I have been spending some of my time this weekend finishing an academic paper on using portraiture as a research method, looking at what the visual image can help us to say about people we study that the written account cannot. It’s an idea that I am really interested in. One of my favourite phrases about the sort of work I do, is ‘every ethnography ends in a betrayal.’ This means that as you work on a person or group of people you end up being critical and negative. Certainly people I know who have done PhDs on living authors ended up disliking them and this leaks into the finished writing. I really didn’t want to be like this in my work on Anita Roddick. She meant so much to me as an impressionable adolescent that I want to preserve her memory. Plus, she did so much good in the world that the odd temper tantrum, bit of insensitive and thoughtless behaviour and …. well you get the idea, might be excused. But for the sake of completeness you have to confront the fact that she wasn’t perfect. I doubt that she would want to be portrayed as a saint either. So all this is swirling round, and using visual methods helps to resolve it.
I used a method called montage in which pictures are juxtaposed without direct commentary. So, when I did field work at the Body Shop, the medieval historian used to listen to me talking about it (which I wouldn’t do now with a much greater appreciation of research ethics) and commented that it sounded like I was talking about Elizabeth I and her court, which is a lovely neat way of encapsulating the more difficult elements in Anita’s behaviour, by presenting them in the long dead (and thus very unlikely to sue) Elizabeth I and letting the viewer draw their own conclusions about the parallels with Anita. This is helped because there were real similarities between the women. They were both powerful women in masculine worlds. They both presided over the creation of an Empire. They both had people desperate to please them and gain favour from them. They both loved great clothes. Elizabeth was capricious, had favourites, was vain… You get the idea.
One of the surprises of the project, though, was how interesting I found the symbolism and iconography of Elizabeth’s portraits. There is the rainbow because she alone gives light, the sieve because she sorts the wheat from the chaff, the pillar of constancy, the snake of wisdom, ermines, phoenixes, olive branches, globes, stormy seas, eyes and ears, the list goes on and on. She is also compared with numerous Classical goddesses and biblical figures: Diana/Cynthia/Belphoebe chaste moon goddesses whose youth and beauty is constantly renewed like the waxing and waning of the moon, Aurora the glorious goddess of the Dawn, Astraea, the last of the goddesses to live with mortals who will return to earth and usher in a new golden age, as well as Deborah the judge and mighty leader in the old Testament, the second Virgin Mary and the woman clothed with the sun from the New Testament and so on. I thought it might be nice to explore the effects of adding some of this imagery to Anita. I liked the idea of making some portraits of her using the goddesses and possibly the symbols, but time rather got the better of me and I only managed to make one portrait, in paper collage not cloth of Anita as Flora. This is the result. I took my inspiration from a fantastic but weird book called Natural Fashion: Tribal Decoration from Africa, by Hans Silvester, published by Thames and Hudson.
The photos are really stunning:
It’s a glorious book that my friend Liz H put me onto and full of inspiration. Given Anita’s love of going to remote places to look for product ideas, I thought that her Flora would not be a wafting about in a gauzy frock goddess like this famous example:
Her Flora would be far more elemental and wild which is why I liked Silvester’s portraits so much. So I replaced Anita’s famous wild hair with huge leaves, which I cut from paper I had marbled using the dilute paint with cling film dropped onto it technique. These fell over her face as I was arranging them, and I liked that effect. It reminded me just how identified Anita was with the Body Shop: she was it and it was her. The two were one and I think this comes across in the collage (which is about A4 – certainly the size of a sketchbook page). It came alive when I added some red berries:
Unfortunately, there wasn’t space in the academic paper to write about this or to include the portrait, but it is a possibility for the book I hope to write, and which I had a good meeting with a publisher about last week. Anyway, it was a nice way to spend an evening, and really says something about the wildness in Anita which was good to capture.