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Art Watch : Sir Normal Hartnell

Art Watch : Sir Normal Hartnell

Sir Normal Hartnell is our Art Watch Artist for today. This section is brought to you by Art From Us and Divvya Nirula. The Artists we spotlight here can be from any field, across any discipline, and using a variety of media. We share here why we think they are important and worth – watching. Be it genius creators of eras gone by or the upcoming contemporary artist who is yet to have their first show. All come under the purview of Art Watch. 


About Sir Norman Hartnell

Sir Norman Hartnell was born in Streatham, southwest London. His parents owned the Crown & Sceptre, at the top of Streatham Hill. He studied at Mill Hill School, and later as an undergrad at Magdalene College, Cambridge to read Modern Languages.

Hartnell’s designs, style and materials met the approval and received the nod from the Royal family. He went on to worked for them exclusively, designing clothes that were commissioned by Royalty. He nurtured and honed his professional relationship and remained dedicated till the end of his career. It was a critical time in world history, just before the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. The Hartnell designs that the Queen wore for her international diplomatic visits, were received with enormous acclaim. The dignity and charm her Hartnell wardrobe made a soft and lasting impact, it was powerplay of sorts. Hitler termed Queen Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” on viewing film footage of the successful Tour. Norman Hartnell received a Royal Warrant in 1940 as Dressmaker to the Queen

Hartnell had designed the wedding and bridesmaid dresses for Princess Marina and later she endorsed him to design clothes for the government’s Utility campaign, mass-produced by Berketex. This was the beginning of a successful business relationship, running into the 50s. Owing to this partnership, he became the first leading mid-20th century designers to design mass-produced ready-to-wear clothing. Though she patronised Edward Molyneux, she remained a Hartwell client.

Artistic Journey and Influences

During the war, Hartnell was called in to design women’s uniforms for the British army and medical corps. Norman saw the tremendous potential that emerged. Altering his go-to style, that had made him famous, he went onto design service uniforms for ladies in uniform, nurses and female officers for the London Police and the Metropolitan Police. 

One of his most prestigious assignments included the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth in 1947, for her marriage to Prince Philip (later the Duke of Edinburgh). Commissioned personally by the Queen, he was commanded to create a fashionable sweetheart neckline and a softly folding full skirt. The details of the dress were stunning and included the embroidery of 10,000 seed-pearls! What was more, the ‘going-away’ outfit and her trousseau too, came under his purview. Pleased with his work, Hartwell, became her main designer and remained so for many years hence, augmented by Hardy Amies in the early 1950s.  Underrated due to the scope of work he undertook, Hartwell, in fact, appealed to an entire generation of clients.

Hartwell reached the peak of his fame during the mid1950s. To sustain his illustrious clientele, and flourishing business, he employed almost 500 people and several others supporting ancillary businesses. However, difficult times were on their way, owing to changing tastes in women’s clothing and a rise in costs. He struggled with overheads in the last phase of his career. 

Hartwell had a flair for publicity. He understood the press as much as a dress. And this gave him a huge advantage. His name appeared habitually in the press during the 1950s and 1960s. He stuck to designing two collections a year, professionally. And his silver screen and stage links were maintained diligently. As a newspaper stunt, he had created a full evening dress of pound notes. 

Late Career & Legacy

Hartwell continued with touring fashion shows, internationally, with an eye on latest trends in the latest fabrics and man-made materials, as long as his health permitted. 

Hartnell received his knighthood – dynastic the Royal Victorian Order, in 1977, on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The Queen had deputed The Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth, to invest him with the honour. 

He died two years later, on 15 June 1979, buried next to his mother and sister in the graveyard of Clayton church, West Sussex. Hartnell was never married.

The Gulf War and subsequent recession of the early 1990s brought an end to the venture that others had tried to run, finally the house closed its doors in 1992.

For more Artists handpicked by Divvya Nirula – do not miss the ART WATCH

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