Life & Culture

Elsbeth Juda: Portrait of a role model

The photojournalist legendary creativity belies her suffocating early life


When Elsbeth Juda and I arrived in Skibbereen, Ireland, in 2004, for the 60th birthday party of a mutual friend, it was after a gruelling delayed flight, a reroute through Dublin, a wait for a second plane to Cork, and a car journey. Asked whether she would prefer to rest, she replied no, she would like to take a walk around the loch — which, at 7pm at night, to my horror, we did. At the time, Elsbeth was 93 years old.

Now in her 98th year, she is busy curating her first exhibition of photojournalism from the period 1946 to 1965, when she was working for The Ambassador, a trade magazine promoting the best of British textiles and fancy goods abroad. The works are being shown at L’Equipement des Arts, a gallery in London’s West End.

When we meet there, she is dressed as usual in the finest of linens, her short white hair framing the kind of soft, clear skin that would grace a woman half her age. Her dazzling photos are stacked against the walls and she takes me on a tour of an epoch, remembering not only every famous name, from Norman Parkinson to Graham Sutherland, but also their wives, the models and even the factory managers she captured in Bradford textile mills.

The pictures, meant to convey the superior nature of British products to a global market, are never victims of product placement, managing instead to convey wit as well as worth and a myriad of detail. But she is dismissive of the importance of her work — “It’s just a job lot” — and is quietly worrying that the frames are perhaps too prominent for the delicacy of the photos.

Her extraordinary memory was well trained. The eldest of two daughters, with two brothers at home, she was picked out by her stern father as the brains of the family as early as the age of four. Julius Goldstein was a German Jew — in that order — a cavalry officer, then professor of philosophy in Darmstadt. He insisted that his daughter present him with a poem, piece of prose or artwork, outside of her school work, every day at 4.30pm in his office, and insisted that at school, she took Spanish instead of art because “the child has no visual sense”. Every summer she was sent, alone to stay with one of his grand former pupils, to learn perfect English.

“I remember travelling for 16 hours,” she tells me, “to some large English country house. I arrived at 4.30pm to be told by a butler: ‘Go to your room. A bell will ring at six to change into evening clothes and a second bell will summon you to dinner at seven.’ I was so hungry. I wasn’t even offered a cup of tea. I had only one dress, all crumpled up in my trunk. I came downstairs when the bell rang and sat shivering at the table where they served something with rice. I took one spoonful and spat it out over my one dress. It was curry. I was sent back to my room without so much as an apple.”

She remembers that when she came home, her brothers and sister jumped up and down with glee. Then she was summoned to her father’s office to be told: “I want you to know that I’m just as happy to see you as your brothers and sister.” She ran from his study, fearing that he would see her cry. It was the kindest thing he had ever said to her.

Aged seven, Elsbeth threw a snowball at 14-year-old Hans Juda who responded by putting her over his knee in mock anger. “If I ever marry anyone, it will be him,” was her immediate reaction, and 14 years later she replied by telegram to his proposal: “Confirm. Oui.”

Elsbeth was working as a secretary in Paris and her worldly, handsome beau was studying economics, law and music in Berlin. The week before the wedding there were seven dress shirts in his laundry. “Well, darling,” he told her, pre-empting the life she could look forward to, “I had to take out all my girlfriends for dinner, hadn’t I?”

They lived in a enclave of ultra-modern flats, surrounded by artists and musicians in the Berlin of Isherwood and Auden with its cool, liberal freedoms. Religion played no part in their lives. “When you’re called Juda,’’ Hans said, “you never have to explain anything.’’

In the 1930s, while Hans was out working at the Berliner newspaper, the SS stormed the building and began burning books. “Books burn slowly,” muses Elsbeth, “they were still burning when he came home.” Hans was on a list of intellectuals due to be interrogated and was tipped off by an undersecretary in the Interior Minister to “Leave now! Tonight.” They left for Britain with two cases — one of clothes, one of books — plus Hans’s precious violin.

From 1934 to 1963, they founded and worked on The Ambassador. Elsbeth learned her trade from Lucia Moholy, the ex-wife of Laszlo Moholy of the Bauhaus design movement, and developed all her photographs in the bath at their small apartment. When her boss, Captain Richard Everett, failed to turn up for a shoot for an important client, the furrier Revillon, she improvised well enough to poach his job for the next 30 years.

Working under the name “Jay”, her inventiveness was legendary. She would set off with model Barbara Goalen, arrive at a textile mill and drape her subject in enough rolls of fabric to create a stunning display of model, product and grimy environment.

She would charm the waspish fashion photographer Norman Parkinson into placid camaradie and jolly Sir Winston Churchill out of his sulks over Graham Sutherland’s hated portrait of him.

She started British Fortnights, promoting British goods, at rival US department stores Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. And everywhere she made and kept new friends. It is her gift.

The 10 years after Hans died of a brain tumour in 1975 were a wilderness, from which she emerged only with the lifeline of art and her passion for music. Her beautifully intricate collages were exhibited all over Europe and hang now in her airy eyrie of a flat in Fulham, marked by small red dots to indicate who receives them when she dies.

She does Pilates twice a week, was the oldest recipient of a hip replacement at 96, and still travels by bus daily to visit the Royal Academy or the National Gallery — depending on which bus comes first. Once there, she studies one item only for the whole morning.

She is my role model on how to grow old youthfully. To know her is to love her, and to know her better, go and see her exhibition.

BORN: Elsbeth Goldstein on May 2 1911, in Darmstadt, Germany.

FAMILY: One of four children. Her father was a professor of philosophy. Married Hans Juda in 1931. The couple had no children.

CAREER: Elsbeth and Hans moved to London in 1933 as refugees from the Nazis. She studied under photographer Lucia Moholy, before becoming an established fashion and advertising photographer, working under the name of “Jay”. In 1940 Hans became founding publisher and editor of The Ambassador, the British export magazine. Elsbeth joined her husband working for The Ambassador and in 1963 became associate editor. Her assignments included photographing Sir Winston Churchill.

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