Great-Great Aunt Olive, by Rory Kirk-Duncan

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I discovered Olive Edis by accident.

It was during a visit to my grandparents´ house in Suffolk one summer that I came across Olive Edis´ portraits for the first time. I must have been ten years old.

A feeling of excitement came over me when I pulled open an old chest of drawers and realized that I had discovered a stack of photographs depicting what looked like important men and women. At the time, I remember thinking they looked like a cast of characters wearing costumes for a play. Who they were, I didn’t have a clue but I was intrigued.

Before that, I knew nothing about my grandmother Quita’s relationship to her aunt Olive.

My great-grandmother Katherine was in her own right a photographer who began to work alongside her sister Olive, only to stop her practise when she started to raise a family. My grandmother Quita had inherited a beautiful collection of photographs that for many years remained intact but unexhibited. Now that my grandmother is 96 years old, she has lived to see her aunt’s immense achievements acknowledged for the first time.

It’s not just Olive’s skill as a photographer that impresses me, it’s her bravery and determination – she was a pioneering female photographer at a time when women weren’t even able to vote. She was clearly a fearless explorer, wanting to capture more than just the sitters inside her studio. Becoming the first female war photographer on the western front is testament to this bravery – the images speak for themselves, depicting the war torn, churned up and cratered earth of Northern France.

She travelled to far-flung countries and colonies, from Canada to Hong Kong – Looking through photographs she had taken of Hong Kong in the 1920s personally struck a chord. Fifty years on, and hundreds of tower block buildings later, my father and mother would be immigrating to the same British colony to start a family, where I was born and brought up. Olive was there, capturing an unblemished Hong Kong harbour, a new treasure island and my future home. She instantly captures the vibrancy of the colony in the 1920s.

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Looking back as I do now, I think about how she must have felt walking down those same streets in Kowloon, taking the same tram up to The Peak with all the same enthusiasm and excitement I had as a child

Her passion for adventure but also her success as an entrepreneur, opening her own studios in Sheringham in Norfolk and Ladbroke Grove in West London is equally admirable.

Taking portraits of the young Princes and future Edward VIII and George VI would have no doubt gained considerable attention and strengthened her business in acquiring future commissions, but she knew that she had to be self-sufficient and she did this with fantastic aptitude.

Whilst walking through the exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum, I am constantly left thinking about Olive’s ability to capture the character of the person sat in front of her –  I can almost imagine the joke shared in between takes when I look at the photograph of ‘Lotion’ Tar Bishop and ‘Buck’ Craske, the local fisherman from Cromer, Norfolk – they echo the toothy smiles and jollity of a Frans Hals painting; or the bitter silence and sadness that holds still in the portrait of ‘Belcher’ Johnson. He is sat drifting in contemplation, in a Holbein-like pose with sadness glazed over his eyes.

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Whether her subjects were British royalty or local fisherman, it didn’t seem to matter to her – ultimately, she was interested in capturing the humanity of the sitter which she achieved over and above. In her own words from an interview in 1920, she said “The face is an index of the character, and the photograph, if you like to put it that way, should be the x-ray of the soul.”

Until recently, I believed that my family had no links to the arts whatsoever. Working for a gallery as I do now in London, I feel incredibly humbled and proud of this incredible talent in our family history – I am certain I owe a great deal to Olive and Katherine Edis for passing on a shared love of art, travel and maybe just looking a little closer.

The result of the current exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum and the donation of her photographs to the Cromer collection is a fitting and just recognition of her extraordinary talent.

Rory Kirk-Duncan

We All Need Role Models, by Robyn Llewellyn

robyn-llwellyn-olive-edis-opening-speech-2Why has Olive Edis become one of my heroines?

I first heard the name Olive Edis when in 2008 we received an application from Cromer Museum to acquire a collection of her photographs. It was a fairly straightforward request – helping to secure heritage in the place where it belonged, telling stories about the past to the communities of today.

