Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street

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'Nightwatchman, Bank of England'
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'British Museum Underground Station'

If you want to see how Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter in ‘The King’s Speech’ match up to the real George VI and his queen, head for the back wall of this exhibition. A few pictures down from his father, George V, is Bertie, squinched close to his missus, whose fur is falling off her shoulders in a most un-majestic manner (she’s not queen yet, mind: it’s 1923, and she’s a young bride). For sheer good looks, this couple can’t hope to match their starry imitators, but that’s not the surprise. They look human, and rather nervous: Elizabeth’s hair is messy and Bertie’s ears stick out.

This startling clarity and intimacy, even in a 1920s royal portrait, is Emil Otto Hoppé’s hallmark. Oh, he could turn you out a nice soft-focus image, but his honed monochrome character studies are something else: Ezra Pound as the Bob Dylan of the 1910s; the poet Rabindranath Tagore, every hair of his white beard waving crisply in contrast to the softly intense dark eyes; Big Chief White Horse’s bronzed skin and Thomas Hardy’s wrinkles.

Hoppé researched his famous subjects as carefully as he lit them, so his mastery of depth of field, while exceptional, was much more than technical. A German-born photographer, living in England, capturing artists who were often foreign too, needs an excellent understanding of distance, and Hoppé had that. His images swallow chronological space.

Hoppé, son of a banking family, moved to England at 24, in 1902, and stayed so long (he died in 1972) that he felt himself English – rather like our royal family, in fact. When he tired of his rarified studio existence he took to the street, and photographed the world in all its eccentricity: a phrenologist, a dogs’ cemetery, a skeleton shop and the waxwork-makers at Madame Tussaud’s. He had a shrewd eye, a fine sense of humour and – oddly for an immensely successful portraitist to the stars – a touch of the iconoclast: he could bring out an Indian sandwich-board man’s nobility or a young pearly prince’s sparkling discomfort.

There may never have been a photographer with such sensitivity to context, which is why he is equally at home outside and in; he was immensely cosmopolitan for the time, although not above undercover photography when the occasion required.

So, why is he neglected? Partly because his archive was misplaced for years, and perhaps partly because his breadth is confusing: he was also a terrific draughtsman, and if this exhibition lacks anything, it is more of his designs and fashion illustrations. That’s greedy: there’s a lot here. But Hoppé, that visual gourmand, arouses a hunger to see more.

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YD

This is a delightful exhibition. It is full of surprises, as many of Hoppé's subjects are known to us from later pictures: his Margot Fonteyn is so young that her face still has a girlish roundness, his Albert Einstein does not stare out under a shock of mad scientist hair. One of the almost guilty pleasures is reading Hoppé's notes about his subjects -- not that they contain shock revelations, but that they are personal responses to people who may over the years have become dehumanised by their historical status. The great Thomas Hardy for instance was rather shy of being photographed. Even if one didn't recognise many of the subjects, the quality and beauty of the photographs makes this well worth a visit.