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)


What does Edis mean to you?


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.

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.


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.


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.

Getting to know you

So far this blog has concentrated largely on Edis’ war work as we journeyed with her through Europe in March 1919, and we’ve seen her use all her skill and determination to become Britain’s, and possibly even the world’s, first female war photographer.

In today’s entry, I’d like to focus on another field of photography in which Edis was something of a pioneer – self-portraiture.


Robert Cornelius, daguerreotype self-portrait, 1839 (Library of Congress)

In 2016, we’re all familiar with the “selfie” – over the last ten years the word has stormed into our collective consciousness, making its debut in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, but the photographic self-portrait is of course nothing new. Self-portraits have a long history as a form of expression for artists, so it’s no surprise that the first photographers almost immediately turned their lenses on themselves. This daguerreotype “selfie” by American photographer Robert Cornelius, taken within months of the birth of photography in 1839, is generally considered be the first photographic self-portrait.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, photo self-portraits were reasonably common, especially amongst commercial photographers who would pose with the tools of their trade to create handy publicity shots like this one. The vast majority of these are, as you would expect of the time, men.

Self-portraits of women from this period tend to be taken by amateurs – usually wealthy women who had the funds to take up photography as a hobby. As such, they tend to be much less formal in their execution. Interestingly, while a Google search for “first selfie” quickly points you straight to the Cornelius photo, I couldn’t find any information online about the first photo self-portrait by a woman. This is the earliest I could find, probably dating from the 1890s, and the woman is not identified. I’d be very interested to know if anyone has pinpointed the earliest one, and especially whether the photographer’s name is known.


Self-portrait of an unidentified woman, 1890s

Olive Edis was a prolific selfie-taker from the moment she picked up a camera. We have over 50 self-portraits in our collection alone, and there are others in private and museum collections around the world. She photographed herself in both colour (autochrome) and black and white throughout her life, using the same techniques as she did in her portraits of other people. As I have mentioned before, one of Edis’ great strengths was her ability to capture natural, relaxed portraits while maintaining the formality of composition and lighting that you would expect from a professional studio portrait. One sitter described it perfectly in a letter to Edis in 1940 – “it is always rather a shock to see one’s own face in a photo but I do feel that your photos have a great reality in them and are not like the touched-up ones which all look the same.”

The same can certainly be said of her self-portraits. She manages to capture something of her own character on the glass, which I think is what makes these photographs so fascinating. They have all the technical quality of a “typical” studio portrait, but with all the charm of the unselfconscious mirror selfies above. Most of them seem to have been taken for fun, rather than for professional use. There are a handful which show Edis in her studio, which may well have been intended to advertise the space, but the majority are purely well-lit, well-composed pictures of Edis, sometimes head and shoulders, but often full-length.

To my mind, there are elements of Edis’ self-portraits that link them directly to the modern selfie. When you take a selfie, you’re creating a version of yourself that you want to share with the world. You might wear your favourite outfit, do your hair nicely, pose to show off your best angle. This can very easily look unrealistic or contrived, but somehow Olive manages to pull it off and make it look natural. Take this one for example – Edis has chosen to wear this dress with an elaborate lace collar. This wasn’t an accident, and nor was the lighting and background choice which shows off that lace to its best advantage. She’s using the light from the window to highlight her hair and the line of her face. It’s very carefully composed and yet it looks relaxed – almost as if you’ve just caught her as she turned to look away from the window.


Olive Edis, self-portrait c.1907 (#outfitoftheday?)

She and her sisters also play with costumes and personas in her self-portraits. This glass plate negative dated 1906 shows a young Olive, Millie and Katharine dressed in romantic costumes and posed as “the three graces” – the three daughters of Zeus from classical mythology representing beauty, charm and joy.

Three Graces 1906

The Three Graces, 1906

However, one thing that Olive’s portraits definitely don’t share with the selfie is ease of production. While you or I can snap a selfie and view the results almost instantly, Edis was taking hers on large glass plates using a bulky full plate camera which, due to its size and weight, had to stand firmly on a tripod. Edis couldn’t adopt the classic selfie stance with camera at arm’s length slightly above the face – she had to carefully set up the shot before posing herself within it, and then triggering the exposure using a remote shutter release, probably similar to this one from the 1890s.

