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

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