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Olive Edis

Olive Edis: Photographer at Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life

An exhibition to celebrate the life and work of pioneering British photographer Olive Edis (1876-1955) is at Ancient House, Museum of Thetford Life from Saturday December 15, 2018 until Saturday September 14, 2019.

Although relatively unknown, Olive Edis was one of the most important photographers of the first half of the 20th century and the first-ever accredited female war photographer.

Indeed the breadth of her subjects from British royalty and aristocracy to the characterful faces of the fisherman of north Norfolk, together with her highly atmospheric photographs of the battlefields of France and Flanders taken during her time as an official World War One war photographer, raise her to international status.

Edward VIII 1920

The exhibition Olive Edis: Photographer is part of the on-going Olive Edis project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (see notes to editors), which aims to share with the world and boost awareness of Edis’ inspirational life and work

Oliver Bone, Curator said: “Olive Edis was a remarkable woman. She was well-educated, forward thinking, a visionary, an astute business entrepreneur and most importantly a talented photographer with a natural affinity for her subjects – however grand or humble each was afforded respect and dignity. Like the many influential and inspirational women that she photographed, Edis was herself a “new woman”. “Edis’ photographic legacy is a ‘national treasure’."

Belcher Johnson 1914

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, said: “Olive Edis’ work spans social, gender and geographical boundaries to provide an incredible glimpse into the personal world of her subjects, particularly those who were affected by the First World War. Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players we are thrilled to support this project which will finally provide her inspirational story with the recognition it deserves.”

The exhibition features more than 60 rare photographs taken by Edis between the years of 1900 and 1955. The work is presented thematically starting with an introduction to Olive Edis and then looks at her photographic technique and technical expertise. Another section examines her skill in portraiture, which offers a rare glimpse into both high society of the day and the more simple life of East Anglian fisherman. ‘Votes for Women’ is another section featuring the Pankhursts and pioneering elected female politicians Nancy Astor and Elizabeth GarrettAnderson. As an entrepreneur and ground-breaker Edis herself was a “new woman”. Not only did she exemplify the emancipation of women and their changing role in society in her own life, she also recorded it. In addition, Edis’ remarkable war work provides another important theme.

George VI 1920

Edis’ reputation as a photographer grew rapidly and within a few years she already had an impressive list of sitters and commissions. An early self-portrait taken in around 1912 shows Edis as an elegant, rather demure, thoughtful young Edwardian lady gazing directly into the camera lens. She became a member of the Royal Photographic Society in 1913 and the following year was elected a fellow. With studios in Sheringham, Norfolk and later Farnham in Surrey and Ladbroke Grove London, she was something of a photographic entrepreneur quick to recognise the importance and potential of this new technology.

Over the course of her 50-year career, Edis photographed a huge cross section of society. Her signature style, which used natural light and shadow, resulted in striking portraits. Notable are her sensitive, natural photographs of Edward VIII as Prince of Wales and a young Prince Albert (later George VI). It is not known where the photographs would have been taken, possibly in Edis’ London studio. Edis also photographed several other members of the Royal Family including HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, as the young 15-year old Prince Philip of Greece.

Tank on the Menin Road 1919
Other illustrious sitters of the day include the author Thomas Hardy, and no less than four Prime Ministers: David Lloyd George, Herbert Henry Asquith, Arthur James Balfour and Ramsey MacDonald.

As a forward-thinking, progressive, independent woman, it is no surprise that she also photographed several members of the suffragette movement including Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, as well as Britain’s first woman doctor and women’s rights campaigner, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.

Alongside the portraits of the well-to-do in society are a vast number of wonderfully compelling portraits of local Norfolk fisherman, the salt seemingly etched into the lines of their faces. The fishermen remained a favourite subject throughout her career.

Mrs C. Grice
Edis had the ability to put all her subjects at ease. She put her success down to “being in sympathy” with her sitters and as a result was able to capture a true and informal likeness.

In 1918, Edis was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to photograph women’s war work in Europe. She was the first British woman to be commissioned as an official war photographer and only the 5th official British photographer to visit Europe to cover WW1.

Despite her trip being delayed due to the precarious military situation, and some opposition to sending a woman to photograph a war zone, in March 1919 she embarked on a month long journey around France and Belgium with Lady Norman, Chair of the Women’s Work Committee. Edis kept a journal of her travels through war-torn Europe, and this combined with her many photographs, taken using a large glass-plate camera, provide graphic, documentary evidence of the lives of women in the British Women’s Services who worked on the front lines. Atmospheric photographs also capture the devastation that followed the Great War. Many of these photographs now form part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.

Olive Edis
The photographs reveal the technical development of Edis’ work. Initially working with platinum prints, she was also one of the first photographers to experiment with colour autochrome photography and even patented her own design of autochrome viewers, termed diascopes, one of which is on display in this exhibition.

Edis’ passion for photography was undiminished and throughout her career, she maintained her photographic bases in Sheringham and London, splitting her time between the two and driving to and from London in her Austin 7. Despite advances in photography she continued to use her large glass plate camera right up until the 1950s, although she did later own folding cameras which used film.

The last photograph of Edis was taken in 1953/4 by Cyril Nunn, her close friend and collaborator, on her own glass plate camera. Olive Edis died in London in 1955.

It was to Cyril Nunn that Edis left her estate of photographs, prints, glass plate negatives and autochromes. This was in turn offered to the Cromer Museum in 2008 and was purchased with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, North Norfolk District Council and Friends of Cromer Museum. This material, including around 1800 plate glass negatives, provided the impetus for the Olive Edis project. Cromer Museum now has the largest holding of Olive Edis negatives in the world and is a focus for further research and the promotion of knowledge and interest in her life and work.

The majority of the material included in the exhibition is on loan from the Cromer Museum, with additional material from the National Portrait Gallery.