For full-length photos, Edis used to hide the shutter release mechanism in the scenery – in these two gorgeous autochromes she has masked it with foliage and furs:


Self-portrait, c.1910 (Cromer Museum)

NPG x45535; Olive Edis by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy), or  Katharine Legat (nÈe Edis)

Self-portrait, 1900s © National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG x45535)

A key element of the selfie is the immediacy of it – you can create this version of yourself and share it with the rest of the world via the internet. This is obviously not the case with Edis’ portraits, which would need to be developed and printed before she could share them. But again, the impulse to share your photo is nothing new. The 19th century saw a craze for cartes-de-visite, photographic portraits printed the size of a calling card and designed to be shared. Compiling albums of cartes from friends and family as well as celebrities and royalty became a popular hobby among middle class women. Into the 20th century, turning your studio portraits into postcards was fashionable, so you could post your photo directly to your friends. In Edis’ case, she turned some of her self-portraits into postcards and greetings cards and sent them to friends with a personal message, as well as selling them in her studio along with postcards of her portraits of her most famous subjects.


Postcard of self-portrait with camera, 1918-19

One of the things I really love about these self-portraits is that I feel like I know Edis a little better with each one I see, and her personality really shines through. These portraits represent her own vision of herself, and it’s amazing that even now, more than 60 years after her death, she is still showing us who she was through her photos. Perhaps we should all be taking more selfies?

And in that spirit – as part of our new galleries here at Cromer Museum, and for the exhibition at Norwich Castle, we plan to install an Olive Edis Selfie Booth which will allow visitors to take their own selfies in the style of Ms Edis herself. Visitors will be able to study Olive’s portraits, learn how to frame their shot and use natural light, and share the results online. I’m very much looking forward to the testing phase…

For now though, here’s a gallery of some of my favourites of Olive’s from throughout her life. Enjoy.


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.


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.


First posts are always difficult, so let’s start with the easy bit. My name is Liz, and I have just started working on this HLF-funded project at Cromer Museum as the Olive Edis Project Assistant. I will be updating this blog regularly, as well as working on many other aspects of the project. If you’re interested in early photography, the role of women in the early 20th Century, the Great War, the history of Norfolk, or the internal workings of a lottery funded project, this blog is for you! We will naturally wander across a wide range of other topics, but let’s start with those few and see where we end up.


Olive Edis (autochrome self portrait)

You may be wondering, firstly, “who was Olive Edis?” This is a question we hope to answer over the course of this project, but to begin with here’s a succinct biography, courtesy of HLF:

Born in 1876, Olive Edis forged a remarkable and renowned career. An early user of the Lumière brothers’ autochrome technique, her work includes some of the first colour photographs of Canada. She opened her own studio in Sheringham and became famous for her portraits of people from all walks of life – from Norfolk fishermen to Prime Ministers and the Royal Family.

Her talents were soon recognised by the Imperial War Museum which commissioned her to photograph the people, particularly women in the armed services, and the effects of the First World War. Olive’s mission included a tour of Belgium and France in 1919 where she captured some of the devastating impacts of the conflict, including in Ypres.

Today, her work is displayed at Cromer Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Media Museum and even in Austin, Texas at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre.

In 2008, Cromer Museum acquired a collection of some 2000 prints, glass plate negatives and autochromes by Edis. Now, with an £81,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we are delighted to be able to bring her work to a wider audience. We will be putting together a touring exhibition of her work, completely redisplaying the Edis collection on show at Cromer Museum, and producing a publication to replace the only existing book on her work which has long since gone out of print. We’ll also be running talks and workshops, and there will be plenty of opportunity for young people to get involved with the project, including drama workshops and school sessions.


Olive Edis wearing a sou’wester (self portrait)

One of the documents I’ll be referring to regularly in this blog, and throughout the project, is Edis’ own journal of her travels around Europe in 1919 as part of her commission from the IWM. In March 1919 she set off on her travels, keeping a full diary of her progress, including descriptions of the people she met, and how her photographs were achieved. I had hoped to borrow from her first entry as an introduction, to help me out with my “first post” block, but ironically page 1 is missing from our copy! Who knows, perhaps Edis had trouble getting started too. Judging from the rest of her entries though, I rather doubt it! She has a wonderfully confident and witty style, whether discussing her work, the war, or indeed what she had for lunch that day. (I promise not to include too much information on my own eating habits in my blog entries.)

As much as this blog will provide a record of the project and our progress as we celebrate her work through exhibitions, workshops and online access to the collection, I hope that it will also record my journey as I get to know this pioneering woman, and allow you to do the same.

Cromer Museum Curator Alistair Murphy jokingly said to me today that he’s the only person permitted to call Edis by her first name, having spent the last eight years getting to know her – but we hope that by the end of this project, she will be a household name, not only in Norfolk but around the country. And maybe, just maybe, by the end of my contract I’ll be allowed to call her “Olive”!