n 1890 Thomas Edison unveiled a new invention he had called the “Vita phone”. Although we would not have recognized it at the time, this was to be the birth of the modern movie industry. By the 1920s men like artistic, genius George Mileus and pioneers like W. D. Griffiths had transformed this medium from arcade novelty to art form. Not until the invention of the internet would the world experience anything so revolutionary. These early films would come to define a entire period in time; its aspirations, art, architecture and fashion, all encompassed by an era of icons which would come to be known collectively as, “Silver Screen”
We often talk today of “Icons”, but never was this term so apt than when used to describe these early stars. This was to become the age of the first “Global Celebrities” and no one personified this status more than the occupants of this new design. In Greta Garbo, we see the first enigma, in Clara Bow, the first Sex symbol, and Rudolph Valentino, the very first screen idle . When Rudolph died prematurely in 1926, at the age of 31, his worldwide fans were inconsolable. Over 100,000 mourners came to view his coffin, and there were reports his untimely death had prompted several suicides. In an attempt to control the overwhelming, crowds, two funerals were organised, one in New York, the other in California. It’s hard to imagine any modern “celebrities” having such an effect.
Of course to truly understand the impact of these early films, you must view them in the context of their age. This was a post-war world in the grips of a depression. Only 41 years had elapsed since Alexandra Bell had first called his assistant on the telephone, and 35 since Marconi had invented the radio. And, unbelievably only 12 years since Henry Ford produced the first production car. The films got their name from the silver paint theatre owners used to aid reflection, but this paint also served to give the films a luminescent and ethereal quality. Little wonder then, that when an army of kohl- eyed beauties swirled across these luminous, screens in a blizzard of bleary sequins, that the audiences were so utterly captivated.
It had never been my intention to create a design using these photographs. I’d been working with the fabulous Tudor portraits and had gone back up to the gallery to do some more research. Just by chance I’d popped into the Gallery cafe to have a cup of tea and had sat down under a framed, black and white portrait of the silent movie star, Lillian Gish. I was drawn by the portraits’ ethereal quality and the softness of the photographers’ lens. Anyway I carried on with my trip around the gallery, but I just couldn’t get this image out of my head. By the time I had left that morning, the new design was already forming, so when I discovered the gallery had been bequeathed a large collection of these images, it didn’t take much persuasion to work with them. I’m extremely proud to have collaborated with the National Portrait Gallery on this design. The images are taken form a collection of photographs acquired by the Gallery in 2010 when Patrick O’Conner bequeathed his collection of 780 music hall, theatre and film stars.