Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Elsbeth Juda, 1911 to 2014

I’ve only just heard that Elsbeth Juda died last month. While not a household name, Elsbeth was a connector and supporter, devoting herself to help artists and designers to become the household names.

Elsbeth Juda (on chair), at work, via

I was lucky enough to meet her when working on a book about the Ambassador magazine (I briefly mentioned it back here). The Ambassador Magazine grew out of the Dutch magazine International Textiles, and became The Ambassador thanks to Elsbeth’s husband Hans after the Second World War. It was used as a vehicle to promote British textiles and industry.

But that’s the barest headline details. Hans and Elsbeth were childhood sweethearts who fled Germany in 1933, carrying – as described by Elsbeth – only two suitcases and a violin. They threw themselves into their new British life with gusto (really, it’s hard to imagine them doing anything without gusto). Hans coined the slogan ‘Export or Die’ and The Ambassador, as suggested by its name, was his vehicle for taking British design and innovation around the world.

It was a trade magazine, so copies are extremely rare to find today, but it was a trade magazine with a difference. Artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper were commissioned to design covers, or illustrate the pages – frequently they found themselves encouraged by the Judas to design textiles as well. Elsbeth – working under the name ‘Jay’ – photographed many of the features for the magazine. How do you make a visit to a textile factory more appealing? Elsbeth’s answer was to wrap model Barbara Goalen (a frequent face within the magazine) in the cloth. This was the photograph – still so eye-catching and modern-looking today – we chose to use on the cover of the book. They took models to Switzerland and to Rio, injecting some of the gloss of their consumer counterparts into the industry. We also reproduced some of the features in full in the book to try and give a sense of the wit and energy that ran through the pages of the magazine.

Spread from The Ambassador Magazine book, showing imagery taken by Elsbeth to promote Lord & Taylor's British fortnight. Via Lizzie B design (Lizzie designed the book). 

The Judas were ambassadors in their own right too: Elsbeth, for example, went to the United States to forge vital connections that enabled the establishment of British fortnights in Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus. While clearing the photography permissions for the book, I corresponded with the relatives of the artists and designers with which the Judas had worked so closely. I was told again and again what a difference they had made to their parent’s careers, encouraging them, publishing their work, pushing them further, putting them in touch with the right people.

Some Ambassador magazine covers. Again via Lizzie B Design

One afternoon after the book had been published, I went with my manager to visit Elsbeth, who was then aged over 100, and to take her copies of the book. It should have been a 30 minute courtesy visit. Instead, we were encouraged/told to sit and join her for some celebratory drinks. We drank and talked and found ourselves introduced to a steady stream of people, of all ages and occupations, who had dropped into her apartment to pay their regards to Elsbeth, and really to have a good old gossip. The champagne was opened… I left 3 hours later (and only because I had another dinner invite). A quote from Maureen Lipman, used in Elsbeth's Telegraph obituary, sums up precisely how she appeared: “Elsbeth is a living affirmation of the staying power of being eternally curious.” As no doubt, many, many others will remark, I feel privileged to have met her.

To find out more, as well as The Ambassador Magazine book, you can view copies of The Ambassador magazine at the National Art Library at the V&A. The V&A also holds the archive of the magazine, while the National Portrait Gallery holds some of her work, including this lovely portrait of her and Hans. Elsbeth was one of the centenarians included in a project by Chris Steele-Perkin: Elsbeth's portrait is in the bottom right and was taken on the balcony of her flat. 

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