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.

Lots of Letters

Earlier this week Curator Alistair Murphy and I made our second visit to IWM London as part of the project, this time to see some correspondence in their collection relating to Edis’ photographic tour of France and Belgium in 1919. The tour was commissioned and funded by the IWM’s Women’s Work Subcommittee, formed in 1917 to record the work of women in wartime, so many of the administrative records relating to Edis’ war photos are still held in the archive at IWM. They are all available to view by appointment, along with thousands of other documents in the archive, at the museum’s fantastic Research Room.

Between 1917 and 1920, the Subcommittee gathered a unique collection of art, documents, uniforms, badges, books, photographs and other memorabilia relating to women’s contribution to the First World War. In 1918, it was proposed that an official photographer be commissioned to photograph women working on the front lines in Europe, and in autumn that year Miss Agnes Conway and Lady Priscilla Norman, Secretary and Chair of the Women’s War Work Subcommittee respectively, set about organising the tour. They would both eventually accompany Edis to Europe in March 1919. (If you have read any of my posts from March this year you will already be familiar with the indefatigable Lady Norman and Miss Conway from Olive’s diary.)

The letters we saw at IWM range in date from October 1918 to April 1920, and cover the initial proposal of the idea right through to the nitty gritty of final payments. They are a fascinating record of the difficulties the three women faced in getting the permissions and permits required to send a photographer into an active war zone, and the preparations Edis had to make before embarking on the tour.

The first letter to Edis from the Women’s War Work Subcommittee is dated 19th October 1918, but presumably the idea had been suggested to her at an earlier date. Olive replied almost by return post –

“Your letter asking me to go our to France with Lady Norman and yourself to photograph the British Women’s Services arrived this morning. The idea attracts me so much. It would be a most interesting trip… I would be very pleased to give my services [unpaid] as it is for a national collection, not as an operator pure and simple.” (Olive Edis to Agnes Conway, 20th Oct 1918)

It was agreed that IWM would pay Edis’ expenses – hospitality and photographic – but that there would be no salary attached. Olive, ever the businesswoman, managed to negotiate not just the cost of photographic plates and developing materials, but also a flash light (costing “about a sovereign”) and insurance for her three cameras.

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Postcard of self-portrait with camera, 1918-19

These pre-tour letters also clear up a bit of a mystery for me. In one of the photographs we have of Olive dating from around 1918 she is wearing a cap with a badge reading “NWM”. Alistair had told me that this stood for “National War Museum” (the original name for IWM), but I wondered why she would be wearing it for the tour, as that name was changed in 1917. It appears that Olive was keen to have something to signify her status as an official war photographer, and requested a badge –

“I do not suppose that as the trip is so short there would be any question of a uniform allowance, but…I would like the right to wear at any rate a badge. If I am to photograph the British Women’s Forces in France there would surely be no difficulty about this.” (Olive Edis to Agnes Conway, 20th Oct 1918)

Miss Conway responds – “you could wear the initials ‘N.W.M’ – National War Museum – on your coat if you like…there is no other badge in existence” (21st Oct 1918).  I’m now wondering if Edis took the photograph above especially for her passport, as she asks “can I please have the badge IWM, as I should be photographed for my passport” (24th Oct 1918). Miss Conway replies, “it belongs to the old days when we were the National War Museum, but no other has been made” (26th Oct 1918).

After this first flurry of activity though, things ground to a halt. Although the units they planned to photograph were very supportive of the idea, there were a number of obstacles in their path which led to the tour being deferred from early November 1918 to March 1919. These ranged from the question of getting a car to take them around – “I am afraid there may be a difficulty about getting a car from GHQ. They are very sticky about cars” (2nd Nov 1918, General Donald to Agnes Conway) – to a clash with the General Election, and Lady Norman catching influenza, despite her best efforts to defeat it through sheer willpower (in a hand-written letter to Miss Conway just before becoming very ill she directs a series of letters from her bed, and signs off with: “I am cossetting myself up today with a day in bed, but I have nothing the matter with me.”) Then of course the military situation changed completely with the Armistice of 11th November which ended the fighting on the Western Front, and the question of the tour was put off until early 1919. Lady Norman eventually wrote to Edis in February with the news she had been waiting for –

“Miss Conway and I have at last I believe obtained the necessary permission to go to France and take you with us. You will think we have been very long in doing so, but I assure you these things are not very easy to arrange… The tour should be an interesting one, if somewhat arduous, but I think you would enjoy it.” (Lady Norman to Olive Edis, 19th Feb 1919)

As we know, the group finally set off  less than two weeks later, on 2nd March.

The post-tour letters are equally fascinating, and I will come back to those another day. For now if you want to relive the tour itself, you can go back to my posts from March this year.

 

The Record of a Journey

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.

NPG x15512; Florence Priscilla (nÈe McLaren), Lady Norman by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)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.

A Discovery

I did say that my next blog would be about the Lee Miller exhibition, and I promise that will be up soon, but I wanted to share an exciting discovery because I’m a bit thrilled with it.

