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Mervyn O’Gorman’s ‘Christina’: How the girl in red from a 1913 photo became a social media starlet

More than 100 years after they were taken, these images of a teenage girl at Lulworth Cove have taken Twitter and Instagram by storm.
Christina in a Red Cloak, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection: A dramatic and comparatively unusual close-up portrait, taken on the beach at Lulworth Cove, Dorset in 1913. The large aperture setting has reduced the background to near abstraction, and the lack of any obvious period references gives this image a remarkably modern feel.

The girl in question is Christina, and the images—on show in our Drawn by Light exhibition until 21 June 2015—have been doing the rounds on social media and in the world’s press. The Daily Mail called her ‘the original lady in red’. The Daily Mirror suggested that the images look so contemporary we should be using the hashtag #tinaonthebeach. And El Pais dubbed Christina ‘Una ‘pin-up’ de Flickr del siglo XX’—a Flickr pin-up for the 20th century.

On the Beach
Christina on the Beach, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection: The comparatively long exposure time has given the sea a glassy quality and the large aperture setting and narrow depth of field has put Durdle Door, in the background, into soft focus.

Who was Christina?

The mystery of Christina’s identity has brought a lot of attention to the photographs, leading a major genealogy research organisation to delve into the archives to find out more.

In the most recent twist, a man from Chertsey spotted Christina in his copy of the Daily Mail and has contacted us to let us know that he possesses stereoscopic slides showing Christina and the photographer Mervyn O’Gorman on their way to the ‘shoot’. Curator Colin Harding will be collecting these slides next week to be scanned and studied at the museum. The mystery of ‘Tina on the beach’ may have another twist yet…

Christina on the Beach
Christina on the Beach, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection: An evocative portrait taken on the beach at Lulworth Cove. Christina’s choice of swimming costume was a fortuitous one since red was a colour which the autochrome process captured particularly well.

Update: We’ve found out who Christina really was—read about how we solved the mystery.

Christina Paddling
Christina Paddling, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection: A serene, almost surreal photograph. The long exposure time required, even in bright sunshine, has given the sea an unreal glass-like quality. The vivid red of her costume is in dramatic contrast to the subdued natural tones of the background. In the distance you can just see the rowing boat which features in some of the other photographs taken on the same day.
Christina by the Pond
Christina by the Pond, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection: In this portrait, Christina gazes thoughtfully into an ornamental pond. The location for this photograph is not known, but may be the gardens of Rempstone Hall near Corfe Castle in Dorset.
A Picnic on the Beach
A Picnic on the Beach, 1913, Mervyn O’Gorman © Royal Photographic Society Collection: O’Gorman captures a timeless scene as the group eat their picnic on the beach in Dorset, with Durdle Door in the background. O’Gorman’s camera case can be seen close by; one of the great advantages of the autochrome process was that it didn’t require special apparatus—photographers could use autochrome plates in their existing cameras.

Who was Mervyn O’Gorman?

Born in Ireland, Mervyn Joseph Pius O’Gorman (1871–1958) is best known as one of the greatest British aeronautical engineers. During the First World War he was head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. He was also a motoring pioneer, writing O’Gorman’s Motoring Pocket Book in 1904, and was actively involved in the Royal Automobile Club, becoming its vice-president. He later played a key role in the introduction of the Highway Code.

O’Gorman was an artist as well as an engineer, concentrating on etching and lacquer-work. Although not a member of the RPS, he was also a talented photographer. A charming and humorous man with enormous physical and mental energy, he seems to have been almost universally liked and admired. His obituary in The Times summed him up as ‘a man of agile mind and Hibernian eloquence’.

Further reading

20 comments on “Mervyn O’Gorman’s ‘Christina’: How the girl in red from a 1913 photo became a social media starlet

  1. There is no word to describe this. It is as if you have drank a 102 years old wine. The melancholy, innocence, beauty, haze, contrast and loneliness surpasses anything seen in many years past. It could make you cry because time becomes an illusion and you see yourself next to her starring at the same pebbles thinking subconsciously of mortality of self while the Nature will remain immortal. In a sense pictures work as a time machine. Change the mortality to immortality and preserve the beauty and feelings. Thanks to Autochrome, model and photographer to have provided us with such treasure.

    Dr T.

    1. You summed things up very nicely Frank. These photos draw the viewer into them in a way seldom experienced.

    2. Thanks for that accurate, beautiful description.

      These photos are surreal and haunting.

  2. Hello, I would like to order the Christina O’gorman poster in the garden. Can I order it through you?

  3. Amazing how modern the feel of these images isn’t it? The photography was way ahead of its time or is it that photography is timeless?
    Beautiful posing and wonderful exposure adds so much to this

  4. I would like to purchase a print of Christina on the beach with Durdle Door in the background but cannot find a way to do this. Can you help please?

