True Stuff: ‘Beauty and the Beard,’ 1939

Here’s an article I came across in the London Times, 1939, regarding the inherent beauty of the beard as a subject for photography.

Coincidentally (or not?), 1939 is the same year of LIFE Magazine’s epic double-page photo-spread exalting every type of beard! What a year to be alive!

Full transcript of the article below.

Beauty and the Beard

That there are fashions in faces a visit to any portrait gallery will prove; but nobody has ever discovered whether it is the artists or the sitters who decide what the fashion is to be. Does a certain era breed a certain cast of countenance, which the portrait painter of the day faithfully sets down on canvas? Or does the portrait painter himself, fortuitously infatuated with one particular kind of face, pour all his sitters into the same mould? It is one of those questions which will never be decisively settled, but which can always be counted upon to provide a pleasant half-hour’s discussion.

And now the centenary of the invention of photography has provided material for an even more interesting debate. By what lucky chance, or by what prankish benevolence of the gods, did the early photographers happen to find themselves living in the heyday of the beard? The importance of this coincidence can hardly be exaggerated. It is not too much to claim that, without beards, photography would not have caught on the way it did. Every amateur photographer knows that there are five subjects of which it is almost impossible to take an unsuccessful picture. They are, in the other sense of the word, sitters. The first is a kitten; the second is a tree; the third is a cumulus cloud; the fourth is a snow scene; the fifth is a bearded man. Nor is the appeal of the last dependent upon its presend-day scarcity value; there has always been something inherently photographable about a beard. A really good one, indeed, combines all the advantages of the other four subjects. It has the engaging softness of a kitten, the mysterious complexity of a tree, the noble curves of a cloud, the dazzling whiteness of snow (for of course all the best beards are white ones); and in addition to these it has a majestic quality that is all its own.

Moreover it conceals the mouth; and every photographer, whether amateur or professional, knows that mouths are the devil. People know very little, but imagine a great deal, about the shape of their own mouths; and many a sitter expresses dissatisfaction at the whole portrait simply because he has been shown for the first time how mean and querulous are the lips which he fondly believed to be benevolent and firm. Small wonder, then, that the early photographers should have managed to produce such strikingly good portraits, or that the distinguished Victorians who sat for them should have welcomed the new art with open arms. In no other medium could their beards have been so magnificently immortalized.

5 thoughts on “True Stuff: ‘Beauty and the Beard,’ 1939”

  1. Pure magic … “By what lucky chance, or by what prankish benevolence of the gods, did the early photographers happen to find themselves living in the heyday of the beard?” I’m trying to decide whether the writer is a drooling fan for the beard or pulling the pee .. little signposts make me think the whole thing is mocking contemporary photography, bygone Victorians, and modern man all at the same time.

  2. “Living in the heyday of the beard,” huh? The invention and growth of photography coincided with the persecution of Joseph Palmer, of Leominster, Massachsuetts, for wearing a beard. His house was vandalized, people snubbed him on the street, and locals thugs attacked him for wearing a beard, something that had been out of fashion since the era of the Pilgrims. Mr. Palmer died about 1873, after the beard made its return – with his help.

  3. You know, I came here to make a smartass comment about 1939 being quite the year to be alive, with the groundwork being laid for the atrocities of WWII, but I’ve come around. Looking over the Wikipedia page, I will say that it was indeed quite the year to be alive. I don’t think I’d want to experience it myself, but the stories one would have!

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