Ivy Close won Britain’s first national beauty contest, was a trailblazing actress and the matriarch of one of Britain’s most illustrious showbusiness dynasties. She faded into obscurity – but her great-grandson, who created Downton Abbey, has put her back in the spotlight.
When 17-year-old Ivy Close charmed the country in the first nationwide beauty competition, the press swooned over her “exquisite loveliness”.
Part of her prize – along with a new Rover motorcar – was to have her portrait exhibited at the Royal Academy in London.
That picture, showing Close with rosy cheeks and wispy curls, also took up the entire front page of the Daily Mirror – which had run the contest – on 4 May 1908.
“She’s effectively the first British beauty queen,” says her great-grandson Gareth Neame, a Bafta-winning TV producer who came up with the concept for Downton and made The Hollow Crown and Hotel Babylon.
“And there was then a competition between the winner in Britain and the winner in the US, and she ended up winning that one. So I often say she was effectively the first ever Miss World.”
The portrait, by Sir Arthur Hacker, has now been restored thanks to a donation from Mr Neame and is hanging in the refurbished Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, which reopened on Friday to coincide with Hull becoming UK City of Culture.
It is a return to the limelight for one of Britain’s first modern celebrities, whose career took the firework trajectory that has been followed by many celebrities over the decades since.
Born in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, Close beat 15,000 other hopefuls to the beauty contest title, which was awarded by nine famous artists on the Daily Mirror’s Beauty Adjudication Committee (yes, really).
She became an instant star and there was “an overwhelming rush for copies” of a special commemorative edition of the paper that featured Close in “a variety of charming poses”.
Just as she charmed the Beauty Adjudication Committee, Close also caught the eye of society photographer Elwin Neame, who had photographed the finalists.
Two years later, her picture filled the Daily Mirror front page again – this time in her wedding dress.
Inside, the paper reported how a large crowd had gathered outside the church where she had married Elwin Neame, and how she had been accompanied by a “best girl”, as opposed to a best man.
In her film debut two years later, directed by her husband and filmed in their house, she played a model posing as figures from famous paintings.
She went on to star in a long list of films that decade and set up her own production company, which was not uncommon for a successful actress in the silent era.
“It’s a well-trodden path, to have gone from being a model to an actress, and she went to America to be in the movies before Hollywood was even invented,” Gareth Neame explains.
“She went to America in about 1917 and went to Jacksonville in Florida, which was one of the centres of film-making back then, and she was in a company of actors along with Oliver Hardy.”
After that, Close’s films included the 1923 French epic La Roue, of which Jean Cocteau said: “There is cinema before and after La Roue, as there is painting before and after Picasso.”
Gareth Neame says: “I’ve got it on DVD so I’m able to watch my great-grandmother as a young woman as the lead in a silent movie. She was a reputable actress with some career.”
But her life took a tragic turn the same year when Elwin Neame was killed in a motorcycle accident. “It must have been quite a tough life, having lost her husband so young,” Gareth Neame says.
“My grandfather [Ronald] was at boarding school, but just one year in, at the age of 14, he had to be pulled out because there wasn’t the money to pay the fees any more.”
Meanwhile, with the arrival of talking movies, Close’s acting roles were drying up. “Like the film The Artist, about the end of the silent film era, I think she was one of the people that fell foul of that.
“I’m not sure her accent quite fitted in with American audiences, and when talking pictures came in, that was really the end of her career.”
She did pantomime and minor films, but had fallen off the radar by the end of the 1920s. If there was a Celebrity Big Brother in 1931, she would surely have done it.
Gareth Neame was a toddler when Close died in 1968. “I never knew the lady, but she was quite a big figure in the family by all accounts.
“Like a lot of people in showbusiness, as she got older she was probably slightly curmudgeonly and thought ‘it’s not the way that it used to be’.
“It must have been very interesting to have been this very beautiful young starlet and very famous, and then talking pictures come along and your career starts to fade.”
Ivy Close in Downton Abbey
Her career may have faded, but the family dynasty she and Elwin Neame launched is still going strong.
Ronald Neame went into the family business, and went on to direct The Poseidon Adventure and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (with an Oscar-winning turn by future Downton Abbey star Dame Maggie Smith) and co-write Brief Encounter.
Ronald’s son Christopher Neame was a Bafta-nominated writer and producer, meaning Gareth is the fourth generation to have success in the TV and film industries.
His father and grandfather knew about the portrait of Ivy Close, but did not know where it had ended up after being shown at the Royal Academy.
An online art database, ArtUK, meant Gareth Neame could track it down easily. He got in touch with the Ferens curator, who told him it had not been exhibited for several years because it needed restoration – and pointed him in the direction of their Adopt A Painting scheme.
“It’s very nice to be able to make a charitable gift for something that brings back a piece of art into public view, and because of my family association with it,” he says.
But restoring the painting is not the only way he has kept her memory alive. “I put a little reference to her when we made Downton Abbey,” he reveals.
“We had a scene where a couple of the servants went to the pictures and they were coming back from having seen a film that Ivy Close was in. It was a little in-joke for me.”