The Countess

As I was writing about our new camera display in my last post, I was reminded of an article I wrote in January for the EDP’s Object of the Month about the largest of Edis’ cameras that we have in our collection, ‘The Countess’. It seemed worth sharing again, as the camera is now on permanent display in Cromer. Forgive the unseasonal references to Christmas – this originally appeared in the paper just after New Year!

The Countess

‘The Countess’, c.1893, on display at Cromer Museum. The lens and shutter would have been attached to the front plate.

“What was the last thing you took a photo of? Family and friends gathered around the tree, or perhaps a post-Christmas walk on the beach? Whatever the subject, the chances are your photo was snapped on a smartphone, hastily produced from a pocket to capture a spontaneous moment. Within minutes, your photo may have been cropped, edited and shared with the world.

For Olive Edis, one of the leading professional photographers of the early 20th century, the process was rather more involved.

Sitting for a portrait in the 1900s would have been a time consuming affair. The photographer would need to pose their subject, arrange the lighting, adjust the aperture and focus manually, and load the large, cumbersome camera with a glass negative, all before exposing a single image. It’s no wonder that portraits from this time can look stiff and uncomfortable. Edis, however, had a unique talent for putting her sitters at ease to draw out their personality, which in combination with her obvious technical skill produced relaxed, natural portraits that captured a spark of the sitter’s character.

At the height of her career Edis photographed Prime Ministers and royalty, as well as the North Norfolk fishermen whose twinkling eyes still captivate audiences today. She was a pioneer of colour photography, a successful businesswoman, and the first British woman commissioned as an official war photographer. In the 1920s she visited Hong Kong, chased a bear in Canada, and mingled with celebrities – and she captured it all with her trusty plate camera.

This particular camera, ‘The Countess’, was made by the London & Paris Optic & Clock Company in around 1893. It came to Cromer Museum with a collection of around 2000 glass plate negatives, prints and autochromes originally left to Edis’ assistant Cyril Nunn after her death in 1955. It’s the largest collection of her work in the world, and also includes equipment and papers from her studio.

Instead of a roll of film, this camera was loaded with a single glass plate negative in a wooden holder to protect it from light. A new negative was loaded into the camera for each shot. We have one or two examples where Edis must have forgotten to change the plate, resulting in a surreal double exposure.

Edis preferred to use her plate camera into the 1950s when most photographers had switched to film, so it’s fitting that the last picture we have of her was taken by Cyril Nunn using Edis’ own camera in 1953. I often wonder what she would think of the advances in technology that allow us to snap a picture with no chemicals, plates, or preparation. I think she’d be eager to try it and explore the possibilities of digital. But perhaps, after all, she’d be drawn back to her faithful old plate camera.”

‘The Countess’ is on display in the permanent exhibition Fishermen and Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis at Cromer Museum.

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Our new galleries are open!

Phew – it’s been an extremely busy few weeks since my last post, but I’m delighted to say that our new permanent displays of Olive Edis’ life and work are now open!

Our fantastic design and technical team have worked miracles in our little fisherman’s cottage, and completely transformed these two rooms. Despite having built new walls inside both rooms, somehow they have made them seem even bigger than before!

My personal favourite bit of our new displays is the big case full of Edis’ cameras, which you can see in the collage above (click for bigger versions). For scale, the photo backdrop to the case, showing Edis in the Canadian Rockies, is slightly larger than life-size, so the case is more than big enough to accommodate ‘The Countess’ camera mounted on its tripod, along with some of Edis’ other cameras and equipment. Whenever I go to a photography exhibition, particularly early photography, the one thing I’m often left wondering is how the photos were taken, what the process would have been, and what equipment would the photographer have needed. So when I learnt that Cromer Museum’s collection included not only the original glass negatives and prints, but the cameras that they were taken with, I knew I wanted those to be included in our new displays. I hope that now visitors will be able to get a sense of how Edis worked, and how much technical skill was required compared to the relative ease and speed of the digital age. When you see the size of ‘The Countess’, and realise that she carried something very similar around Europe along with a trunk of 200 glass plate negatives, plus all her developing chemicals and changing bags,it really does bring to life just how difficult an undertaking it would have been. Special thanks here to designer Katie Jeffs and conservator David Harvey, who designed and installed this wonderful display of equipment.

We also have a fantastic new touchscreen interactive designed by David Coles at Superia Commerce, which features photographs, video and audio. Visitors can listen to an actress reading extracts from Edis’ war diary (thank you to Kate Banks as the voice of Olive!), and watch three fantastic short films produced entirely by Film & Media students at Paston 6th Form College. You can watch the first film here:

Our next priority as a project team will be our travelling exhibition, The Road to Ypres: The War Photography of Olive Edis, which will be opening at the end of this month at the North Norfolk District Council Offices in Cromer. After that, a larger version will move onto Farnham Museum. For a full list of venues take a look at my last post.

We also have plenty of events coming up here at the museum – visit our Facebook page or pick up an events leaflet for more details.

If you’re new to the blog, don’t forget that throughout March last year I shared extracts from Olive’s war diary, posting each one on the day that they were written 98 years ago. Find out what she was up to on 8th March 1919 here.

Last but not least – happy International Women’s Day! Here’s to pioneering women of the past, present and future.

Hope to see you at the museum soon.