‘Charming . . . a worthy tribute to the miraculous trueness of the species without which the human race would be incomparably gloomier.’

This recent Times review of a book on dogs seems particularly apt today when our pets are providing much needed solace during Lockdown. Faces: Profiles of Dogs by Vita Sackville West was republished in 2019. It is illustrated by the black and white photographs of 44 dogs’ faces taken by Russian-born photographer, Laelia (pronounced Leyla) Goehr who lived in Amersham in the 1940s.

The reviewer continued: “Goehr’s photographs, as well as being emotionally intense, are hilarious, of course, because there’s intrinsic hilarity in the way in which dogs take themselves so seriously”. Laelia absolutely loved dogs and one of the models included her family’s pet, Parsley.

Laelia had a flourishing career in photography and published several more books including Musicians in Camera in 1987 with a foreword by Yehudi Menuhin. She is best known for these portraits of musicians and her subjects included Stravinsky, Jacqueline du Pré, and Count Basie.

As a talented musician herself, Laelia’s musical portraits are dynamic and full of action. Perhaps because they combine both her passions. She also worked as a photojournalist for The Picture Post, Lilliput, The Jewish Chronicle and The Observer, declining the offer of a staff job there as she wanted to follow her own interests.

Laelia’s success as a photographer is perhaps surprising when all her early training was in music, principally as a classical pianist. She had a brief but successful career as a cabaret artist in Berlin during the Weimar Republic before marrying her husband, Walter Goehr, the composer, conductor, and arranger. Their son, Alexander was born in 1932, on the day that the Nazis seized control of Berlin Radio and Walter lost his job as a composer there because he was Jewish. Almost penniless they fled Germany the following year for a new life in England. Walter had been offered the job of musical director at The Gramophone Company (later EMI) in London.

After first living in Wembley, the Goehrs moved to 17 Batchelors Way, Amersham at the start of WWII. James Grey, Walter’s boss, lived locally and may have encouraged them to move here.

Laelia wanted to contribute to the war effort. Renewing an earlier interest in photography, she became a volunteer for the YMCA “Snapshots from Home League”. 

She took portraits of the families of servicemen and women and posted them out to wherever they were on active service. The YMCA assisted with the sourcing of rolls of film, which were scarce and not commercially available.

During the war, Laelia met the celebrated photographer, Bill Brandt with whom she took informal lessons before establishing a small studio in Amersham. Brandt taught Laelia the photographers’ creed of patience and was a major influence on her work. A mutual friend was the American artist and photojournalist, Lee Miller. Laelia’s wide circle of friends and contacts helped establish her career.

Laelia’s studio was at Turret House where her Alexander attended prep-school, before going on to Berkhamsted. He later studied composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music and, following in his father’s footsteps, had a successful career as a composer and academic.

Laelia took a wide range of photographs of people from all walks of life, ranging from photojournalist shots of poor children in the Gorbals to shots of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev at the Royal Ballet. Some of her most striking portraits were, however, taken in Amersham. 

These include some amazing portraits of West Africans in traditional dress who we understand were business associates of the Kahan and Kirschner families who were timber merchants. Laelia’s close friend was Xenia Kahan, née Kirschner, who was also Russian, and lived at her parent’s house, Whitehaven Clifton Road.

As revealed in previous articles, Amersham had a thriving artistic émigré community during the war and Laelia’s heavily accented English would not have been that unusual. Laelia’s best friend was Lissy Gray, a Belgian countess who lived in Bois Lane. She was the wife of the Polish/Austrian composer Allan Gray best known for film scores such as The African Queen, and Emil and the Detectives.

Leo Black, another musician living in Amersham, was a regular visitor to the Goehr house as a child. He later worked with Alexander as a BBC radio music producer when William Glock served as the BBC Controller of Music. In his memoir BBC Music in the Glock Era and After, Leo Black recalled Laelia as follows: “Mrs. (Laelia) was just as striking [as her husband], a blonde lady most vividly remembered for her appearances on the scene with several very lively poodles whose leads would gradually weave around her what one had to call a dog’s-cradle.”

Alan Cohn, who was born in Shardeloes in 1943 and still lives locally, also recalled the Goehrs in his contribution to Vivien and Deborah Samson’s book The Rabbi in the Green Jacket. His mother, Hannah, a German refugee worked as a housekeeper for the family. Laelia took photos of baby Alan playing the piano with his hands and feet and these were published in the centre pages of Picture Post in 1945.

Walter’s father, Julius, survived WWII because his second wife Gertrud, who was not Jewish, managed to keep him hidden in a cellar in Berlin. He died in Amersham in 1949 whilst on holiday visiting his family. The Goehrs left Amersham in the 1950s and after the breakup of their marriage, Laelia settled in Hampstead. She later married Henry Frankowski, an architect and gifted painter.

Julia Crockatt, who shares her grandmother’s love of photography has created a website laeliagoehr.com to celebrate Laelia’s work and continue her legacy. All the photographs in this article are shown by courtesy of Julia.
A longer version of this article can be found at amershammuseum.org where you can also read more about Amersham’s émigré community during WWII.