Olive Edis was the first female war photographer to work for the Imperial War Museum, travelling in Northern France and Belgium to document the women in the aftermath of WW1.   While it was great that the collection was safe, I kept thinking that there was scope for so much more, especially as we came up to the commemorations of the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.  More people needed to know her story.  So it was very exciting when we received the 2015 application for the current project.

Her photographs are compelling.  In her self-portraits she looks striking and confident and I particularly like the ones where she is smiling.

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Olive Edis – ‘Striking, confident…smiling’ 

There’s something special about the images of her sisters– ordinary family images I can relate to.  It’s great that part of the project is about discovering the history of the individual Fisherfolk.

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‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop – Norfolk fisherman 

We all need role models and Olive Edis has become one of mine.  She was an intrepid adventurer, an entrepreneur, a business woman, an artist – and she also managed to have a personal life.  It’s amazing to think about how she held it altogether.  The captivating portraits reflect someone who was able to put people at ease.

I believe Olive Edis would have agreed that it is important to discover and credit women who have made important contributions in the past.  I love the quote from her diary: ‘It made me think more and more of the wonderful capacity of women – given the opportunity to exercise it – which the war certainly had given them.’   Olive Edis celebrated women’s achievements both through her amazing photographs of some of the most influential women in the early 20th Century as well as her work in the aftermath of WW1.  We all can take inspiration by learning how women overcame the restrictions of their time and how ground-breaking women have laid the foundations for much of the equality we have today.

My favourite photo changes all the time.

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A group of five senior nurses taking tea at the American Evacuating Hospital at Toul © IWM (Q 8075)

This project is a great illustration of what HLF funding is all about – heritage, people and communities.  Her photographs tell important stories of the past – Fisherfolk of North Norfolk, the impact of the First World War, the changing role of women.  The exhibition at Norwich Castle is beautiful, engaging, inspiring and fun.  I’m so excited that there’s still more to come and thanks to National Lottery players, her story is receiving the wider recognition it deserves.

If people want to find out more about Heritage Lottery grants, go to our website hlf.org.uk

Robyn Llwellyn is Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, East of England

The Brilliant Surface, by Nick Warr

nick-warrReading Alistair’s account of how scanning an ‘unprintable’ photograph by Olive Edis revealed a war smashed landscape decades after its hasty exposure is a reminder of how photography has changed since the introduction of computers. However, what this act of digital archaeology has also demonstrated is that photography is still fundamentally all about surfaces; thin layers of paper, glass, plastic, gelatin and metal – that either enable us to see an image or – in the case of Edis’ attempt to record the glistening mud pits of Ypres – keep it from us. For as much as Edis’ astonishing work can be defined by the character of those who posed for her it is also the product of a fascination with the surface of the image itself. In particular, how different materials can reflect and diffuse light and how a photograph’s presentation of these effects can elicit certain emotional responses in those looking at them.

The process of learning how to capture and reproduce these effects is clearly discernable in the experimental self-portraits that the Edis sisters took of themselves dressed in various elaborate outfits at the beginning of Olive’s career. I use the term experimental because these photographs are as much about the photographers experimenting with materials – lace, silk, satin, fur and the oilskin – and the effects they produce on the glass plate and print – as they are about recording their evolving identities as independent women. It is no coincidence that from very early on, Edis concentrates on perfecting the photography of these tactile fabrics as they perform an important function in her portraits – they work to vivify the flat surface of the photograph and capture our attention.

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Olive Edis in sou’wester

This effect is wonderfully apparent in the beautiful gem like portrait of Edis with fisherman’s sou’wester hat, taken in the early 1900s.  The contrast between the dark folds of her scarf and the glistening oilskin that frames the smooth oval of her face, gives this carefully lit image a peculiar sense of depth that draws you towards it. Getting closer to the print you become aware of its astonishing detail and tonal subtleties – which in turn prompts a haptic response and makes you want to touch its gleaming surface. This effect is no accident and Edis has the look on her face of somebody who has just worked out a very complicated magic trick and is now thinking of how best to use her newfound skill.

