Thursday Talk with Frank Meeres

Book your place now for our inaugural Edis-inspired talk at the museum, on 2nd March! The new galleries will be open too so do come and see the new displays, and hear about the jobs that other Norfolk women did during the Great War. Call or e-mail to book – the museum is closed at the moment, but e-mails are checked regularly, or you can leave an answerphone message and someone will get back to you. Hope to see you there!

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Next Steps

bw-print-of-olive-edis-wearing-souwester-hat-by-mary-olive-edisHas it really been almost four months since we declared Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis open at Norwich Castle? The time seems to have flown by, and our major retrospective closed last weekend. We have been absolutely delighted with how people have responded to discovering Edis and her work for the first time. We’re waiting to hear our final visitor numbers, but by early January we had already seen almost 50,000 visitors through the door – putting Edis up there with some of the Castle’s most popular exhibitions! We are so pleased that she is finally getting the recognition she deserves, and we hope people have been as inspired by her enthusiasm and talent as we have. Here’s some of my favourite feedback from the exhibition:

“I have a new favourite photographer. Thank you!”

“Superb exhibition. What a creative and positive force of inspiration for all.”

“What an inspiring woman. Can we see more?”

Well, for the visitors who asked for more – you are in luck! We are in the process of transforming two galleries at Cromer Museum, creating a new permanent display of Edis’ work. The collection was previously displayed in a small room on the ground floor of the fisherman’s cottage, but by March 2017 this will have been completely refurbished and the collection will have expanded into the adjacent room, more than doubling the amount of space permanently dedicated to Edis. Our amazing design and technical team have designed exciting new displays which will include digital screens, lightboxes, photographs blown up to the size of the wall, original prints, and touchscreen technology to allow visitors to explore more of the collection. It’s a hive of activity here at the museum – new cases to house Edis’ cameras and equipment are being built as I type!

Here’s what the two rooms looked like before we started work:

And here’s what they look like at the moment!

We’ll keep you posted as work progresses. The new galleries will open to the public on 1st March 2017, the first day of our summer season, and we have a full events programme coming up in spring and summer starting with a series of Edis-themed talks in Cromer Museum’s education room:

  • Thursday 2nd March 2017, 11:30am – The Many Roles of Women in the First World War with Frank Meeres, author of several local history books and archivist at Norfolk Record Office
  • Wednesday 15th March, 11:30am – The Photography of Olive Edis with Alistair Murphy, Curator of Cromer Museum
  • Thursday 30th March, 11:30am – From Pixel to Stitch with textile artist Lisa Little, who  has created a series of embroidered portraits from Edis photographs (see some examples here)

More info on how to book will be available soon.

We’re also working on our travelling exhibition of Edis’ war photographs, The Road to Ypres: The War Photography of Olive Edis, which will travel to the following venues in 2017 and 2018:

  • North Norfolk District Council Offices exhibition space (March 29th – May 23rd 2017)
  • Farnham Museum, Surrey (6th June – 26th August 2017)
  • King’s Lynn Town Hall (2nd Sep – 3rd Dec 2017)
  • The Belfry Centre for the Arts, Overstrand (9th Dec 2017 – 7th Jan 2018)
  • Norwich Millennium Library and The Forum (January – February 2018 final dates tbc)
  • Sheringham Museum (6th June – 23rd September 2018)

Don’t forget that in the meantime you can still buy your copy of our book, Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis from the gift shop at Norwich Castle, and keep up to date with the project here and via our Twitter and Facebook pages.

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!