  5. The picnic scene is either not at Durdle Door or it is printed backwards. You cant see Durdle Door from the beach to the east of it. Makes me wonder if the others are printed backwards as well…

  6. Do you answer requests to buy prints? I’ve tried to find out where I could buy prints from.

  7. I continue to be perplexed as to why several of Mervyn’s photos, as show here, are still being displayed back-to-front (“mirror-imaged” to be more precise).

    It is doubly ironic that in this very sequence the beach-scene is CORRECTLY shown – with the Durdle Door shown extending L-to-R out to sea. The notes even draw the reader’s attention to the same row-boat show in the most famous shot (always shown wrong all over the internet).

    How is it that I can spot this within seconds, yet no staff-member in your museum has ever spotted the anomaly?

  8. Some observations, based on what I’ve read about both Christina’s family and the O’Gormans.
    I only became aware of these photographs in April, 2024, but Christina’s photos evoked very similar emotions in me to those they have in others, and even some of the same words came to my mind. They are quite striking pictures, and they do have the look of being far in advance of their time; they could easily be perceived as having been taken in the 1960s.
    It also occurred to me that there does seem to be a feeling of melancholy about them, but I believe that this can be explained. This may well have to do with the fact that, while we are looking at Christina, she is invariably looking somewhere else. This is what “draws us into” these photos; regarding the pictures of her on the beach, I, too, thought about sitting next to her, and looking at those very same stones and pebbles. As she is looking at something, we want to be right next to her, to see what it is that she is looking at, or to ask her.
    While there may seem to be a sense of “loneliness”: insofar as Christina is often pictured alone, on the beach or in other quiet settings, I would see this apparent “loneliness” as being more a result of the settings themselves. She likely was not melancholy or lonely (one reason being that her family was likely always nearby, even when not present in the photos). What may seem like loneliness may also be partly interpreted more as if Christina appeared “distant”– not spatially, but more in the sense of “withdrawn”– as if her mind was off somewhere, lost in her own daydream– which probably also was not the case; but this may also be, in part, what adds to the perception of melancholy.
    It has been pointed out that Mervyn O’Gorman was a very talented photographer, and these beautifully done 1913 images, every one of which is a gem, more than bear that out. There is a definite sense of innocence about them, and they can indeed bring tears to the eyes– a testament to the skill of the photographer, and to Christina’s ability to pose so well for these pictures.
    I believe that Mr. O’Gorman carefully took the photos in a way that would achieve the very best results, as he experimented with the autochrome process.
    First, Christina may have been chosen for many of these photos in part because, apparently, she liked red clothes; they suited her very well, and, equally importantly, the color was very vibrantly shown in these photos. Secondly, she possessed a great deal of God-given beauty, which made for a lovely subject for the pictures. Thirdly, Mr. O’Gorman very possibly suggested to Christina poses that would work well photographically; hence, the pictures on the beach, with the row boat in the background; or the pond with the cherub statue; or Christina holding flowers.
    For these long-term exposures to turn out well, the subject had to be relaxed; so, likely, Mr. O’Gorman suggested sitting on the beach, in a position that would have been comfortable enough for the duration of the photographic exposure; or standing; or sitting at the pond. This does not detract from, but, rather, adds to, the profound effect of the photos.
    It is notable that, in all of the autochrome photos of Christina and her family, virtually no one is ever looking directly at the camera– likely, again, due to the long-term exposure time of the photos. There had to be little to no motion at all for these pictures, and even the inadvertent blink of the eyes might be caught by the camera. The best way, then, to avoid this, would be for the subject(s) to be looking calmly away from the camera, as if unaware of its presence– and this is where I believe Christina’s mind was in these photos– concentrating on remaining calm and relaxed, and maintaining her pose as long as was needed– so, she was not really “distant” at all.
    From what I’ve read of Christina, I don’t think that she much would have liked being considered a social media starlet, much less a pinup. While she was quite beautiful, she did not flaunt that beauty, but instead maintained an air of innocence and sweetness, which bespeaks her character as a person and as a woman, both young and older. She was, in a sense, there to assist Mr. O’Gorman in his photographic experiments (and, perhaps, she also enjoyed helping a family friend in the process). Both families– Christina’s and the O’Gormans– seem to have been respected, honorable, and well-liked people. It is my fervent prayer that they all may rest eternally in God’s blessings and His peace.
    We should all be very grateful that these colorful, vivid images of beauty, time, and place have been preserved, and not forever lost.
    Dave A.
    New York State, U.S.A.

  9. *****Not for publication*****

    Just a quick thank you for publishing my comments last week; it meant a lot to me for you to have done that. Thank you very much!

    Dave A.
    New York State, U.S.A.

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