Forgotten Female Photographers Gael Elton Mayo Spotlight

Forgotten female photographers Gael Elton Mayo Spotlight BookBlast

The work of forgotten female photographers, gifted artists hiding in plain sight, is finally coming to light by way of exhibitions, books and more. The UK’s first Eve Arnold retrospective in ten years has just ended at Newlands House Gallery. The Photographers’ Gallery are holding a Print Sales Gallery exhibition of Dorothy Bohm 12 April-23 June this year; and they are curating the first major UK exhibition of Italian photographer and photojournalist Letizia Battaglia (1935-2022) from October 2024 to February 2025. The work of Bohm — who came to the UK in the 1940s because of the Nazis — is featured in the reopened National Portrait Gallery. MK Gallery in Milton Keynes showcased the work of American street photographer Vivian Maier in 2022. and in the same year Brighton Museum curated a retrospective of the 96-year-old US-born photographer Marilyn Stafford. There are collectives such as @womeninstreet, or pioneering research projects @womeninphoto and “The Art of Lee Miller” at the V&A in 2008 showcased the work of iconic muse and photographer, Lee Miller

Another forgotten iconic beauty, ripe for rediscovery, is Gael Elton Mayo (1923-92). She worked as writer-researcher for Magnum Photographers in Paris, with Robert Capa, David Seymour and Henri Cartier Bresson, and wrote Generation X with Cartier Bresson in England (later changed to Youth of the World by Holiday magazine). In 1955 she was hired on a permanent basis to handle public relations for Seymour in Rome, but he was killed reporting Suez. She went on to collaborate with London photographer Baron, arranging and writing his Paris profiles of Anouilh, Abbé Pierre, Mendez France amongst others.

Her photographs dating between the 1950s to the 1980s feature the lost wild places of Europe (Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Wales, Ireland); the romance of Asolo, Menton, Paris and the Franche Comté; abandoned or grandiose derelict buildings; portraits of couples, bullfighters, rural workers . . . the influence of Cartier Bresson is clear in her photos of impoverished children in Spain.

Who was Gael Elton Mayo?

george elton mayo fortune magazine nov 1946 bookblast legacy agency
Professor Elton Mayo, dubbed “the philosopher of the picket line” by Fortune magazine

Born in Sydney, Gael Elton Mayo was the youngest daughter of pioneering industrial psychologist, Professor Elton Mayo and Scottish-gened Australian beauty, Dorothea McConnel. She lived in America as a child, where her father had a Life Chair for research at Harvard and was an influential cult figure.

Aged eight, Gael was sent by her parents to England with her older sister, for a European education. She was studying for a degree at the Sorbonne when she met a Polish-Russian émigré just before the outbreak of war. Gael was seventeen. They married in June 1939. The newlyweds were caught in the Exodus. Their son was born during the bombardment of Bordeaux.

gael elton mayo and baby steve july 1940 bookblast legacy agency
July 1940 Gael and her newborn son

After near death from puerperal fever, hiding with a farming family, being shot at by German soldiers, they reached Free France — only to find they were not free. Eventually, they arrived in New York by way of Spain and Argentina. Safe in New York in 1943, their marriage fell apart. Their dramatic flight from the Gestapo and bombs is “one of the great escape stories of our day,” Elizabeth Longford in The Independent. 

Gael remarried in 1943. She modelled briefly and was assistant editor of Popular Publications & Ken White (later Esquire). In 1944 Doubleday published her first novel, Honeymoon in Hell, based on her wartime experiences, however it is in her autobiography, The Mad Mosaic (1983), that her wartime escape is truly told.

gael elton mayo modelling in 1940s new york bookblast legacy agency
Gael Elton Mayo modelling in New York in 1944

A Bohemian Life

Gael returned to post-war Europe. She wrote a column in Madrid for the Spanish American Courier, then worked for Picture Post and as writer-researcher for Magnum Photographers in Paris, with Robert Capa, David Seymour and Henri Cartier Bresson.

Gael’s painting was encouraged by Moïse Kisling, who did a portrait of her (now in a private collection in Japan). She had eight exhibitions, in Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Melbourne; and was listed in 1969 in The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art (Hutchinson). Gael also designed dress material for Leonard et Cie bought by Balenciaga and Carven, and wrote songs (lyrics and music) which she sang on British TV and in a film made at Elstree Studios. Four novels were published in the 1960s: The Devil and the Fool, Nobody’s Nothing, Last Seen Near Trafalgar, It’s Locked In With You.

She worked with her third husband — an impoverished and eccentric French aristocrat beset by Balzacian legal disputes — to restore his crumbling family fortress in the Jura recounted in her memoir, The End of a Dream. The couple separated and Gael moved to England, then back to Provence. The couple were reunited in the 1980s and planned to live together, but he suddenly died of heart failure. For the last twenty years of her life, Gael —  “An invincible beauty,” Observer — fought a virulent cancer of the head and neck which she nicknamed “the spook”  about which she wrote in a second volume of autobiography, Living With Beelzebub. It was published just before she died in 1992.

BUY The Mad Mosaic

BUY The End of a Dream

The Estate of Gael Elton Mayo is represented by BookBlast legacy agency.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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