Dress-down Friday: Bryher


You wouldn’t know it from recent output, but this is the kind of thing I used to do, well, fairly regularly. Around here, Fridays were generally dedicated to the singular style of one of our strange flowers. DDF alumni include pitch-averse diva Ganna Walska, raggedy dandy Bibi-la-Purée, guylinered ghoul Sebastian Droste and bohemian muse Dorelia McNeill (see the whole set here).

This morning I came across the screen grabs here on my hard drive. Then I found out that the woman they depict, English writer Bryher (a.k.a. Annie Ellerman), was born on this day in 1894. I took this as a sign from the universe – which, naturally, has nothing better to do with its incomprehensible infinitude than drop blog ideas into my head – that I should share them with you.

Among the numerous things that struck me when I first watched the 1930 silent film Borderline, the source of these images, is how incredibly contemporary Bryher looks. It’s as though a between-the-wars film were screened in the 2010s and one of the audience members were magicked into the very celluloid, Purple Rose of Cairo-style. But Bryher wasn’t just a performer here, she was a prime mover in getting the film made as part of the POOL Group which additionally included her lover H.D. (Hilda Doolittle, who also appears) and husband Kenneth Macpherson, who directed; if these entanglements are new to you, I invite you to check out the extremely complicated relations between and around the group here. POOL was an expression of the trio’s fascination with the artistic potential of cinema, drawing particular inspiration from the early Soviet filmmakers. Daring in form and theme, Borderline starred singer and activist Paul Robeson and was decades ahead of its time in its depiction of inter-racial relationships (you can see the whole thing here, in a restored print with a new Courtney Pine score).

But not only was Bryher a writer and filmmaker, she was a hugely principled benefactor who put her money where her mouth was, employing her considerable means to support struggling artists and writers, and to help the likes of Walter Benjamin escape the clutches of tyranny. All of this she did quietly, never courting recognition, and the extent of her generosity has only become apparent in recent years.

Ladies and germs, I give you Bryher:



  1. john

    Paul Robeson lived down the hall from me in the late forties.Seems like yesterday. Bodenheim lived downtown!

  2. Linda

    Quite a stunning woman, and yes, very contemporary. So unusual.

  3. This is a wonderful post James. Someone should do a new biography of her. She was amazing prolific. She was instrumental in supporting many African American artists and numerous other activities. And she was one of the few people who remained a close friend of Romaine Brooks and supported her after the war going so far as to ask if she could her her edit the memoir Romaine was writing–on the Hills of Florence.

    • She was a friend indeed to those in need! But while H.D.’s posthumous literary reputation just seems to grow, Bryher’s work is almost invisible, partly I guess because the kind of historical fiction she wrote is far from fashionable. I would love to see a book devoted to her, both for the subject herself and because she unites so many interesting currents in 20th C arts and letters.

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  5. Thank you for this post and great pics! I all but fell in love with this woman when I created a painting about her and H.D.

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