Scroll through Norfolk Museum’s online image archive of Edis’ work and you can start to get a sense of the dedication, practice and experimentation necessary to produce photographs as vivid and engaging as the portraits of ‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop, Canon Baldwin, Henrietta Barnett, Halilu and Hermione Hammond.

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Halilu, by Olive Edis

What connects these pictures, and what makes her Imperial War Museum work still so immediate and arresting is Edis’ ability to use texture to communicate a sense of a living presence, a felt as well as an observed world. The mink stole of a society lady, the fur of a family pet, the starched linen uniform of an army nurse, the shoveled piles of sugar on the floor of a Golden Syrup Factory, the polished wooden top of a dining table, the coarse woolen weave of a fisherman’s gansey, a playwright’s unruly eyebrows, a king’s Brylcreemed side parting  – all are depicted by Edis with the same beguiling luminosity that captures our attention and fosters our empathy by tempering the distance between us and the subject.

 

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Through changing times Edis continued to work with glass plate negatives and platinum prints – two techniques that fell by the wayside during the 1930s as cheaper and more flexible alternatives became available. However these techniques enabled Edis to produce images of such clarity and tonal range that only now, thanks to digital high definition screens, scanners and projectors, we can start to rediscover the genuine brilliance of her luminous photographs.

Dr Nick Warr is Curator of Photographic Collections, Dept. of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia

Just one image in two thousand, by Alistair Murphy

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Alistair Murphy, Curator of Cromer Museum & ‘Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis’

To have found myself looking after and exploring the collection of Olive Edis’ photography that we acquired for Cromer Museum has been the most significant period of my work at the museum over the last 30 years. To pick out one image out of the nearly 2,000 that we have is an impossible task but I will try.

As I have worked on the photographs I have often fancied that I can feel her presence in the office with me – looking over my shoulder, slowly revealing more of herself in the fragments of personality preserved in her work, like prehistoric insects in amber.

I can see her reflected in the faces of the people she photographed; in the Norfolk fishermen, the rich society women; the artists, social reformers, Prime Ministers, Kings and Queens.  A multitude, unblinkingly staring into the lens of her camera; seemingly relaxed and revealing of their true selves, despite the cumbersome equipment and her almost spiritual dedication to natural light; truly candid and casual photographs emerging from what must have been time consuming and formal sittings. And there, behind the camera, is Olive: able to put all her subjects at ease, regardless of status, education or character.

Olive was a working photographer, so there are images of mothers and their babies, newly wedded brides, debutantes, soldiers home from the front, and commissions from local hotels, Whitehall, and the Canadian Pacific Railway.  Perhaps most significantly she was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to go to war-torn Europe in 1919 to record the contribution of women to the war effort. While she was there she also took a series of unsurpassed images of the desolation that the war had left in its wake.

It is one of these photographs that I have chosen. Amongst the 1700 glass negatives are a number of badly exposed plates. When held up to the light they look almost like plain glass. Taken in Northern Europe in 1919, they were probably rejected as unprintable. Technology has advanced since then. After scanning this particular plate and adjusting the brightness and contrast an image appeared before me that had probably not being seen since Olive took the photograph and packed her equipment back into the car in which she was travelling; not seen for the best part of century. It is a grainy scene of mud, and ruin, the remains of the Belgian village of Ypres.

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Glass plate negative of Ypres 1919, by Olive Edis

Olive wrote in her diary, Thursday March 6th 1919, the day that she probably took this picture:

“But it was Ypres that had drawn us all day long – and nothing more striking could be imagined. Not a house with a roof or a semblance of entirety – all shattered and wrecked – with a perfect paved road, to show that this was not some city of ancient history, running through it, as well it might otherwise be.”

