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was a talented composer and musician who tragically died of kidney failure aged just 34, with the majority of her work unpublished.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):



Getting down to business

This has been a big week for the Olive Edis project team as we’ve been making some important decisions about the content of our planned displays and exhibitions, as well as firming up plans for the the book we are producing about Edis.

20160513_125207 01

Apologies to Cromer Library users – their copy of Face to Face is currently sitting in my office!

One of the most exciting elements of this project for me is the potential to bring Edis’ work to a much wider audience, and make people more aware of the huge contribution she made to the history of photography. One of the ways we hope to achieve this is through a book about her life and work, which will be the first published book solely about her and her career. The only other book which focuses on Edis is Face to Face: The Remarkable Story of Photographers Olive Edis & Cyril Nunn (2005), which is, as the title suggests, a joint study of Edis and her friend, protegé and collaborator, Cyril Nunn. It was Cyril who was the keeper of Edis’ legacy until we acquired the collection from him in 2008 with the help of The Heritage Lottery Fund and The Art FundFace to Face is now out of print, although Norfolk Library & Information Service have several copies available to borrow.

On Wednesday, Curator Alistair Murphy and I met with our publisher to have a chat about our plans for the book, and I have to say that now I’m even more excited! We plan to create a book that will not only act as a biography of Edis and a guide to the works in our new displays and exhibitions, but also as a “coffee-table” book with gorgeous high-quality reproductions of her work, which can be enjoyed for the images alone. Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis will be available for sale at Norwich Castle from October 2016, when our major exhibition opens, and at Cromer Museum from March 2017, to coincide with the opening of our new permanent Edis gallery. We hope that the book will also travel with the touring exhibition we are producing, and will be available to buy at host venues.

We’ve also been discussing merchandise with our retail manager here at Norfolk Museums Service, and are planning a range of lovely items including postcards, tote bags, notebooks and more. I can’t wait to see it all! I’ll be sharing our progess here, of course.

The other major job we’ve been working on this week is the mammoth task of selecting images for the book and objects for the exhibitions from our collection of over 2000 items.20160513_093146 01 There are so many wonderful photos in the collection, it was almost painful to have to filter out so many, but we managed to narrow it down to a long-list of around 300. To help us to visualise our selection, we made a lovely mess in our Education Room by spreading out printed copies of each photo. After two days of deliberating (and occasionally debating), we have created our first draft “A” list of around 175. Next week we’ll come back to them and start to think in more detail about the story we want to tell.

As I was snapping a few quick pictures on my phone, I noticed these three photos happened to have been sorted into piles next to each other. It struck me that these three portraits are almost a perfect representation of Edis’ work – world-famous author Thomas Hardy, local fisherman “Lotion Tar” Bishop, and Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the suffragette movement, all photographed with the same respect and dignity, while maintaining their individual character.

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Thomas Hardy & Lotion Tar Bishop © Cromer Museum, Emmeline Pankhurst © National Portrait Gallery, London

That’s all for this week. As always, your thoughts are welcome! Use the comment function here on the blog or get in touch directly.


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.


Parallels: Lee Miller

I have been promising for a couple of weeks to write an update on our trip to see Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum. Apologies – time just seems to have flown by! I’ve been busy working on the ways to make the collections online more accessible, as well as writing design briefs for the new displays here at Cromer Museum, but more about that another time – for now, here’s a quick run down of the second half of our research trip in February.

After our trip to see the Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A (see my post from 17th February) we made our way across London to a packed IWM in half term to see their retrospective of Second World War photographer Elizabeth “Lee” Miller, which runs until 24th April 2016. We were really impressed with the exhibition, which combines original prints with reproductions on an grand scale, including huge lightboxes and projections, as well as contextual objects such as costume, cameras, letters, and even surrealist art. There is also a short film, and opportunity to hear Miller large_cr10720herself talking about her experiences during the war in recorded interviews available via telephones installed in the gallery. Where Julia Margaret Cameron was a treat for anyone interested in early original prints, A Woman’s War is perhaps a more accessible exhibition, with a huge variety of images, objects and themes – enough to interest any visitor, not just those with a special interest. I especially loved the inclusion of costume, and found myself wishing we had some of Edis’ marvellous hats in our collection – especially her NWM hat, as worn in this self portrait as part of her commission from IWM (then known as the National War Museum).

