Friends and Relations
Picture of Humphrey Spender.

Humphrey Spender, the artist and younger brother of the poet Stephen Spender who died on Friday aged 94, was best known for his photographs of life in working class Britain from the Depression through to the 1950s, first for the archive Mass-Observation and then for Picture Post.

But he had always painted, and from the mid-1950s he abandoned photography to devote his full attention to what he considered a superior fine art, supplementing his income by working as a tutor in the textile school at the Royal College of Art from 1953 until his retirement in 1975.

Spender enjoyed some success as a painter, but it is for his photographs that he has become increasingly revered, especially those taken for Mass-Observation in Bolton in 1936. The negatives remained stored in tins for 40 years from 1937, until rediscovered following their transfer to Sussex University.

In the intervening time they had become an important historical record of a vanished world. They were the subject of a book, Worktown People, published in 1982, and have since been frequently illustrated and exhibited.

Humphrey Spender was born in Hampstead on April 19 1910, the son of Edward Spender, a noted Liberal and man of letters who founded the Boys' Club movement with Arnold Toynbee. Humphrey was educated at Gresham's School. His mother, Violet Schuster, was German, which meant the family suffered in the Great War, not least the children from bullies at school.

From the age of 16 he was an orphan, he and his three siblings being entrusted to the care of his Schuster grandmother.

Spender learned the rudiments of photography from his older brother Michael, a gifted amateur, but it was a present of a magnificent German camera when he was 10 which proved his inspiration.

His ambition was nonetheless to be a painter, and he studied art history at Freiberg for a year, before being persuaded to compromise and study architecture. It was only when he failed to find any work on graduating from the Architectural Association that he turned to photography as a means to make a living.

It was a relief. As he explained: "Having never been able properly to understand a sectional drawing of a sash window, I was alarmed at the idea that any working drawing of mine might be translated into actual buildings."

Spender set up a studio and soon had a modest success from portraits, fashion and advertising commissions. Vogue and Harper's Bazaar were among his clients. In 1968 he threw out the metal box containing his work of these years, which he later regretted, as many of his fashionable portraits were of people of historical interest.

In 1935 he accepted a job for the Daily Mirror to inject some "art". His fellow pros taught him the first trick of their trade, how to fiddle expenses.

Working for the Mirror, from which he was soon sacked, persuaded Spender that all press photography was propaganda, something he had first learned from seeing the work of Goebbels on visits to Christopher Isherwood in Berlin with his brother Stephen.

It was to counter such claims that Mass-Observation was founded by liberal intellectuals to "study real life". The task was solitary, since it was a principle of Mass-Observation that the truth would be revealed only when people were unaware that they were being photographed. This forced the photographer to adopt the role of a spy, and the experiment duly provoked local outrage.

Spender and his well-meaning fellow recorders were variously described as envelope-steamers, sex maniacs and society playboys. "If I catch anyone mass-observing me, there's going to be trouble," threatened a Labour MP.

With the outbreak of war, Spender served briefly in the Royal Army Service Corps, Tanks, before being appointed an official war photographer; he was much disillusioned by the degree of censorship. His most rewarding work was as an interpreter of photo-reconnaissance pictures, identifying German rocket sites, making maps for D-Day and, on one occasion, preventing the Americans from bombing a PoW camp.

After the war he resumed working for Picture Post, once being arrested for snooping about Warminster on a photo-shoot with Geoffrey Grigson; they were suspected of being the recently exposed Russian spies, Burgess and Maclean.

It did not help that a jammed gear meant that the climax to this farce was that Spender had to drive the constable to the police station in reverse.

He now combined freelance photography with textile design, having won a competition judged by his friend Henry Moore. In turn this led to the tutorial job at the RCA, where his most hard-working student was Zandra Rhodes. Two of his most important public works as a fine artist were the mural for the Television Pavilion at the Festival of Britain and a cartoon for a tapestry in Maldon commemorating the millennium of the Battle of Maldon in 1991.

In 1968 he commissioned the then unknown Richard Rogers to build him a house and studio near Maldon. The main building, a glass cube framed with canary yellow I-beams, is Rogers's first and a rare example in England of a hard-line modernist rural retreat. "The only problem is he forgot about insulation, so it heats the whole of Essex," Spender said.

After his second wife developed Alzheimer's, Spender derived much solace from his relationship with Rachel Hewitt, more than 50 years his junior. She herself was a talented photographer and did much to organise his archive. They married in 2003 following the death of his second wife.

Spender's first wife, Margaret Low, with whom he adopted a son, died in 1945. His second wife, Pauline Wynn, with whom he had a son, died in 2003. He is survived by his sons and by Rachel.



Added by: Jodie Thorpe on 23rd February 2006.





Susan Spender writes [9th February 2013]:

I came across a book of Humphrey Spenders photographs at the local library. I was intirgued by the photos as I am teacher of art and photography and my name is Susan Spender, my fathers name was Charles Spender and I know that the family came across from Germany. So I wondered if I am in anyway related to Humphrey. It is weird that I have the same interest as him and job and felt an affinity with his photographs. If anyone reads this and knows of his relatives, Charles Spender my father and Augustina ... [read more from Susan Spender]



Helen Blair-rae writes [1st June 2012]:

I visited Mr Spenders home in 1995 with Elizabeth and Mervyn Dalley who lived in Essex. I was lucky enough to briefly meet Mr Spender and buy one of his paintings which I have hanging on my wall. I did not realise what an interesting and talented man he was until I found this site.
I live in Western Australia and often come to England as my husband has family there and we have mutual friends living in London.
Helen Blair-Rae



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Picture of Humphrey Spender.