London. N.d. [c.1920-28]. A total of 44 loose plates averaging 36 x 25cm with illustrations to recto only. 37 of the plates are headed Elspeth Phelps - the majority are dated 1928, one 1926, the majority appear to be by the same hand, 2 are signed by Blake, 5 have an alternative font for the heading, 1 is signed by Nora Corbett. 5 of the plates are headed Edith Lemon - dated 1920, 3 are in a similar hand to the Phelps plates, 2 are signed by Blake, 1 has an attached fabric swatch. 2 of the plates have no heading - dated 1928, similar fashions but in a different hand to the other plates. The illustrations are ink and watercolour, finished with gouache decoration, some heightened with silver and glitter details. Occasional additional pencil sketches and notations. 360 x 250mm (14¼ x 9¾"). 0.75kg. . English. Very good; occasional slight browning to paper, occasional pin pricks, faint marks and creasing mainly to the margins; the illustrations remain fresh and bright.
Very little is known about the court dressmaker and fashion couturier Elspeth Phelps. References to Phelps herself and illustrations of her designs remain few and are chiefly confined to short mentions and advertisements in contemporary magazines such as Tatler and Vogue. There are very few examples of her designs in institutions. The present collection is therefore a rare and important archive of Elspeth Phelps' designs.
Constance Elspeth Phelps was born in 1877 in Madeira, Portugal. She emigrated to England to work as a dressmaker and at the turn of the century was working under the court dressmaker Ada Nettleship (Augustus John's mother-in-law) in Wigmore Street. She must have been a very able seamstress as well as a shrewd business woman because in approximately 1906, just shy of 30 years old, she opened her own London couture house in Albemarle Street. From here she designed gowns for Court and high society, as well as dressing the cream of London's theatre stars, including Lily Elsie and Irene Castle. In 1920 she married Lionel Fox Pitt, by which name she is often referred. Phelps' strong business drive meant that the fashion house continued to expand over the next two decades. In 1923 she formed an alliance with the London branch of the French fashion house Paquin; she sold the Elspeth Phelps name to them and opened a new showroom in Dover Street. The arrangement was not to end well and a very public court case ensued, with Paquin accusing Phelps of underhand dealings and Phelps suing Paquin for breach of contract. She managed to extricate herself from the arrangement and reopened her house as Elspeth Fox Pitt Ltd. in the late 1920s. The business continued to run for many years. Her London shop was bombed during the Second World War and she relocated her workrooms to Oxford. The company was wound up in 1959 and Elspeth Phelps died on 10 March 1968.
Phelps' private life remains as enigmatic as her business life. Michael Holroyd's biography of Augustus John references an unpublished autobiography called 'From Stomacher to Stomach' and we know from this that she was one of the first people Ida Nettleship confided in about her secret marriage to John. Her friendship with the Johns continued through the decades. The National Portrait Gallery in London holds a group photo in its collection from 1936 featuring Phelps in the centre of group including Augustus John and Bertrand Russell. An intriguing newspaper article in 1936 reports 'ARTISTIC DRINKING / Augustus John One Of Group Fined. / SALISBURY, Eng., June 18 - Augustus John, the artist, was one of five persons fined £5 each here for drinking during unlicensed hours at the Old Mill club, West Harnham, recently. / Mrs. Elspeth Fox-Pitt, the proprietess, admitted serving liquors during non-permitted hours. She was fined £30, and the club's license was revoked.' (The Milwaukee Sentinel, Jun 18, 1936). Between 1927-28 Phelps was the president of the National Union of Soroptimist Clubs of Great Britain, aimed at improving the lives and working conditions of women and girls. During her marriage to Fox Pitt she lived in various residences in Hampshire. In 1944 she purchased the King John's Hunting Lodge, Dogmersfield. Three years later she sold the 18th century folly to the decorator John Fowler who restored it extensively. The now famous lodge is currently the home of Nicholas Haslam and is the the subject of his book Folly de Grandeur.
The illustrations in the collection include designs for evening dresses with dropped waists, evening and day coats with fur trims, day dresses and suits, and wedding dresses replete with veils and flowers. Accompanying accessories include ostrich feathers, strings of pearls, brooches, tiaras, hats, muffs and shoes. They are fashions intended for the rich and wealthy; to be worn at court, at parties and other social engagements. One plate, showing a black long-sleeved dress with matching hat, obligatory pearls and feather trim, has the inscription 'Queen of Spain', presumably the Queen Consort, Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg. Pencil notations place the majority of the illustrations from 1928, with a few earlier ones from 1920. The style of the fashions illustrated would support these dates. The dropped-waist loose-fitting gowns, the embellishment with beads and feathers, the strings of pearls, the boyish figures and the bobbed hair all point to the fashions of the Roaring Twenties and the flapper image.
37 of the plates have a strong black graphic border with the Elspeth Phelps name to them. The majority of these are dated 1928 and seem to be by the same hand. Two of the illustrations are signed by Blake. There are an additional 5 plates which have the heading Edith Lemon. The font, fashion design, and the style of illustration are very similar to the Phelps plates and two are also signed by Blake. Finally there are two unsigned, untitled plates that appear to be by a different hand, although the fashion style remains consistent with Phelps' designs. The use of the name Edith Lemon is unexplained and no reference to an Edith Lemon can be found. It is possible that either Phelps or the illustrator were experimenting with the name. Another anomaly is the use of Phelps' maiden name at a time when she was supposedly using her married name, Elspeth Fox Pitt. Perhaps the Elspeth Phelps name was so well established and recognisable she continued to use it for her designs.
[Holroyd, Michael, 'Augustus John', Pimlico, Revised edition 1996. p.61, 65, 89]