Introducing Olive Edis, Britain’s first female war photographer

On Monday 9th November, Alistair Murphy Curator of Cromer Museum visited Norfolk Record Office to present a lunchtime talk ‘Olive Edis: Photographer of Fishermen and Kings’.

Born in London in 1876 Olive Edis moved to Sheringham in the early 20th century, where she formed a career in glass plate photography.

A skilled photographer Olive only used natural light and was not afraid to experiment in her work. She worked in colour from as early as 1914 creating beautiful pastel coloured autochrome photographs using grains of potato starch dyed red, green and yellow, a technique first used by the Lumière brothers.

Olive Edis

Photograph of Olive Edis, by Mary Olive Edis, 1918. Norfolk Museums Service. CRRMU: 2008.14.751

 

As well as a skilled photographer technically Olive was adept at putting the sitter at ease. This is reflected through the wide range of people she photographed from local Cromer fishermen Walter ‘Catty’ Allen and Henry Blogg (a notoriously shy man) to novelist Thomas Hardy and the explorer Earnest Shackleton. Olive was famous in society for her portraiture and was even commissioned to photograph the royal family with portraits of Edward Prince of Wales and George VI included in her repertoire. In addition to portraits Olive took photographs for local businesses including Sheringham Cocktail Lounge.

 ‘Edwardian Photoshopping’

If Olive wanted to alter the final quality of her photograph she had a number of techniques to draw on. For example if she felt one side of the photograph was too dark she would paint the negative with pigment to make it lighter. On occasions she was also known to ‘airbrush’ portraits by scratching the negative with pencil and adding varnish to reduce wrinkles!

 ‘Women at war’

In 1919 Olive Edis was commissioned by the Imperial Museum to visit Northern Europe to photograph women who had served in the forces. Her trip took place in March. She travelled around a war torn Europe with Lady Norman (who was instrumental in founding the IWM and had run a hospital during the First War). Olive kept a diary of her travels, as she was driven around by a chauffeur who she affectionately called ‘Daddy Blow’. The diary is both poignant and gossipy as well as being a record of the circumstances in which she took the photographs that are now held by the IWM.

Over the course of the month she travelled extensively in France as well as Belgium, capturing scenes in Ypres and on the Menin Road of the destruction that the war had left behind. At the same time she recorded the beginnings of the post-war reconstruction as well as the help being given to the large numbers of desperate, displaced people. This trip clearly illustrates the changes in the role of women in British society that occurred as a result of the war, both in terms of Olive and her female companions travelling through the warzone (something that would have been unthinkable not long before) and in the record that Olive made through her photographs of the significant contribution made to the war effort by women.

 Further information

Cromer Museum has been supported by the V & A, Art Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, North Norfolk District Council, Norfolk County Council and more to promote Olive’s story over the next 18 months and create a digital archive of her work. More information about this project can be found by visiting the HLF page.

 

 

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