The Brighton Belle – Bill Brandt

Brighton Belle from the series The English at Home - Bill Brandt 1935

Brighton Belle from the series The English at Home – Bill Brandt 1935

For August bank holiday 1935 Bill Brandt and his sister-in-law Ester (i) were invited to lunch at Castle Hill (ii), the country home of his uncle Augustus, but, according to Paul Delany (1) thinking lunch would be “desperately boring” they headed to Brighton. Brandt had been living in England for little more than a year but was already engaged in documenting the “visually very exciting” (2) social contrasts of his adopted country. Brandt photographed Ester on the beach in front of the holiday crowds, a picture that would be published in his 1936 book The English at Home as Brighton Belle.

This is not one of his more commonly discussed photographs but it includes many of the characteristic ambiguities that inhabit Brandt’s work. In The English at Home Brandt set out to contrast the privileged class of which he was a part (iii) and the underprivileged lower classes. Brandt’s motives was apolitical, he was not a concerned or campaigning photographer in the mould of the FSA photographers (iv). Raymond Mortimer (v) describes Brandt as an anthropologist (3) and, more precisely, Delany (1) calls him an ethnographer; he saw England as tribal with its peoples inhabiting social groups with contrasting circumstances, conventions and rituals.

Brighton Belle references holiday snap-shots and the risqué posters used to advertise Brighton as a fun loving town in the thirties (vi). These references appear to contradict Brandt’s methodology; Frank Hodgson (4) contends “he never made a photograph unless he had something to say” and Delany defines him as a Pictorialist (vii) who saw photography to be the “art of composition”. The snap-shot aesthetic has been artfully  introduced to create what Brandt refers to as atmosphere. Directorial at two levels; using an “actor” and props to create a representative picture and with attention directed to the elements that convey his pre-conceived atmosphere through compositional blocks; the flag, the hat and the way Ester’s body dominates the crowded beach in a pose that, whilst not overtly sensual, emphasises her athletic physique through the low angle, tight crop and beach suit (viii).

The English at Home masquerades as documentary but, like many images in the series, Brighton Belle is fabricated reality, as staged as a Cindy Sherman film still, but this is Brandt’s secret (ix); he directs our gaze to a lower class English girl in a hurry for a good time, advertising her intent, maybe even her availability on a holiday weekend. Brandt often juxtaposed text with his human figures so “I’m no Angel” plays an important role but the title Brighton Belle (xi) also connotes fast, modern and exciting in contrast with the staid formality of the upper classes. However, these connotations could hardly be further from the truth; The hat and the flag have been purchased as props; Ester is a married women, a Danish aristocrat from a privileged background escaping the boredom of a society lunch.

Even when the photographs are not presented in pairs Brandt intends us to recognise the visual contrasts that crisscross the series. Brighton Belle with its liberated and modern woman on a beach crowded with day-trippers can be juxtaposed with Cocktails in a Surrey Garden (x) which communicates the starched formality of Surrey socialites sipping cocktails against the backdrop of the empty rural landscape that surrounds and isolates them. Ironically this image, also taken in 1935, is set at Castle Hill (ii) where Brandt and Ester had been due for lunch.

Notes on Text

(i) Ester Brandt (née Bonnesen) was married to Bill’s brother Rolf. Ester was Danish and an accomplished gymnast who had represented her country.

(ii) Uncle Augustus was Bill Brandt’s paternal uncle. Augustus Philip Brandt, who along with other members of the Brandt family, owned William Brandt’s Sons and Co, a merchant bank. Castle Hill, now known as Castle Place, is in Bletchingley near Reigate, Surrey and was his country estate. 

(iii) Brandt’s family were wealthy without being aristocratic. They were merchants, bankers and shipowners with major business interests in Hamburg, London and St Petersburg. Brandt had no interest in any of their business enterprises and prior to living in London had lived a comparatively “Bohemian” lifestyle in Paris and Barcelona. On moving to London he was taken under the wing of his two uncles who were the owners and directors of the family bank. His first wife Eva was, according to Delany (1) “vaguely aristocratic” and had access to some money from her father’s estate and Brandt received an allowance from his father. 

