On the road with ‘The Road to Ypres’

Yesterday the project team took to the road to deliver and install The Road to Ypres, our travelling exhibition of Olive Edis’ war photography, at the Museum of Farnham in Surrey. This is the second stop on the tour but the first venue to show the full exhibition, which is designed to be modular and flexible to suit a range of different sized venues. Edis had a temporary studio in Farnham, so we’re really excited to be able to show her work here.

As well as exploring the photographs Edis took as part of her war commission from the Imperial War Museum, the exhibition touches on her other work and offers visitors the chance to dress up and take a seat in The Studio for a photo. There is also a touchscreen interactive featuring extracts from Edis’ war journal, along with a further selection of images from Cromer Museum’s collection and the three short films made by Paston College students that I mentioned in a previous post.

This stop on the tour coincides with The Museum of Farnham’s exhibition of the work of local engineer and inventor John Henry Knight (1847-1917) , a prolific photographer who recorded many aspects of Edwardian life – a perfect pairing for The Road to Ypres!

Find out more about both exhibitions and related events at The Museum of Farnham here.

A Picture of Inspiration

Recently the Olive Edis project team attended a very special performance at Sheringham Little Theatre entitled “Olive Edis: A Picture of Inspiration”. The play, produced and performed by the theatre’s youth drama group, had its debut showing to a full house on Friday 19th May.

Sheringham Youth Theatre production of  Olive Edis - A Picture Of Inspiration. Pictures from the technical rehearsal at the Sheringham Little Theatre. Picture: James Bass Photography

Over the last few months, Sheringham Youth Theatre have been working with Youth Engagement Officer Tricia Hall and the project team to produce a short play about Olive Edis’ life and work, supported by our grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Since the first rehearsal back in February, the group have worked with a professional team – writer Steve Banks and director Bridget Robinson – to write and perform their own brilliant re-telling of Olive Edis’ fascinating story.Sheringham Youth Theatre production of  Olive Edis - A Picture Of Inspiration. Pictures from the technical rehearsal at the Sheringham Little Theatre. Picture: James Bass Photography

The show begins with a school presentation on Olive Edis from student Lauren, who is initially less than enthusiastic about the chosen topic – that is, until Olive herself turns up to tell the story in her own words! There were tears and laughter on Friday night as the cast took us seamlessly from breakdancing selfies (no, really!) to the horror of World War One, while Olive herself made sure the audience heard the real truth of the story – and discovered how new technology has made a camera as portable as a pocket watch. Along the way we met Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a doctor (one of her many ‘firsts’, as we learned!), Old Pegg, a local fisherman, and even the King of England himself. The students used projections of Olive Edis’ photographs from the Cromer Museum collection to set the scene and help tell the story – a touch of genius which even allowed Olive and the students to swap selfies!

The play was a delight from start to finish, and it was a real treat and privilege to see the work and enthusiasm that the whole group put into it. Our philosophy while working on the project has always been, “what would Olive Edis think of this?” – we’re absolutely sure that she would have thoroughly enjoyed the show!

A huge thank you from the whole project team to the incredibly talented young people at SheringhamYouth Theatre, Sheringham Little Theatre, Steve Banks, Bridget Robinson, and everyone involved with the show.

(Photos from the technical rehearsal by James Bass)

Fishermen to Kings: The Forgotten Photographs of Olive Edis

Over the last few months we’ve been working with local film company Eye Film on a documentary about Olive Edis for Mustard TV and BBC East. The programme follows world-renowned photographer Rankin as he discovers more about her life and work, and attempts to recreate Edis’ signature style using her original camera in a photoshoot at her old Sheringham studio with Lord of the Rings actor Bernard Hill. We saw it for the first time last night and we are delighted with the results! I’m so pleased that she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves.

The documentary aired on BBC East last night and is now available to watch online via BBC iPlayer (until 3rd May 2017):

Fishermen to Kings: The Forgotten Photographs of Olive Edis

The camera that Rankin uses in the documentary is the ‘Ashford New Patent’, a half-plate camera dating from the late 19th century. It’s one of several cameras that we hold in our collection which were originally owned by  Olive Edis. You can see it on display along with some of her other studio equipment here at Cromer Museum.

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This is a beautiful, quality camera, and would have been an expensive purchase. Edis almost certainly acquired it second-hand (the patent is dated 1887, and the dealer’s name on the front plate dates it to pre-1894 – some years before she took up photography) and I imagine it saw a fair amount of use in its day. The fact that it is still in good working order today, around 125 years later,  is a real testament to the camera’s quality.

The patent in the camera’s name was granted for its unique folding design. The bellows and focusing screen can be collapsed to make the camera more portable (see some photos of it collapsed here). The advantage of this folding design is that the lens doesn’t need to be removed and the bellows and focusing screen are protected – the front panel ends up on the top, keeping everything covered.  (Thanks to RedBellows.co.uk for providing more information on this.)

The lens doesn’t have a shutter attached, but Edis would have almost certainly used one. Early lenses didn’t have built-in shutters like modern cameras – long exposure times on wet-plate processes meant that simply removing the lens cap and counting was enough. With the invention of gelatin dry plates, which Edis used, exposure times were much shorter and so a shutter capable of exposing the plate for fractions of a second became a necessity. Photographers could buy shutters and attach them to their existing lenses.

You’ll notice in the documentary that Rankin simply removes the lens cap and counts his exposure time. That’s because the speed of a commercially produced gelatin dry plate isn’t achievable with a home-made version, so the plates he used (made by early photography expert Kevin Lunham) required longer exposure times than Edis would have needed.

You’ll have to watch the documentary to find out whether the shoot was successful or not! I hope you enjoy it – let us know what you thought in the comments.

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.

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.

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.

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.