A Woman’s War was particularly interesting to us because it is billed as the first exhibition to address Miller’s vision of gender, and focuses particularly on how Miller documented women’s lives during the Second World War. Edis’ brief from the Imperial War Museum before her trip to Europe in 1919 was specifically to photograph the work and lives of women in the armed forces, and as well as documenting changes to women’s lives at the start of the 20th century, so there are some really interesting parallels there. In many ways, Edis embodied these changes, as a woman making a living as a photographer and taking commissions that would previously have been given to a man. This is a theme that we really want to draw out in the redisplays of Cromer Museum’s Edis gallery, and in the travelling exhibition that will tour around North Norfolk in 2017, so it was fantastic to see some of the same ideas coming through in the displays at IWM.

As with Cameron, it’s easy to see make a comparison between Edis and Miller. Both had successful careers as photographers before taking on war work – Miller was a fashion photographer for Vogue before being accredited as an official US war correspondent in 1942. She was originally sent to photograph away from the front lines, and like Edis, was commissioned to photograph the work of army nurses. She took many photos of the women’s armed services, including the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), which had its roots in the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps), who were the subject of Edis’ photographs in 1919. She also travelled through Europe at the end of the war, and captured the devastation left behind, much like Edis. Miller too had been forgotten by history until after her death in 1977, when her son discovered her work in the attic of the family home.

wekdingAfter the V&A show, we were left wondering if Edis was influenced by Cameron’s work. As we looked at Lee Miller’s work, we wondered if she could in turn have been influenced by Edis? Thematically and visually some of their images have noticeable similarities, for example this Edis photo (right) from the IWM’s collection showing a member of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps acetylene welding at a Royal Air Force engine repair shop pairs neatly with this Miller photograph entitled “Factory Scene” (click to open at

Similarly, this Edis image (left) of alarge group of Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) at their telephone signal post can be compared to this photo by Miller of two office workers at the Red Cross general headquarters. Of course it may just be that both photographers were focusing on the women’s services, and women undertook the same types of work over the course of the two wars! I don’t know enough about Miller to make any guesses as to her influences or her awareness of earlier photographers, but it is very interesting to look at the similarities between the two and the stories they chose to tell. If you have any thoughts on this, please do get in touch, as it’s something we’d like to explore further.

In terms of style and atmosphere, A Woman’s War is closer to what we’re imagining for our displays here at Cromer and in our travelling show. We want a good variety of types and sizes of images and objects, and we want to consider new and different ways of displaying and interpreting the work. We have some amazing objects, such as several of Edis’ cameras, including (we think) the camera that she took on her trip to photograph the Canadian Rockies in 1920, an Edis-patented diascope for viewing autochromes, advertising ephemera from her studio, correspondence, magazine articles, and even a plaster bust of an unidentified man which we believe was made by Edis when she as a young woman. We’re very much looking forward to including some of this material in the new displays.

I hope you’ve found these last few posts interesting! Things will be a little different over the next month, as most of my blog posts in March will be lifted directly from Edis’ war journal, which she began on 2nd March 1919. I can’t wait to share her travels with you – she’s a very entertaining companion! Join me tomorrow for the first leg of the journey.

Parallels: Julia Margaret Cameron

It’s been three weeks since the project got going in earnest, and we’ve been busy thinking about Edis and how best to bring her work to a wider audience. Yesterday the Olive Edis project team took a trip to London to visit two exhibitions of female photographers whose lives and work bear striking similarities to Edis’, but also present an interesting contrast.

The first show we visited was Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A, an exhibition of over 100 photographs from the V&A collection marking the bicentenary of the birth of the most famous female photographer of the 19th century. Julia Margaret Cameron was born in 1815, and took up photography as a hobby when she received her first camera as a gift at the age of 48. She went on to become one of the most celebrated female photographers in history. Like Edis, she was famous for her portraiture, often posing her sitters as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories.