In Sympathy with the Subject – looking back at Olive Edis, by Amanda Geitner

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Amanda Geitner, Director, East Anglia Art Fund

During a tour of ‘Fishermen and Kings’ Alistair Murphy encouraged us to take a closer look at Olive Edis’ focus on the eyes of her sitters.  Moving through the exhibition there is a fascinating play between those portraits in which the sitter is shown in profile, their eyes cast down or aside, and those in which the person looks straight out at you, fixing you immediately in the direct engagement of eye contact.  The exploit of gentle, natural light is the same, the quiet respect shown for the sitter, the relaxed but flattering pose. What’s remarkable is the way so many of Edis’ subjects look at you.  And of course they are looking at her and so we stand in for her, receiving that look.

What now fascinates me is what we see in the eyes of the people Edis photographed.  As they look at us it seems possible, nearly a century later, for us to feel from the expression in their eyes the effect of Edis’ charm, to see reflected back to us the empathy, ease, perhaps even friendship that had struck up between the photographer and her subject. More extraordinary is that I can sense in their eyes Edis’ respect for them, and not just an easy sympathy but a real understanding for the brilliance and value of their intellect and their labour.

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‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop, by Olive Edis

Edis’ fishermen are individuals and we have their names; ‘Lotion’ Tar Bishop, Little Dick, Walter ‘Catty’ Allen.  They are not illustrations of coastal industry – Edis could have simply chosen to represent the fishermen at their labour as a depiction of skill and craft for the interest of, but at a distance from, the viewer of the image.  But these portraits are true portraits, depictions of men in which a sense of their character seems vividly conveyed through the suggestion of a smile and the flash of their eyes.  Flattering and almost seductive (is that just me?) b
ut in an unexpected way, perhaps because we didn’t expect that a photograph might allow us to feel that we know these men just a little and that they are not only fishermen, but masterfully and entirely themselves.My thoughts about Edis and eye contact began with her impressively feminist approach to depicting the subject, in a flattering light but still absolutely themselves.
In her work there is much more than a sense of woman as an individual of value, free of an aesthetic stereotype or a requirement to please.

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Dame Adelaide Anderson, by Olive Edis

So many of  Edis’ subjects were, like her, pioneering professional women of the early 20th century and the look that Edis has drawn from them is characterised by a thoughtful intelligence and clear determination.
Dame Adelaide Anderson, Henrietta Barnett, Emily Davies, Emmeline Pankhurst and many other women photographed by Edis were changing society for themselves, for their contemporaries and for us.  For an audience today perhaps the word sympathy carries too gentle a connotation – Edis seems to me to have aligned herself to her subjects in a spirit of respect, admiration and fellowship.

We can see it in their eyes.

Amanda Geitner, Director, East Anglia Art Fund

Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis

After months of hard work from the exhibition team at Cromer Museum and Norwich Castle, Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis is now open at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery! We had a fantastic opening night and were delighted to welcome over 100 guests to the Castle on Friday 7th October, including Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, and three members of Olive Edis’ family – her great-nieces Angela and Heather, who we met over the summer, and Edis’ great-great nephew Rory. We enjoyed speeches from Robyn Llewellyn, Amanda Geitner, Director of the East Anglia Art Fund, and finally exhibition curator Alistair Murphy, who officially declared the exhibition open.

We really hope you can come and see the show for yourself, but in the meantime here are some of our favourite photos from the opening night. Many thanks to David Kirkham for these lovely pictures.

I’ve also been promising a few photos of the amazing merchandise that our retail team at Norwich Castle have been busy creating for the show, so here they are. Many thanks to the staff in the Castle gift shop who put together these lovely displays ready for the opening night:

But the project isn’t over yet – not even close! We still have lots to come, including the brand new permanent displays at Cromer Museum opening in March 2017, and the smaller travelling exhibition which will be touring from 2017 onwards. Look out for more updates over the next month. In the meantime, we hope to see you at the Castle soon!

What does Edis mean to you?

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Liz Elmore, Olive Edis Project Assistant

To accompany the new Olive Edis exhibition at Norwich Castle (full update on this coming soon!), Jordan, our social media guru for Norfolk Museums Service, has asked me to write the inaugural post in a series where we ask people ‘what does Edis mean to you?’, and share their thoughts on why she is important to them. We’ll be publishing regular posts from people who were involved in the exhibition, as well as photographers, museum colleagues and hopefully some others too, but as the ‘host’ for this series here on the blog it seemed only fair that I kick things off.

