LONDON - Ivy Close won Britain’s first national beauty contest, was a trailblazing actress and the matriarch of one of Britain’s most illustrious showbusiness dynasties. She faded into obscurity but her great-grandson, who created Downton Abbey, has put her back in the spotlight. When 17-year-old Ivy Close charmed the country in the first nationwide beauty competition, the press swooned over her “exquisite loveliness”. Part of her prize along with a new Rover motorcar was to have her portrait exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. That picture, showing Close with rosy cheeks and wispy curls, also took up the entire front page of the Daily Mirror - which had run the contest - on 4 May 1908.

“She’s effectively the first British beauty queen,” says her great-grandson Gareth Neame, a Bafta-winning TV producer who came up with the concept for Downton and made The Hollow Crown and Hotel Babylon. “And there was then a competition between the winner in Britain and the winner in the US, and she ended up winning that one. So I often say she was effectively the first ever Miss World.” The portrait, by Sir Arthur Hacker, has now been restored thanks to a donation from Mr Neame and is hanging in the refurbished Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, which reopened on Friday to coincide with Hull becoming UK City of Culture.

It is a return to the limelight for one of Britain’s first modern celebrities, whose career took the firework trajectory that has been followed by many celebrities over the decades since.

Born in Stockton-on-Tees, County Durham, Close beat 15,000 other hopefuls to the beauty contest title, which was awarded by nine famous artists on the Daily Mirror’s Beauty Adjudication Committee.

She became an instant star and there was “an overwhelming rush for copies” of a special commemorative edition of the paper that featured Close in “a variety of charming poses”.