Born in 1929 in New York and raised in Philadelphia, Lora Verner is an artist and photographer who has been living in London since 1964. During her travels to Hong Kong and Japan in the early 1980’s, she produced a series of photographs that were exhibited in 1983 and in 1984, which received favourable reviews in The Guardian newspaper. She has recently sold her vintage Biba photographs to the V& A Museum’s permanent collection, and her work is featured in their retrospective book on Biba fashion. The progress of her work has been influenced by her presence at pivotal points and places in world history and in her personal one.
We conducted the interview in the garden of Lora’s flat in West Hampstead, where she showed me some of the new flowers her partner John had recently planted. We discussed which countries produced these plants, then we sat down and she told me about her own origins.
‘Both of my parents were from Russia, were Jewish, and came to the States at the turn of the century as a result of pogroms. I was first-generation American. I was born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression. My father worked very hard; he developed tuberculosis and at that time it was not curable. There was no money for a doctor. My mother had had to find some way of earning a living because he could not work. At the suggestion of a friend she took a course in hairdressing and made a small hairdressing shop in the house we rented. She never told me my father had tuberculosis; she could not trust me, as a child, not to say anything. My father could never show any physical affection toward me because of his illness, but I didn’t know; my mother never told me until years after his death. The reason she kept it a secret was because she felt that if it were known, she wouldn’t have any customers; they’d be afraid to come in.’
‘My father died when I was eleven, at home, in the night, and that scene is engraved in my mind. My mother woke me up and took me to his room. My father had his own room and his own cutlery, because his illness was highly contagious. It seemed odd to me to be awake, when it was dark outside. On his deathbed, his eyes were just for my mother. He didn’t want to die because he didn’t want to leave her. No mention of me. As a result, I thought my father didn’t love me.’
After her father’s death, Lora continued her education and at 17, started studying at the University of Philadelphia. She frequently visited the Philadelphia Art Museum, and she grew interested in art. Lora was also experiencing depression, and she sought help through psychoanalysis, a form of treatment which was gaining popularity . She had become engaged to her first husband, ( ‘It was instant love at first sight,’ she said with a smile) an American working for the U.S. Marine Corps, whose job, she continued ‘.. was not as a result of his extreme patriotism. He had been offered a cushy job in Washington as a journalist.’ Before marrying him, she took her fiance to meet her psychoanalyst for approval, as it was, she says, ‘A part of the agreement in psychoanalysis.’
The couple lived in what was considered the intellectual area of Philadelphia, and Lora began taking lessons from an artist in Abstract Expressionism, which was then at its peak in America as the hippest art form, but after a while she wanted to try a way of portraying images more realistically. Her interest then turned to photography.
Lora and her family, which now included three young daughters, moved to London in 1964. Although she was working as a full time teacher and looking after her children, Lora remained active in art and photography, and had been especially influenced by an exhibition of the work of Bill Brandt which displayed images with a strong black and white contrast. Preferring black and white pictures, she took lessons in photography through the Inner London Education Authority, attending classes held by the editor of Creative Camera Magazine, then considered the best photography magazine of its time. She further developed her skills at The Royal College of Printing, created her own dark room in a small space at home, and became part of a photography group whose members remain in touch to this day.
While teaching at Holland Park School, she heard about the new Biba shop, which was located near the school and where her teenage pupils went frequently. Taking her Roloflex camera with her one day, she entered the dark shop.
As she disliked using flash, she had to return another time with higher speed film. Fascinated by mannequins, which reminded her of Surrealism, she took several photographs of the Biba display, saved them, and then forgot about them. For fifty years.
Later, during the 1980’s, divorced and in her fifties, Lora bought an around- the- world ticket, and travelled to Japan, whose culture and food had been of recent interest to her. A fellow traveller told Lora that China ‘had just opened its doors’ to tourists. Lora seized the opportunity, travelling to Hong Kong and using colour photography for the first time. Her photographs of Japan were exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre, and she submitted her photos of China to a photographer’s gallery competition–and won. The prize- an exhibition of her pictures- drew favourable reviews from The Guardian newspaper.
In later years she travelled frequently to India with her second partner John, creating a collection she entitled Faces of India. She continued attending art classes, but stopped when one of her daughters tragically died of an asthma attack. A long period of depression followed, and Lora did not attempt painting again until 2011, at the suggestion of a friend who attended a local community centre art class.
Lora started creating portraits with a set of acrylic paints her late daughter had given her some years before. She felt the depression lift. In a period of 3 years, she created over thirty portraits from her imagination, some of them painted in colours reminiscent of her Abstract Expressionist days. After looking for a gallery to exhibit them, a 21st Century- style venue was proposed: a kiosk in a subway. Although initially doubtful about the venue’s appeal, Lora accepted.
In a glass kiosk below the Edgware Road/Harrow Road crossing called Joe Strummer Subway, Lora’s Not Your Usual Portraits exhibition were on show in September, 2014.
And the Biba pictures? ‘I had been thinking one day that I should do something with them. I called Christie’s to have them appraised. Then I called the V and A Museum and they said they were very interested.’ Her initiative was perfectly timed: the V and A was working on a retrospective of Biba for the fashion label’s 50th anniversary, and they bought some of her pictures. Three of Lora’s photographs are now in the V and A, and her work is featured in the museum’s book. Ever inspiring at 87, Lora is preparing a gallery exhibition of her work to be shown in 2017.
As I was leaving, I could not help but mention to Lora that I felt that throughout her life, she had been present at times and places when something new or different was happening. She smiled brightly and said, ‘Oh yes, it’s been a wonderful life! I’ve had my share of highs and lows, but overall, it’s been wonderful.’
Photos are (c) Lora Verner Designs – All Rights Reserved
Guest Author Bio
Ivonne Menendez Soret
Ivonne Menendez Soret is a freelance writer living and working in London. She studied at Cambridge University and Florida International University where she earned a BA with Honours in English and qualified as a teacher. She has lived and worked in education in the US, France and the UK, and is a trustee of the Asperger’s Syndrome Foundation.