martin led to the eventual eclipse of Hughes's fame, although she continued in business at a second studio in Ebury Street until 1933.