Home At Last: Bill Brandt in Britain

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Home At Last: Bill Brandt in Britain
Bill Brandt, 'Parlourmaid and Under-Parlourmaid Ready to Serve Dinner', 1936
Home At Last: Bill Brandt in Britain

German by birth but British by his own making, Brandt had an entirely continental start in life, growing in Hamburg before living in Switzerland, Vienna and Paris. But he pointedly mystified his biography, attempting to entirely wipe his German upbringing from his biography and would say that he had been born in London and that his parents were of Russian origin. He would even refuse to be interviewed, for fear of revealing his German accent. Yet Brandt is remembered in the history of photography for being a decidedly British photographer, seeking to distil the essential character of the British nation in his photographs. Indeed, it may have been his alien perspective that allowed to him to make penetrative, arresting studies of the British.

Bill Brandt was born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt on 2 May 1904 in Hamburg to a wealthy mercantile family, but Brandt was always obsessed with the idea of Britain. It represented for him a mystical, literary world and also a sacred island, free from the despotic forces sweeping through Europe during the 30s. Brandt associated Britain with the fairy tale world of storybooks and wanted to create a dictionary of English ‘types’ that would collect the Victorian remains of British society, typified by the market peddler, the hatter and the parlour-maid.

Brandt first went to England in 1928 but moved permanently in the early 1930s. In England he started calling himself the more anglicised Bill, rather than Willy or Billy as he had before, and set about negating all evidence of his German heritage. Brandt and his wife Eva moved into a small, first floor flat in Belsize Park, joining the community of Austrian Jews in the area taking refuge from Nazism but living on a comfortable allowance from his father, Brandt was accepted into the circles of his wealthy banker uncles and attended the events of upper-class English life, including Ascot, the Derby and the Eton versus Harrow cricket match.

Fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the English class system, Brandt began photographing these events, often constructing scenes with his friends and relatives. He was ‘entranced’ by England, ‘especially by its photographic possibilities’ and began to conceptualise an idea for a book that would eventually be published in 1936 as The English at Home. The book collected Brandt’s photographs from his first years in England, laying out a series of contrasts, with images of wealth on the left pages and poverty on the right. Scenes from the lives of his upper-class relatives were presented next to photographs of beggars, drunks and gypsies. Whilst The English at Home can be read as a biting tract of social criticism, Raymond Mortimer’s introduction to the photographs positions Brandt as an ethnographer rather than critic, saying that he ‘seems to have wandered about England with the detached curiosity of a man investigating the customs of some remote and unfamiliar tribe’. Brandt’s documentary work undoubtedly decries the dire circumstances of his subjects but his approach to the upper classes often seems more bemused than outraged.

Whilst The English at Home is a visual inventory of ‘Englishness,’ it is also a more general derision of stereotypes and the charade of class. The montage pairings draw attention to social extremes but there is also an interest in generational difference, showing parents as perceived by their children and elders as seen by their charges. His photograph Parlour-Maid and Under Parlour-Maid (1936) shows this generational gap, with an older woman looking severe in comparison to her younger facsimile. Pratt, the parlour-maid in the photograph, was in charge of Brandt’s Uncle Henry’s households. Brandt first met Pratt in March 1928, during his first trip to England, and became obsessed with the way she organised the rituals of upper-class life. In German houses, servants did not usually wear uniforms and Brandt was magnetically compelled to photograph the theatricality of Pratt’s responsibilities within the household. When Brandt’s five-year-old nephew, Peter, asked him why he liked Pratt, he replied, ‘because she calls me sir’. Pratt was a storybook figure who represented both the typical face of English life for Brandt and the hidden aspect of its interior organisation.

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