Meet Anthony Denney

Dominic Neergheen , New Museum School Trainee Dominic Neergheen New Museum School Trainee
Anthony Denney. Image: Gordon Bishop

Anthony Denney (1913-90) was an influential photographer, interior designer and eminent art collector. Charming, personable and an uncompromising tastemaker of post-war Britain.

Early Life

Born on 7 October 1913, in Norfolk, Denney attended the Ipswich School of Art before going on to study painting at the Royal College of Art.

His early career highlights included, being chosen to represent the Painting School in one of the earliest television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace, in 1937. Also, Denney is regarded as teaching one of the first classes in photography, authorised by the Board of Education.

This promising beginning was halted with the onset of World War Two, where his talents in photography were recognisably wasted. Thus, Denney was sent to Porton Down to document experiments in mustard gas, before serving predominantly as a British Intelligence Officer in Delhi. 

Photographer

Denney was brought to the attention of Audrey Withers (editor of British Vogue 1940-60), when his first wife, children’s author Diana Ross, with whom he had three children, sent Withers Uncle Anty’s Album (published 1941), which featured dreamlike photographs of dolls and small household objects in sophisticated photo collages.

In 1946 Denney received his first pay cheque from Condé Nast, beginning a twenty year career with the publishers, working for British, American and Paris Vogue, House & Garden magazine and its French counterpart Maison et Jardin.

His photos were notable for their drawing and composition, elements of a traditional outlook, interpreted in new ways, with his still lifes, fashion photos and pictorial ideas arranged as carefully as a painting, reflecting his training at the Royal College of Art.

Denney had a playful approach to fashion photography, fetishizing the material objects on display through his carefully constructed compositions, presenting the models with agency and life.   

Interiors

Shots of interiors and the home earnt Denney the position of Decorations Editor at Vogue, and led to the Daily Telegraph describing him as the ‘Dior of the interior decorating world’. Denney was uncompromising in his aesthetic principles, and even refused to shoot in someone’s home because the colour was not right, often spending whole days re-decorating interiors he had been commissioned to photograph.

In post-war Britain attitudes were changing, increased affluence resulted in a new demand for fashionable decorating materials, furniture and clothes. Denney’s advertising work for the affordable G-Plan, and ‘how to’ articles in a variety of publications, which did not include the use of expensive materials, perfectly complemented this new culture.

Simultaneously, Denney owned Fairfax Decorations Ltd. which catered for high end clients, designing the interiors of luxury steam yachts and private houses. Regardless of the clientele, Denney championed the use of colour, mixing objects and furniture from different eras and styles based on their aesthetic charm.

Denney and his business partner Alex Collins with Miss Cat at 30 St Peter’s Square, 1958 flat,
Anthony Denney and Alex Collins, St Peter Square Flate
Denney and his business partner Alex Collins with Miss Cat at 30 St Peter’s Square, 1958 flat,

Elizabeth David

Denney was friends and worked closely with cookery writer Elizabeth David, who revitalised home cooking in the UK, introducing exotic tastes and flavours to post war palettes. Denney photographed food for David’s articles and books, visualising the lifestyle of those eating and cooking with unknown ingredients.

In 1965/6 David entrusted Denney with decorating her kitchen store in Pimlico, and this is where he met his second wife, Celia Royde-Smith, a marriage that lasted until his death in 1990.

Elizabeth David shop interior with Anthony Denney
Elizabeth David shop interior with Anthony Denney
Elizabeth David shop interior with Anthony Denney

Art Collector

As a child Denney used his pocket money to buy antiques and began buying furniture in his teens. His knowledge of contemporary art was prodigious, and his keen eye spotted talents before they were known, purchasing works by Burri, Dubuffet, Fontana, Appel, Mathieu and Imai, to name a few .

Denney was not just a collector, but an advocate for this artistic generation, acting as a patron and strong supporter, particularly of South African artist Christo Coetzee, with whom Denney travelled abroad and invited to stay at the Hall.

Part of Denney’s impressive collection was at one time on loan at the Tate Gallery, and after his death was gifted to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Toulouse.

Traveller

Dissatisfied with the avant-garde in London, Denney travelled to Paris, where he met likeminded creatives at the Artists International Association. Paris also served as a base for Denney whilst he worked for French magazines, and he would return to the capital every October to attend the Stadler Gallery opening anniversary.

Work with the Vogue export book, membership of the Contemporary Arts society and Denney’s love of travel, took him around the world, including Australia, Thailand and Mexico. On his travels Denney purchased a walnut farm in Spain called La Alfarella, and a local Rainham resident who befriended Denney on the train to work, recalled his memory of bags of walnuts at the Hall.

Denney particularly admired Japanese culture, remaining an avid supporter of the radical artist collective, the Gutai group, of which Christo Coetzee was a member. Ikebana flower arranging was another favourite of Denney’s, having hosted a demonstration and lecture at his St Peter’s Square flat. 

Denney in Portugal 1958
Anthony Denney in Portugal
Denney in Portugal 1958

Rainham Hall

In 1964 the Trust were seeking a new tenant of Rainham Hall, who would be able to bring in high quality furniture and furnishings and respect the historic interiors. Denney came highly recommended by his friend Robin Fedden, then Deputy Director of the National Trust.

Upon securing the tenancy, Denney set about a programme of interior repairs, installing Tadeo Smythinski as butler to supervise the day-to-day running of the Hall and a team of specialist workers. Over a number of years they sympathetically restored almost every room to reflect the tastes of the early Georgian period, a style three decades before John Harle built the Hall. These old-fashioned interiors would often be strikingly dressed alongside the bold surrealist art Denney had collected, combining objects from the 18th century to the present day.

Whilst Denney lived at Rainham Hall he regularly hosted dinner parties and lunches for Condé Nast colleagues, gallerists from Paris and members of British art societies. On Wednesdays the Hall was open by written appointment and occasionally people would visit. His beloved pet, Miss Cat, also lived at the Hall, making the move from his St. Peter’s Square flat. 

Despite enjoying his time in Rainham, following the sudden death of his butler in 1969, Denney left the Hall, unable to manage the upkeep of the property alone. His next stop was the ruined 12th Century castle of Salvatierra de los Barros in Spain, which he was in the process of restoring, and where Celia still lives today, before dying unexpectedly of a heart attack on 30 April 1990.

The Denney Edition: Celebrating an icon of 20th century style opened at Rainham Hall on Saturday 29 June 2019.