(iv) The FSA or Farm Security Administration was a US government agency concerned with bringing financial aid to rural workers deprived of their livelihoods by the “dust bowl” or the increasing mechanisation of agriculture. Part of their approach was to undertake a photographic survey of American rural life, a project headed up by Roy E. Stryker which employed some of the most famous American documentary photographers of the 20th century including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Bernice Abbott.

(v) According to Sarah Hermanson Meister (3), Mortimer was “the literary editor for the left-leaning British political and cultural magazine The New Statesmen.

2015-12-14_20-13-09(vi) Brighton in the 1930’s was a lively town, often called London by the Sea, it was somewhere where Londoners could let their hair down. The poster to the right can be dated as pre 1934 as it still refers to the rail service as the Southern Belle (see xi). This risqué image of a bather might even  provide a reference to Brandt’s photograph.

(vii) Delany suggests that Brandt may have been influenced by an exhibition of early British Pictorialism  held in Vienna in the winter of 1928 /29 when Brandt was working in Grete Kelliner’s studio. This exhibition included work by David Octavious Hill and Robert Adamson, Julia Margaret Cameron and Henry Peach Robinson. The Pictorialist movement flourished between 1885 and 1915 in response to the invention of point and shoot cameras that many photographers believed were undermining the craftsmanship and artistry of photography. Practitioners like Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston and Paul Strand reacted by adopting an approach that emphasised their “professionalism” and self-percieved status as artists. Referencing the effort involved in created other visual art they promoted labour intensive approaches such as gum bichromate printing that required hand-coating art paper with homemade emulsions and pigments.

(viii) There may be complex sexual undertones to this photograph given Brandt’s history of sexual repression and the ambiguous relationship with his wife Eva, they lived apart but were in an intimate relationship. There is no suggestion of a sexual relationship between Brandt and his sister in law and even though this photograph predates Brandt’s obsession with the female form there is a sense that this is an intimate study that exaggerates Ester’s sexuality.

(ix) It may appear harsh to accuse Brandt of keeping the staged nature of many of his ‘documentary’ photographs a secret. He was a secretive man by nature but it is unlikely that he consciously hid the nature of Brighton Belle, Couple in Peckham, Sunday Evening, In a Soho Bedroom or the many other examples of his staging. I suggest that, as a photographer, he was amoral rather than immoral; he believed that the photographer needed to do whatever it took to create the image they had in their mind, regardless of whether this meant staging the scene with his friends and family or significant manipulation of the image in the dark room or on the retouching table. As a consequence he is unlikely to have thought that it was even relevant to declare that Brighton Belle was fabricated reality.

(x) The full title of which is: In a Surrey Garden, Cocktails before Dinner 

2015-12-14_20-07-11(xi) The railway line between London and Brighton had featured a Pullman service since the 1880’s; the Pullman was a step up from First Class and offered an “upper class drawing room atmosphere” to its privileged passengers. From the early 1900’s the service was called The Southern Belle and billed itself as ‘the most luxurious train in the world’. In 1915 the owner Lord Dalziel created a sensation by introducing a third class Pullman car for customers who wanted to spoil themselves but would feel out of place in first class. After the line was electrified  Dalziel purchased new Pullman coaches and rebranded the service as the Brighton Belle; commencing service in June 1934, just thirteen months before Brandt’s photograph of the same name. The decor was described as ‘Art Deco  and Jazz-Modern’ and was promoted as a party train for suggestively decadent but luxurious day trips to Brighton. (5)



(1) Delany, Paul (2004) Bill Brandt. London: Jonathan Cape

(3) Meister Hermann, Sarah (2013) Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light. London: Thames and Hudson


(2) Warburton, Nigel (2006) Bill Brandt’s Pictorialism (accessed at the author’s website 12.12.15) –

(4) Hodgson, Frank (2000) The Social Legacy of Bill Brandt (accessed at ASX 13.12.15) –

(5) Pring, Martyn (2015) The Brighton Belle (accessed at Shamrock Trains 14.12.15) –

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