'You can almost hear the music': Bringing back the legacy of a Hampstead photographer

Sepia image of two young women, tilting heads together in headscarves

Laelia and Peggy and as cabaret duo The Stone Sisters. - Credit: Submitted by Julia Crockatt

A former musical child prodigy, cabaret dancer and successful photographer from Hampstead is about to get her legacy back through a new digital archive.

Laelia Goehr was born in Russia in 1908, but fled the country during its revolution in the early 1920s for Berlin at age 13. 

While in Germany, Laelia performed in a cabaret duo, The Stone Sisters, and even played in the Moulin Rouge in Paris. 

However, Laelia was Jewish and later escaped Berlin for Britain in the build-up to World War Two. 

The move to London with her husband brought her burgeoning cabaret career to an end - but allowed her to start her prolific career in photography. 

Man and woman laughing together.

Laelia Goehr and her husband, Walter. - Credit: Submitted by Julia Crockatt

The photographer, who used to scoot around Hampstead in her yellow sports car, died in 2002 at 94 years old. 

After her death, Laelia's granddaughter Julia Crockatt found her legacy faded fast. 

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She said: “The family of Goehr - her husband was very well known; her son, my father, was very well known; and my sister is fairly well known as well. But she’s not very well known and she had such a successful career.”   

Laelia's husband Walter and son Alexander were composers, and one of Julia's sisters, Lydia, is a professor of philosophy. 

Julia added: “Her legacy sort of stopped after her death and her photographs were in my and my sister’s cupboards, essentially, until I started to put them in an archive.” 

Now, Julia, a photographer herself, hopes to bring her grandmother’s legacy back through her digital archive and talks about her grandmother’s life. 

“For me, I knew all these little things about her life - but bringing it all together, I now see that she was actually quite an important photographer,” Julia said. 

Laelia studied under the well-known photographer Bill Brandt throughout the 1940s. She was best known for her dynamic portraits of musicians and photographed Benjamin Britten, Count Basie and Stravinsky. 

Man in white shirt conducting orchestra.

Laelia Goehr's portrait of Igor Stravinsky. - Credit: Laelia Goehr

Man playing cello

Laelia Goehr's portrait of Mstislav Rostropovich. - Credit: Laelia Goehr

Man with chin on forearms on a desk covered in papers

Laelia Goehr's photo of Count Basie. - Credit: Laelia Goehr

A book full of Laelia's portraits, Musicians in Camera, was published in 1987 by Bloomsbury. Following its publication, Laelia was featured in the Ham&High about her work - an article that taught Julia a lot about her grandmother. 

“[The Ham&High] did an interview about her because she lived in East Heath Road.

“I’ve had [a copy] in my papers for years and one day I just picked it up - and there she was, answering all of my questions.” 

According to Julia, Laelia was able to capture musicians in a completely unique way due to her extensive musical background. 

Julia explained: “She was really subject-based.

"Because she’s a musician, she caught musicians in a particular way, as if she understood what it was like. 

“Because some of them look like…you can almost hear the music. They’re not static portraits.” 

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As a small child, Julia remembers her grandmother as quite the eccentric, saying: “She seemed very enigmatic. She used to drive around in her yellow sports car. She wasn’t crazy but I mean…She had quite a life.

“There’s a lovely story her solicitor tells, who is still alive, and was great friends with her. He went with her to do the Rostropovich shoot. And Rostropovich was Russian, as was my grandmother."

Her lawyer, Aubrey Rose, now 93, still speaks of Laelia fondly and is still in contact with Julia. 

Julia continued: “She wanted him to sit in the right position and get it right, and he just wanted to get on with the rehearsal. 

“And according to Mr Rose, they ended up just shouting at each other louder and louder in Russian.” 

According to Julia, Laelia remained true to her heritage, despite living in England for most of her life. 

She said: “Although she arrived here at the age of 24, and she lived the rest of her life here...she was never English. She wasn’t interested in England, like others were.” 

Alongside her portraiture of musicians, Laelia was known for her work with The Jewish Chronicle, and travelled to Israel for the publication in 1951 and 1953 to document the lives of recently migrated Yemeni Jews. 

Sepia image of woman's face

Laelia Goehr's photo of a woman in Israel. - Credit: Laelia Goehr

Close up of a woman's face with braids.

One of Laelia Goehr's pictures of a Yemeni Jew in Israel. - Credit: Laelia Goehr

Find out more about Laelia and her life story, and view the digital archive, at www.laeliagoehr.com