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.

Inspiring Women

Today I want to talk about inspiring women. It should come as no surprise that I (and most people who see her work and hear her life story) consider Olive Edis to be very firmly in that category – she was a pioneer in so many ways, from setting up and running a successful business in an industry that was very much considered to be “men’s work”, to adopting new technology and patenting her own inventions – not to mention her commission as Britain’s first female war photographer – so it seems natural that she would be drawn to other women who were making waves in early 20th century society. Edis photographed not one but two Pankhursts (suffragettes Christabel and Emmeline), as well as Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take up her seat, and Emily Davies, champion of women’s right to higher education.

Today though, I’d like to look at two much less well known women who made their mark on the world in their own very different ways. Both were photographed by Olive Edis, and copies of their portraits are held in the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

NPG x15453; Jane Marian Joseph by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)

Jane Marian Joseph by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy), sepia-toned matte print on photographer’s card mount, 1920s (National Portrait Gallery x15453)

Jane Joseph (1894-1929) was a talented composer and musician who tragically died of kidney failure aged just 34, with the majority of her work unpublished. Like Edis, she too was beginning to forge a career in a male-dominated field. Women composers are few and far between in the pages of most history books, and it’s only in recent years that those few names have been given the recognition they deserve.

As a schoolgirl Joseph was a pupil of a young Gustav Holst, and later became a close associate – his protegée, assistant, arranger, translator and friend. She organised the many music festivals which Holst sponsored, and worked on her own compositions around her studies at Girton College – although as a woman she was ineligible to actually receive a degree. She tutored Holst’s daughter Imogen, and and encouraged her to compose her own music. Edis too actively encouraged others to follow her into photography, including writing an article on it for a 1914 booklet about careers for women.

Though her work was well received by critics, sadly much of it was written for small-scale events and as such was not published. I can only find reference to one recording of a Joseph composition, in the British Library’s sound archive. However her talent lives on through her work with Holst, and her translations of carols are still used in churches today.

On Joseph’s death, Holst paid tribute her “infinite capacity for taking pains which amounts to genius”. He was reportedly devastated by her loss. Another friend wrote that “England won’t be the same without Jane…I can’t imagine Music without her”.

Olive Grace Walton (1876-1937) made her mark in a much more radical way. She was a militant suffragette who was sent to prison twice while campaigning for women’s right to vote – a week in Holloway Prison in 1911, and four months in Aylesbury Prison in 1912 for smashing windows. During her term at Aylesbury she went on hunger strike and was force-fed, leading to an appeal to Parliament from her local WSPU. Her family were reportedly so horrified by her actions that her younger sister refused to meet her on her release from prison. In 1913, she interrupted an opera performance and was carried out of the theatre after a ‘violent struggle’, was forcibly ejected from an anti-suffrage rally, and when King George & Queen Mary visited Scotland in 1914, Walton threw a petition to stop the force-feeding of suffragettes into the royal carriage, tied to a rubber ball. She was arrested, but the Queen asked that she should not be prosecuted.

With the outbreak of WW1, Walton joined the Women Police Volunteers, and remained in the force after the war ended. In 1920, as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Service (see left-hand photo above) she was sent to Dublin to work with the Royal Irish Constabulary, but a motorbike accident eventually ended her police career. She went on to work as a hospital almoner – a forerunner of the Social Work department found in modern hospitals.

Her niece recalled in an interview in 1976 that Walton used to cut her hair short “like a man” and wore a suit and tie. She never married, but eventually adopted a daughter who she named Christabel. When she died she proudly left her suffragette medal, badge and papers to her daughter.

Without Edis’ photographs, I would never have discovered these women’s stories. In her lifetime Edis both embodied and recorded the changing experience of women at a turbulent time in history. Through her work, she’s still introducing us to women who were changing their world, either quietly with music, or loudly with smashed windows.

References (with thanks):