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The life of Dorothy Wilding

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Dorothy Wilding was born on January 10, 1893 as the last of a large family of 10 children who lived near Gloucester. She was passed on to a childless aunt and uncle in Cheltenham, aged just four. Her initial ambition was to be an actress, but her uncle refused to let her go on stage so Wilding resolved: ‘It was then that I decided that if I ever were going to free myself, I must have sufficient money to keep me until I could get some sort of job’. One day she saw a camera in a shop window in Cheltenham, and according to her memoirs thought: ‘If they won’t allow me to be an actress, or paint portraits, I’ll do it through the camera instead’. At the age of 16 Wilding taught herself the art of photography, from lighting to retouching. She finally persuaded her family to let her move to London. She was apprenticed as a retoucher in a Knightsbridge portrait studio, but by 1915 had saved enough money (£60) to lease a studio in George Street, Portman Square.

Stars and a Prince
Initially she was unable to afford a proper lighting set-up, and so took her pictures in daylight, and developed them at night. She prospered and rented a larger studio near to Regent Street, as well as employing assistants. She later moved her business to Bond Street, and soon was attracting theatre stars to her studio. In 1929 a 17-year-old Prince George (later Duke of Kent) sat for her and became her first Royal portrait. Around this time she was falling in love with her second husband, Rufus Leighton-Pearce, whom she married some years later after his divorce from an alcoholic wife.

Early in 1935 a Mrs. Wallis Simpson booked a portrait sitting, and she was accompanied to the appointment by the Prince of Wales. In fact, at the time Wilding was at her country cottage and she had to direct the shoot down the telephone to her assistant. The results pleased the Prince, and often appeared in newspapers during the 1936 abdication crisis.

The telephone call which changed Wilding’s philatelic legacy came on January 12, 1937 when she was summoned to Buckingham Palace to photograph the new Queen (who had only moved in that morning). According to Wilding: ‘A sweet voice said “Oh, Miss Wilding, I’m so glad we meet at last”, and a warm little hand grasped mine in hers, and held it for so long, and so tight, that for a moment my mind went blank’.

Whilst the shoot continued King George VI entered the room dressed in the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet. Wilding suggested: ‘Your Majesty, don’t you think The Queen looks a little lonely standing there without you? If you joined her, I could make such a lovely portrait of you both’. The King replied: ‘Why not?’ The double portrait was adapted to appear on the 11/2d red-brown Coronation issue of May 13, 1937. Shortly after the photo shoot Dorothy Wilding was awarded the Royal Warrant, and in May 1937 became the first woman to be the official photographer to a King and Queen at their Coronation.

New York studio
At this point Wilding opened a studio in New York. It was here that she photographed George Bernard Shaw, Douglas Fairbanks, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Tallulah Bankhead and Gracie Fields amongst others. Her constant commuting across the Atlantic often meant that a Wilding portrait wasn’t exactly that – a 1946 photograph of Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret was actually taken by one of her assistants.

1948 saw Wilding’s photographs being adapted for the Silver Wedding issue – the 21/2d ultramarine by George Knipe and the £1 blue by Joan Hassall. The sad passing of King George VI on February 6, 1952 ironically provided Wilding with the single most famous photograph she ever took.

Within a week of the King’s death Wilding has been scheduled to shoot a new portrait of The Queen, with a view to using it for definitive stamps. The session took place on February 26, 1952 with The Queen wearing an off-the-shoulder Norman Hartnell dress and a tiara. The shots reached the Post Office on March 7 of that year and showed four full profiles, two three-quarter face images, and looking right and left profiles on light and dark backgrounds.
Further photos from the sitting were supplied on May 5, 1952 and the first two Wildings stamps – the 11/2d green and the 21/2d carmine-red – were issued on December 5, 1952. The Wilding shoot also provided three out of the four Coronation stamps from June 3, 1953, and the famous Castle definitives series of 1955-58. Wilding’s relationship with the Royal family, as their favoured photographer, continued right up until 1958 when she decided to sell her Bond Street studio, aged 65. She had closed the 56th Street, Manhattan, studio in 1957.

Fading from view
After her retirement Wilding faded from the public consciousness, and she passed away in a nursing home on February 9, 1976 after a long illness. At the time her death hardly got even a line of obituary.

As well as appearing on the straightforward GB definitives the Wilding portrait also appeared as part of a host of GB commemoratives. Designer Jeffery Matthews resurrected the Wilding photograph for the 1986 set of two to mark the Queen’s 60th birthday.

On top of the array of GB Wildings, the Wilding imagery has often featured on country stamps from across the Commonwealth including a 2002 prestige postcard set from Australia Post. GB collectors have also been treated to two new miniature sheets showing all of the original 18 Wilding British definitives with updated values – the second of which is out on May 20, 2003.