So here is the big question:

What does Olive Edis mean to me?

If you’ve read my other posts you will already know that to me Olive Edis is a huge inspiration as a person, not just as a great photographer. In a time when women of her standing in society were not expected to work, let alone run their own business, she forged a successful career in an industry which even today is, in some ways, still dominated by men (great article on this here). And she didn’t just carve out this path for herself, she actively encouraged other women to take up a career in photography. We have in the Cromer Museum collection a copy of an article she wrote in 1914 listing the various options for young women interested in working in the field, from retouching to studio work, and recommending what they should expect as a fair wage. (Interestingly, one piece of Edis’ advice from 100 years ago echoes some of the points made in the 2015 article I linked to above about women in photography – she suggests that many parents are more comfortable with a woman photographer for portraits of babies and children, so women have a better chance of setting up in suburban areas with lots of young families.)

One thing that I really admire about Edis is her courage. She jumped at the chance to be part of the war effort when contacted by the Imperial War Museum in 1918, with no thought for her own safety. If the tour had taken place that year as planned, Edis would have been photographing in an active war zone, but this doesn’t seem to have worried her too much. Her letters to the Women’s War Work Sub-Committee suggest that her main concerns were around having the right equipment and fitting enough glass plates into her luggage!

Her diary from that tour of Europe in 1919 also gives us a sense of her quiet confidence in her own abilities, even in the face of direct opposition – another trait I admire. Throughout the tour she met obstacles with good humour (these diary entries from 28th and 29th March 1919 are good examples!) and without complaint (again, see 28th March for a neat summing up of Edis’ unfailing amiability from her companions Lady Norman and Miss Conway).

On top of all that, she was a smart business owner. She was driven, ambitious and capable, and when Edis saw an opportunity, she took it. She built her business by writing to potential sitters and offering them a free portrait, and she was not afraid to approach people she wanted to photograph. She understood the importance of branding and advertising, creating distinctive logos and printing leaflets of testimonials from happy customers. She even mastered the art of upselling, with her own patented autochrome viewer which she would offer as an extra with her colour portraits. All round, a modern businesswoman!

What does Edis mean to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and look out for more posts on this theme over the next few months.

Exhibition sneak peek!

Firstly, I have to apologise for the lack of posts over the last two months. We have been hard at work finishing our book about Olive Edis and putting the finishing touches to our big exhibition at Norwich Castle, which opens on Saturday 8th October. The book is currently being printed ready to go on sale in the Castle gift shop, and we’re busy taking delivery of all sorts of other goodies including tote bags, postcards, notebooks and badges.

Our brilliant display and exhibitions teams at the Castle are busy installing the show as I type, but we had a look around the gallery yesterday and it’s already looking fantastic. Here are a few ‘sneak peeks’ as the first works go up on the walls.

You might also have spotted some banners for the show going up around the Castle, including on the Castle mound and at the main entrance:

Find out more about coming to see the exhibition on the Norwich Castle website, or follow them on Twitter for regular updates.

More updates to come – we can’t wait to give you a first look at the book!

An Exciting Visit

Monday 25th July was a very exciting day for the project team. Cromer Museum curator Alistair Murphy and I had the great pleasure of meeting some of Olive Edis’ surviving relatives, including Olive’s niece, grand-nieces and nephew.

