As I mentioned yesterday, my blog posts during March will be a little different from usual. In celebration of the 97th anniversary of Edis’ month-long tour of Europe as Britain’s first official female war artist in March 1919, which happily coincides with Women’s History Month, I will be posting extracts from Edis’ journal, “The Record of a Journey to Photograph the British Women’s Services Overseas”, which she kept diligently every day.
Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to photograph the work of the British Women’s Services overseas, Edis set out with two companions on Sunday 2nd March 1919: Lady Florence Priscilla Norman (pictured left, by Edis © National Portrait Gallery) and Miss Agnes Conway, to document the war work of women in Europe.
Lady Norman was a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum and Chair of the IWM’s Women’s Work Sub-Committee. She was enthusiastically involved with the suffragette movement, and during the war, she and her husband ran a voluntary hospital Wimereux, in northern France, for which she won a CBE. Lady Norman was the brains behind the tour in March 1919 – she had organised the trip, pulled all the right strings, and after some opposition, finally succeeded in commissioning Edis to document women’s lives during the war in ways a man could not. (Incidentally, she was also known for riding around London on an early motorised scooter, known as an Autoped – click here for a fantastic photograph.) Agnes Conway was a British historian, also a member of the IWM Women’s Work Committee, and particularly interested in documenting women’s war work.
As I’ve mentioned before, our copy of the journal is mysteriously without the first page, so we join Edis filling in some important paperwork on the train to the ferry.
We had to fill in our ration forms, undertaking that no one in England would consume our portion whilst we were in France. I examined the precious white pass which Lady Norman said hardly any woman had been given – a permit to travel wherever the British Army was in occupation. One clause amused me – armed with my photographic outfit as I was. It seemed a little suicidal to sign my name to it. It ran as follows:-
‘The holder of this pass is specially warned that under no circumstances is a camera or any other photographic apparatus, instrument or accessory to be brought into the Zone of the Armies. If this order be disobeyed the Camera etc: will be confiscated, the Pass will be cancelled, and the individual who has broken this rule will be placed under arrest.’
I signed it, however, and took the risk.
After a “quite fair” crossing to Boulogne, the three ladies retired to the Hotel Christol, which was to be their base for much of their time in France. Edis describes how they discussed their trip with Dame Rachel Crowdy, Principal Commandant of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) in France and Belgium, and her assistant, Monica Glazebrook.
We discussed the tour, much of the business of which had passed through their hands. The matter seemed hardly popular, the opinion being that it was just a joy-ride of Lady Norman’s, and the places visited had little left in them to be worth photographing.
I can’t help but feel sorry for Edis at this point. After all the excitement of finally being given the go-ahead to make the trip, and reaching France at last, it must have been rather disheartening to hear that the people she was dispatched to photograph didn’t much want to be photographed. If she felt this though, Edis doesn’t record it.
The rest of this first day is taken up with practical arrangements, and a small mishap with some photographic chemicals in the luggage. The tour starts in earnest on the 3rd March.