0_0_4636_6310There are naturally gaps in our knowledge of Edis’ life, so it’s quite exciting to discover a new “chapter” in the story. I was on the trail of the photographs that Edis took in the Canadian Rockies in the 1920s (some of the very first colour photographs of Canada, taken as part of a commission for the Canadian Pacific Railway) when I stumbled across an article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled “My Most Exciting Camera Adventure”. The article is dated 23rd January 1921, and it features a rather fanciful illustration of “Miss Edis” photographing bubbles.

I’m hoping to get a full size copy via the San Francisco Public Library, but some of the text has been OCR scanned from the newspaper itself and is available at Newspapers.com. Here’s what I’ve managed to discover so far.

The portrait in the bottom right of the article is of Sir James Dewar (20 September 1842 – 27 March 1923), a Scottish physicist and chemist, who among other achievements, was the inventor of the Dewar flask – more commonly known as a vacuum flask or Thermos (Dewar failed to patent the idea, and it was exploited commercially). During and after the First World War, Dewar’s work focused on surface tension in large soap bubbles, which he kept preserved in vacuum flasks. According to one site, he still holds the world record for the longest lasting soap bubble! We knew that Edis had photographed Dewar with his bubbles, as we have a print of the portrait in our collection, dated 1910s.

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What we didn’t know was that she also produced a series of autochrome images as a scientific record of the individual bubbles, as outlined in the article from the SF Chronicle. The first few paragraphs were illegible, and I have had to insert quotation marks where they seemed to make most sense, as these were not recorded by the OCR scanner. I’m not sure which bits of the second paragraph are quotes from Edis, and which bits are commentary by the author, so you can make up your own mind which of them you think uses the phrase “ravishingly beautiful”!

“For ten years I have been making a special study of color photography, but my experience in Prof. Dewar’s laboratory was the most exciting camera adventure I ever had”, declared Miss Edis a few days ago in New York.

“Sir James Dewar”, said Miss Edis, “has mastered the art of producing soap bubbles that are permanent. That may sound queer, for naturally you connect the idea of a soap bubble with something ephemeral – it is an iridescent beauty floating in the breeze and the next moment it has burst and vanished. Sir James has discovered that by producing the bubbles in pure air in the air-proof chamber, the life of the bubbles may be prolonged not only for hours but for years. As the bubble grows older its colors become more ravishingly beautiful. Think what a benefactor to humanity is a man who can extend the life of pure beauty like that. And if a bubble is anything save pure and wonderful what is it? In my quest for the unusual and exquisite in color I came upon this man of bubbles. He permitted me to photograph the patriarch of them all a venerable sphere of nothing surrounded by soap aged four years.”

The exquisite blending of colors caught by the Lumiere-autochrome plate is a thing of such poignant beauty that it makes one gasp to realize that it is only a photograph. One bubble, fortunately not the patriarch, burst just at the very instant it was to be photographed. The effect of that silent explosion could not have been greater, Miss Edis explained, if a dynamite bomb had burst right alongside her camera. “For the moment it seemed as though some dreadful catastrophe had occurred. It was hard to believe that only a soap bubble had burst.”

Miss Edis has photographed wild animals including bears in the Canadian Rockies. She has taken pictures of landslides and snowslides. Among others who have posed for her are the Queen of Spain, the Prince of Wales and his sister Princess Mary. But she declares the only time she felt the least bit excited about her work was during the tense moment when she was making photographs of Sir James Dewar’s precious bubbles.

Following this lead, I found an article from 29th August 1916 from the Wairapara Daily Times which mentions that “six photographs of soap bubbles, taken in their natural colours by Miss Olive Edis, were exhibited at a reception given at the Royal Society by the President in London on June 22nd”, dating the work to 1915-16. This presents another interesting example of Edis proving successful in a male-dominated environment. The Royal Society didn’t admit its first female Fellow until 1945, so I would guess (and please do correct me if I’m wrong here) that it was quite unusual to exhibit work by a woman at a Royal Society reception in 1916, even if the emphasis was on the scientific significance of the bubbles, rather than the images themselves. It’s interesting that in the SF Chronicle article, Edis is quoted as saying that “in my quest for the unusual and exquisite in color I came upon this man of bubbles. He permitted me to photograph the patriarch of them all”, which suggests that Dewar didn’t commission the work, but rather Edis approached him. I think it says quite a lot about her character that a) she asked, and b) he agreed! After all, if you’ve been preserving a bubble for 108 days, you’re probably not going to let just anyone into the lab to photograph it. I wonder how she pitched it? In any case, Dewar was obviously pleased enough with the results to present them at the Royal Society.

It’s also fascinating to know a little more about her time in North America. We knew that she had travelled down from Canada after her commission in the Rockies (we have a photograph of the interior of the British Embassy in Washington dated 1920), but nothing more concrete than that. We know now that she was obviously in New York at the beginning of 1921. I have also found a reference to her photographing Native Americans at around the same time – “Miss Edis has been very successful in her reproduction of Indian types [Native Americans], their full dress regalia are admirably shown.” (NPG attribute this quote to Financier, 9 May 1921) Sadly these have apparently not survived.

As always, comments, suggestions, thoughts on this are very much welcomed! Leave a comment below or get in touch via the Contact page.