As the Mersey lights up in celebration this weekend, Cunard will be the name on everyone’s lips and the stately British shipping magnate, Samuel Cunard, the face on everyone’s mind. Yet nearly a century after its founding, as Cunard liners spanned the Atlantic, Samuel’s great-great granddaughter was steaming through the continent, waging war against the prejudice and injustice of her generation.
Shunning British high society for a life of “debauched” Parisian Bohemia, Nancy Cunard was no stranger to scandal. The avant-garde circles she moved in were outrageously radical, her relationship with jazz musician Henry Crowder flagrantly interracial and her brazen sexuality utterly contemptible. Yet the Cunard heiress wasn’t one to linger on the “indecency” of things, prising open instead the spaces between how things are said to be and how things should really be.
Nancy Cunard by Barbra Ker-Seymer
Her belief in “the sacred mission of art,” as well as commitment to liberating society from bourgeois conventions, is perhaps what drew her in to Surrealist circles. Amongst the avant-garde she found her place, pouring out scintillating poetry of her own while at the same time proving to be the camera’s Muse. A prototype of the Jazz Age beauty, her svelte figure, kohl-rimmed eyes and arms dripping with jangling African bangles were irresistible to the photographer’s eye.
Her face is found in one of Man Ray’s most famous portrait photographs. With her arms draped around her neck, the bangles that earned her a signature ‘barbaric look’ style are as much the main focus as she. Renowned fashion photographer Cecil Beaton too sought to immortalise the allure of this racy flapper icon, staging her fierce gaze against elaborate backdrops. Yet it is British photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer who captured the intensity of the heiress’ persona, lips pursed and eyes piercing, adding a commanding legacy to the “femme fatale” figure so often depicted.
Nancy Cunard by Cecil Beaton
Directing this towards the world’s injustice, she strove to overturn prevalent notions of racial hierarchy, to reveal them as nothing more than an arbitrary, Eurocentric sense of reality. Bringing together a collection of writings by the likes of Langston Hughes, Samuel Beckett, W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston, Nancy Cunard published Negro: An Anthology, an endeavour to reveal the atrocious realities of racial discrimination.
Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder by Man Ray
Her unyielding passion for the arts is evident in the way she incorporated her own collections into her persona. Photographed by Jacques-Andre Boiffard, her ivory bangles are laid out like a prized display inside the private realm of her home. Indeed, in Man Ray’s photograph of the controversial Cunard-Crowder couple, her bangles are the only reference necessary to locate her unmistakably within the shot. It is this passion which led her on a determined campaign to safeguard the Liverpool Museum collections, winning support to help rebuild and restore the museum that had been left in ruins after WWII bombing.
This afternoon, the Maritime Museum is hosting a free talk with Dr Sandeep Parmar, as she traces the Liverpool links of the iconic Nancy Cunard.
Nancy Cunard’s bangles by Jacques-Andre Boiffard
Written by Emma Seery
Nancy Cunard was originally published on Open Eye Gallery