Some months ago, Alistair and I were researching Olive’s family tree, we came across the name Quita Kirk-Duncan (many thanks to Jan Hillier at Sheringham Museum for the tip!). This name rang a bell with me, as I had seen the same name in records at the National Portrait gallery relating to their collection of Edis’ work. After an afternoon of scanning census records, poring over family history sites, and yes, we have to confess, Facebook stalking, we managed to find a contact e-mail for an Anthony Kirk-Duncan, who seemed a possible match for the family we were looking for. To cut a long story short, our hunch paid off, and Anthony very kindly responded to our out-of-the-blue e-mail confirming that he was indeed the Kirk-Duncan we were looking for. His mother, Quita, was the daughter of Katharine Legat, née Edis – Olive’s younger sister. Even more exciting, he told us that his mother and her older brother Dr Peter Legat would be happy to answer our (many) questions about Olive and her sisters, and invited us to come and visit the family and speak to them ourselves. A date was agreed upon, so on 25th July I found myself on a train at 6:50am on my way to North Wiltshire.

011sm.jpgWe were welcomed by Anthony and his sisters Angela and Heather. We were also joined by Angela’s daughter Natasha, who is herself a professional photographer, so it obviously runs in the family! Unfortunately on the day Peter Legat wasn’t able to join us, but by a stroke of good fortune we were able to meet another of Olive’s great-nieces, also named Angela, whose grandmother was Emmeline McKendrick (née Edis) – Katharine’s twin sister. She just happened to be visiting from California that day – what are the chances?

After sharing some photographs of the family from our collection, and hearing some of their memories of Olive, Katharine and Emmeline, we were joined by Mrs Quita Kirk-Duncan, who was kind enough to help us identify some people in our photographs, and share with us some of her memories of the Edis sisters. We were also delighted to see her collection of photographs belonging to her mother, some of which were taken by Olive, and others by Katharine herself. It was a real joy to sit and listen to their stories – Mrs Kirk-Duncan remembered Aunt Olive as a very kind person, and recalled that breakfast at Olive’s house always took a long time because everyone would be talking together, and Olive liked to do breakfast “properly”. Emmeline’s grand-daughter Angela remembers being taken to the studio to have her photo taken as a child, and being given a toy owl by her great aunt Olive.

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Quita Kirk-Duncan with a pet tortoise, by Katharine Legat (née Edis)

We also learnt some fascinating things about Olive, Katharine and Emmeline’s personalities. The family told us that Emmeline was the quieter of the two twins, perhaps a more gentle character, while Katharine was very artistic, with a strong sense of personal style, and loved to make her own clothes. We knew that she had worked with Olive at the studio they set up together in 1905, but left when she married, and we had wondered if she carried on taking photos. We were thrilled to discover that she was a prolific photographer throughout her life, including sharing her sister’s skill with autochromes. One of the highlights of the visit was seeing some of these, including a series showing Quita as a young girl dressed in a variety of beautiful costumes, all handmade by Katharine. The family told us that when Quita was little Katharine used to make miniature versions of her own outfits, so that the two would match when they went out together. Olive was described as being more organised and practically-minded than her sisters, and definitely the businesswoman of the family.

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Mrs Quita Kirk-Duncan showing Alistair some of her collection of photographs by Olive and Katharine

As well as being a real treat for us and absolutely invaluable for learning more about Olive and her sisters, it was also hugely helpful in documenting our collection, as some of the information we had in our records was completely wrong, and could only have been corrected by the family. For example – Alistair and I have been debating for the last few months over which sister was which in some of our photographs, as Emmeline and Katharine were identical twins. It turns out that I had been getting them consistently round the wrong way! This confusion was compounded by the fact that the twins’ husbands had been somehow mudded up in the notes on our collection when it came to us, so we weren’t sure which of the two men in the wedding photos was Dr Robert Legat and which was Dr John McKendrick. Mrs Kirk-Duncan and the family helped us sort out the mistakes.

We also had a photograph of Katharine and two young children, who we had recorded as Quita and Arthur. However, when we spoke to Anthony he told us that the “little girl” we thought was his mother was in fact his uncle Edis, Katherine’s eldest son! Again, that was something we might never have known if we hadn’t learnt it from the family.

Just as we were saying our goodbyes, Mrs Kirk-Duncan received a phone call from her brother Peter, and Alistair was pleased to be able to have a quick chat to him over the phone. We are hoping to go and visit him too, and hear his memories.

