Fantastic Finds for Friday: A bit of airbrushing, 1931 style!

By Penny Hutchins, RCOG Archivist

Helping to upload to the College’s Media Library some photographs recently taken during the College’s last Annual Dinner, I was reminded of a wonderful letter which I found while cataloguing the papers of RCOG President, Sir Norman Jeffcoate. It was written by Sir Norman in 1991 and referenced the second College Annual Dinner held at Grosvenor House in 1932, when Professor William Blair-Bell was President.

Sir Norman was responding to a request from the College Archivist at the time for material relating to the British Congress of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and while sending a photograph from the 1971 Congress he wrote in delicious detail a nice story which he felt few had heard before!

‘Before the dinner itself the guests assembled in a large room with the whole College Council arranged on a platform in front. The President, Blair Bell, was standing in the centre for a photograph to be taken. The lighting was so poor that this necessitated a long exposure. B.B, restless as ever, failed to keep still so, he alone of the Council, appeared as a blurred figure…B.B could not allow the original to go down to posterity: he had to appear at his best. So he later brought the College gown back to Liverpool and, in full regalia and in the right posture, he was photographed by his senior laboratory technician.’

He then goes on to describe how the technician, ‘a most gifted man’, stuck the new photograph of Blair Bell onto the original photograph taken at the Annual Dinner and rephotographed the whole picture – ‘So the photograph, which I presume is in the College records, is not the original one but a reproduction of a faked one. I myself saw the whole process being carried out.’

Both of the photographs are held in the College Archive, and it actually took me some time to find them, since Jeffcoate wasn’t quite correct about his facts after all. The photograph was actually taken during the Admission Ceremony for Honorary Fellows just before the First College Dinner, held also at Grosvenor House, in October 1931. The four Honorary Fellows were the newspaper proprietor Lord Riddell, the French gynaecologist Paul Bar, the Swedish Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Elis Essen-Moller, and the American John Whitridge Williams, the latter being absent from the photograph as he was taken ill and so unable to leave Baltimore. Surrounded by such eminent company there is little wonder that Blair-Bell wished to appear at his best!

There have been many times that I have seen the substituted image and thought there was something slightly odd about it. You will see what I mean when you look at the two photographs below!

Original image, Admission Ceremony 1931
‘Airbrushed’ image, Admission Ceremony 1931

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Fiona says:

    Really fascinating. He has the glory of being more in focus than everyone else – the narcissist! Do you know where I could find a full version of that lovely painting to the left here? Fiona

    1. Hi Fiona – do you mean the portrait of Mrs Fletcher Shaw? You can find all the College portraits on the BBC Your Paintings site at . Many thanks for following!

    2. Hi again Fiona – do you mean the painting which forms the backdrop to the blog? That is a watercolour of a design for the College President’s badge dating from 1929 and is held in the College Archive. Let me know if you would like a copy!

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