Past Events

Blonde Noir – Ruth Ellis

Lecture Series – Lynda Nead

  • 25 October 2023
  • 6:30 – 7:30 pm
  • A talk as part of the Mellon Lecture Series 'British Blonde: Women, Desire and the Image in Post-War Britain' delivered by Professor Lynda Nead.
  • Gorvy Lecture Theatre, V&A Museum

These lectures look at post-war Britain through changing styles of femininity that expressed many of the key concerns of the nation in the twenty-five years that followed the end of the Second World War. In the 1950s, American glamour was exported to a war-torn Britain, part of a larger passage of commodities that crossed the Atlantic in this period. In the process, however, something important happened, blonde became British, Marilyn Monroe became Diana Dors. The lectures capture this process as it evolved through the 1950s and 1960s and was subjected to the changing definitions of class, social aspiration and desire that shaped the post-war nation.

Drawing on a wide range of visual media and forms including painting, film, photography, advertising and fashion the lectures offer a new history of the art and culture of post-war Britain.

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain, after being found guilty in 1955 of the murder of her lover, David Blakely. The image of the femme fatale has a long history in Western visual culture but came into its own in Hollywood cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, becoming a stock character within the shadowy and violent narratives of film noir. Ellis’ life brings to light some of the central themes in “British Blonde” that weave through the people and places that populate its world: sleaze, exploitation and aspiration. This lecture draws on the archives of press photography, examining images of Ellis for what they reveal about this aspect of post-war Britain and the image of “Blonde Noir”.

The Paul Mellon lectures, which are named in honour of the philanthropist and collector of British art, Paul Mellon (1907-1999), were inaugurated in 1994 when Professor Francis Haskell delivered the first series at the National Gallery in London. The model for the series was the Andrew W. Mellon lectures, established in 1949 in honour of Paul Mellon’s father, the founder of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Co-organised by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Yale Center for British Art, the lectures are biennial, given by a distinguished historian of British art. This lecture series will take place at the V&A in London and at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven.

Tickets: £5 per lecture

Location: V&A - Enter via the Secretariat Gate entrance on Cromwell Road (just past the V&A’s main entrance). All other entrances will be closed.

Entry from 18.00 (arrive at least 10 mins before lecture starts to allow time to walk to the Gorvy Lecture Theatre)

V&A Secretariat Gate Location Map

V&A Secretariat Gate Location Map,

Image credit: Ruth Ellis, night club manageress poses in leopard skin for Captain Ritchie, 1954, probably in the flat above her club on the Brompton Road, Knightsbridge. Image courtesy of Hulton Archive / Stringer (All Rights Reserved)

About the speaker

  • Headshot of Lynda Nead with window in background.

    Lynda Nead is Pevsner Professor of History of Art at Birkbeck, University of London. She has published widely on a range of art historical subjects and particularly on the history of British visual culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her most recent book is The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press). She has a number of advisory roles in national art museums and galleries and is a Trustee of the Holburne Museum and of Campaign for the Arts. She is currently writing a book called British Blonde: Women, Desire and the Image in Post-War Britain.