The exhibition itself was a treat for a fan of Cameron’s work, which I confess to being. Don’t spread it around, but I’m a bit of a sentimentalist at heart. We particularly liked the brilliantly simple #victorianme booth outside, which allows you to take your own Julia Margaret Cameron style portrait by posing behind specially filtered glass. Here are Exhibitions Co-ordinator Ali and I giving it a try – it’s very effective, don’t you think?

It’s easy to spot links between Edis and Cameron, which is why we wanted to take a look at this show. They were both female, both pioneers of photography, both working in portraiture, and sadly, both forgotten by history until relatively recently. But many of those comparisons can only be made with hindsight, from a modern perspective. Are there any contemporary links to be made?

As we looked around the exhibition, we found ourselves wondering how aware Edis would have been of Cameron’s work – if at all. Cameron was “rediscovered” in 1948 when historian Helmut Gernsheim published the first study of her work, so would she have been at all familiar to even a professional photographer like Edis, some 25 years after her death in relative obscurity? We really don’t know.

There are obvious visual parallels between Cameron’s staged portraits and some of Edis’ personal work – consider for example this image of Edis’ sister Katherine (right) compared to Cameron’s The Angel at the Sepulchre (left):

Could this be considered an homage, conscious or otherwise? Or is it just a coincidence? The image of the Madonna as a female ideal has been a popular subject since the 5th Century, but Julia Margaret Cameron was one of the first people to explore these themes through photography, rather than on canvas. We don’t know much about Edis’ early life or education, but as the daughter of a successful London doctor, we can assume she would have had access to the museums and galleries in the city, and so may just have been familiar with the iconography through more traditional art forms. It’s nice to imagine that Edis was inspired by a former female pioneer in her field, but it is perhaps unlikely.

Interestingly, the image of Katherine Legat as a modern day Madonna is quite unusual for Edis, and unlike her usual style. There are a handful of Cameron-esque studies of Olive and her twin sisters Katherine and Emmeline (Millie) as young women in our collection, but this photograph, taken in 1919 when Edis was 43, is somewhat unexpected. Edis was much more realistic in her approach to portraiture than Cameron, perhaps because studio photography was her business, rather than a purely artistic endeavour. After the death of her father in 1905, Edis moved to Sheringham to set up her own studio, and as she remained unmarried until 1928, she was entirely reliant on her own income for the first 23 years of her career.

Edis’ real skill lay in bringing out her sitter’s personality. Her portraits show the subjects as truly themselves, not as characters posed to suit an artistic vision, the way Cameron chose to show her sitters. She had a unique talent for putting people at ease – something which cannot be said for Cameron. Tennyson apparently referred to her long suffering subjects as her “victims”!

Edis, on the other hand, put her success down to having “sympathy” with her sitters:

“I have looked in despair at some persons who have come to my studio in Sheringham, but after I studied them awhile and talked to them I have always discovered an attractive aspect. You see, there’s a great deal in being in sympathy with your sitters.”

from an interview with The Evening World, 1920

Her series of portraits of North Norfolk fishermen are a perfect example of this talent:

How Edis managed to persuade these tough, no-nonsense fishermen into her studio, I don’t know! But she did, and what’s more, she captured these gorgeous portraits on camera. (I am extremely fond of ‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop and his laughter lines.)

On reflection, while it’s interesting to consider Cameron’s possible influence on Edis’ work, I think the links between the two are not clear. There’s no way to know if Edis was even aware of the woman we now consider a pioneer of early photography, and the way the two approached portraiture were really very different. From my point of view though, I hope that at least one element of their respective stories will eventually match. Like Cameron, Edis has been all but forgotten in the years since her death. All it took was one good book – watch this space!

That’s quite enough wondering (and wandering) for now. In my next post I’ll move on to the afternoon of our trip to London, when we visited the excellent Lee Miller: A Woman’s War at the Imperial War Museum, and compare Edis and Miller – two war photographers showing the lesser-seen sides of conflict.

If you have any thoughts on this post, please do leave a comment below, or you can get in touch via the Contact button in the menu. We’d be delighted to hear from you.