We are so grateful to the family for inviting us into their home and sharing their knowledge and memories with us. We will be keeping in touch with all the family and hope they will be able to join us for the opening of our exhibition at Norwich Castle.

Inspiring Women

Today I want to talk about inspiring women. It should come as no surprise that I (and most people who see her work and hear her life story) consider Olive Edis to be very firmly in that category – she was a pioneer in so many ways, from setting up and running a successful business in an industry that was very much considered to be “men’s work”, to adopting new technology and patenting her own inventions – not to mention her commission as Britain’s first female war photographer – so it seems natural that she would be drawn to other women who were making waves in early 20th century society. Edis photographed not one but two Pankhursts (suffragettes Christabel and Emmeline), as well as Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take up her seat, and Emily Davies, champion of women’s right to higher education.

Today though, I’d like to look at two much less well known women who made their mark on the world in their own very different ways. Both were photographed by Olive Edis, and copies of their portraits are held in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

NPG x15453; Jane Marian Joseph by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)

Jane Marian Joseph by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy), sepia-toned matte print on photographer’s card mount, 1920s (National Portrait Gallery x15453)

Jane Joseph (1894-1929) was a talented composer and musician who tragically died of kidney failure aged just 34, with the majority of her work unpublished. Like Edis, she too was beginning to forge a career in a male-dominated field. Women composers are few and far between in the pages of most history books, and it’s only in recent years that those few names have been given the recognition they deserve.

As a schoolgirl Joseph was a pupil of a young Gustav Holst, and later became a close associate – his protegée, assistant, arranger, translator and friend. She organised the many music festivals which Holst sponsored, and worked on her own compositions around her studies at Girton College – although as a woman she was ineligible to actually receive a degree. She tutored Holst’s daughter Imogen, and and encouraged her to compose her own music. Edis too actively encouraged others to follow her into photography, including writing an article on it for a 1914 booklet about careers for women.

Though her work was well received by critics, sadly much of it was written for small-scale events and as such was not published. I can only find reference to one recording of a Joseph composition, in the British Library’s sound archive. However her talent lives on through her work with Holst, and her translations of carols are still used in churches today.

On Joseph’s death, Holst paid tribute her “infinite capacity for taking pains which amounts to genius”. He was reportedly devastated by her loss. Another friend wrote that “England won’t be the same without Jane…I can’t imagine Music without her”.

Olive Grace Walton (1876-1937) made her mark in a much more radical way. She was a militant suffragette who was sent to prison twice while campaigning for women’s right to vote – a week in Holloway Prison in 1911, and four months in Aylesbury Prison in 1912 for smashing windows. During her term at Aylesbury she went on hunger strike and was force-fed, leading to an appeal to Parliament from her local WSPU. Her family were reportedly so horrified by her actions that her younger sister refused to meet her on her release from prison. In 1913, she interrupted an opera performance and was carried out of the theatre after a ‘violent struggle’, was forcibly ejected from an anti-suffrage rally, and when King George & Queen Mary visited Scotland in 1914, Walton threw a petition to stop the force-feeding of suffragettes into the royal carriage, tied to a rubber ball. She was arrested, but the Queen asked that she should not be prosecuted.

With the outbreak of WW1, Walton joined the Women Police Volunteers, and remained in the force after the war ended. In 1920, as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (see left-hand photo above) she was sent to Dublin to work with the Royal Irish Constabulary, but a motorbike accident eventually ended her police career. She went on to work as a hospital almoner – a forerunner of the Social Work department found in modern hospitals.

Her niece recalled in an interview in 1976 that Walton used to cut her hair short “like a man” and wore a suit and tie. She never married, but eventually adopted a daughter who she named Christabel. When she died she proudly left her suffragette medal, badge and papers to her daughter.

Without Edis’ photographs, I would never have discovered these women’s stories. In her lifetime Edis both embodied and recorded the changing experience of women at a turbulent time in history. Through her work, she’s still introducing us to women who were changing their world, either quietly with music, or loudly with smashed windows.

References (with thanks):