Bill Brandt

Parlourmaid & Under Parlourmaid Preparing to Serve Tea

1936, later print

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Not on display

Bill Brandt 1904–1983
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 228 × 195 mm
Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to Tate 2019


Bill Brandt was born into an Anglo-German family in Hamburg. Beginning his career as an apprentice to a portrait photographer in Vienna in 1927, he went on to work in Man Ray’s (1890–1976) Paris studio from 1929–30; he began to acquire a reputation as a major photographer in his own right, with night photography becoming a particular speciality. He moved to London in the early 1930s and Britain became his adopted home. Brandt used black and white photography, and especially its ability to provide strong contrasts of light and shade, to document the social extremes of life in Britain, particularly those of the capital city. In 1936 he published The English at Home, which highlighted stark societal contrasts. The publication A Night in London followed two years later. Brandt also began to contribute to magazines such as Lilliput (1939–45), Picture Post and Harper’s Bazaar. After the Second World War he focused on portraiture, landscape and the nude.

Brandt made the city one of the most frequent subjects for his photography and his images of London in the 1930s demonstrate the anthropological approach he adopted. Photographic historian David Campany has described how, during this key period in his work, his aim was not simply to document: ‘Brandt was drawn to the rituals and customs of daily life, to what he saw as the deeply unconscious ways in which people inhabit their social roles. For him to photograph these minutiae was not simply to document but to estrange through a heightened sense of atmosphere, theatrical artifice and a dreamlike sensibility.’ (David Campany, ‘The Career of a Photographer, The Career of a Photograph: Bill Brandt’s Art of the Document’, in Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool 2006, p.54.)

Parlourmaid at a Window in Kensington, 1936–9 1936–9 (Tate P15012) and Parlourmaid & Under Parlourmaid Preparing to Serve Tea, 1936 1936 (Tate P15014) both depict maids in service at a home in west London, engaging in their daily routines: arranging an elegant breakfast tray, and opening the curtains. Brandt shot these photographs for a story titled ‘The Perfect Parlourmaid’, which was published in Picture Post in July 1939. Brandt chose as his subject his uncle’s parlourmaid, Pratt, photographing her throughout the day. Parlourmaid & Under Parlourmaid Preparing to Serve Tea 1936 was published as part of the story, while Parlourmaid at a Window in Kensington, 1936–9 is a close variant of another image that was published. ‘The Perfect Parlourmaid’ was one of four ‘Day in the Life of …’ Picture Post features by Brandt, with the others featuring an artist’s model, a barmaid and a ‘nippy’ (a nickname for waitresses who worked in the J. Lyons & Co. tea houses).

Flowerseller in Hampstead, All a blowin’ and a growin’, c.1936 1936 (Tate P15017) and Butcher in Notting Hill Gate (ver 2)], 1930s 1930 (Tate P15024) show Londoners engaged in other forms of work. In one, a butcher, dressed in his occupation’s traditional attire of white coat and straw boater, is pictured at his cutting block. He reaches for one of the meat cuts hanging on hooks behind him, while gripping a large knife. Flowerseller in Hampstead, All a blowin’ and a growin’, c.1936 shows a street vendor in Belsize Park, north London, with a large basket over one arm, which contains a profusion of flowers. This image was published in Brandt’s first book, The English at Home (1936). In his introduction to the book, the literary editor Raymond Mortimer referred to Brandt’s ‘foreign eyes’, noting that Brandt ‘seems to have wandered around England with the detached curiosity of a man investigating the customs of some remote and unfamiliar tribe’ (in Bill Brandt, The English at Home, London 1936, p.4).

Hansom Cab in the West End, 1930s 1930 (Tate P15020) and Audience at His Majesty’s Theatre, Covent Garden Royal Opera House 1937 (Tate P15021) depict London at night, one of Brandt’s most celebrated subjects. In these two images, it is the nightlife of the more affluent Londoner that is shown. The photograph of the audience at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is, by Brandt’s account, the first photograph taken inside the Royal Opera House during a performance and conveys the scale and grandeur of the venue. Hansom Cab in the West End, 1930s was published in Brandt’s second book, A Night in London (1938), which documented the city from twilight to dawn.

Brandt’s London photographs built on his earlier work in Paris documenting the lives and various social strata of its inhabitants. Race Goers, Auteuil Races, Paris, 1931 March 1931 (Tate P15015) is one such example, depicting two men in suits and bowler hats watching the races, with their hands to their faces in a gesture of concern.

Statue in the Frost, Crystal Palace Gardens,1938 (Tate P15016) is one of a number of photographs that Brandt took in the 1930s of statues in the garden of Crystal Palace in south east London. With these images Brandt often experimented with perspective and cropping to create a surreal effect. In 1939 Brandt published a group of eight photographs of the Crystal Palace statuary in Picture Post, in a story titled ‘Daybreak at the Crystal Palace’.

Brandt had already photographed sculptures extensively in Paris, most notably sculptures by the French artist Aristide Maillol (1861–1944). Maillol, La Montagne Sculpture, 1937 (Tate P15026), for example, depicts Maillol’s sculpture La Montagne 1937 from an unusual angle that allows the figure’s raised knee to obscure her face. The sculpture, carved in stone, was commissioned by the Musée National dArt Moderne, Paris, the year before.

Further reading
Bill Jay and Nigel Warburton, Brandt: The Photography of Bill Brandt, London 1999.
Paul Delany, Bill Brandt: A Life, London 2004.
Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 2013.

Helen Delaney
April 2019

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