Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Olive Edis, photographer in the light

Doing the rounds on Twitter at present is this link to the Imperial War Museum showing photographs taken by Olive Edis in 1919 of the work still being done by women in France and Belgium after the end of the Great War. While the Internet is awash with images taken during the War itself, the post-conflict ones are often just as moving in their stark reminders of what happened in Europe and also those women who also gave their service and even their lives.

Read all about Olive at the end of this post or in this excellent blog, the Olive Edis Project curated by the Cromer Museum, and where you can browse many more of her other photographs. She was known for her ability to put her subjects at ease and for her use of natural light and also took studio portraits of well-known individuals including the royal family.

No words needed (National Post, Canada)

(National Post, Canada)

Champ de Tir, Brussels. Stone marks spot where Nurse Edith Cavell was executed
(Imperial War Museum)

Unnamed river and ruins (northnorfolk.org)

The grave at Etaples of Betty Stevenson who received the Croix de Guerre is tended by a WAAC
(Imperial War Museum)

(Read about Betty here)

Not all doom and gloom - members of QMAAC getting their hair done
(Imperial War Museum)
And here are two images of Edis herself as a pensive young woman and her older self reflecting an ability to still find sheer joy in life.

Olive's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Biography:

Edis [married name Galsworthy], (Mary) Olive (1876–1955), photographer, was born on 3 September 1876 at 22 Wimpole Street, London, the home of her parents, Mary, née Murray (1853–1931), from Aberdeen, and Arthur Wellesley Edis FRCP (1840–1893), obstetrician and gynaecologist. In 1880 her twin sisters, Emmeline and Katherine, were born, and these three girls completed the family. Olive went to Baker Street high school, London; the Cliff boarding-school, Eastbourne; and King's College, London. However, when she was seventeen her father died unexpectedly and she had to earn her own living. Her aunt Caroline, daughter of Surgeon-General John Murray (1809–1898), a well-known photographer in India, had already given her a camera and she had photographed Caroline successfully. It was, as she wrote on the back ‘My very first attempt at a portrait which turned my fate in 1900’.

Self-taught and determined, Olive made a studio at the top of 34 Colville Terrace, Notting Hill, a large flat on three floors to which she, her mother, and her sisters had moved. By 1905 she also had, with Katherine, a smaller studio—again with living space—in Church Street, Sheringham, a popular middle-class seaside resort in Norfolk. Other studios appeared briefly, in Cromer and in Farnham, Surrey, but Sheringham and Colville Terrace were Olive Edis's work places for almost all her working life, and long after Katherine's marriage and departure in 1907. In Sheringham she started with local postcard views but soon turned to portraits, both studio and ‘at home’, of local and visiting celebrities, and also of the photogenic but notoriously camera-shy Norfolk fishermen. This latter achievement highlights her persuasive persistence, but sometimes she overpainted the images with oils. In London she took mainly portraits, pursuing well-known people to sit for her. She commuted regularly between the two studios in her tiny car, burdened with heavy glass plates and often with punctures. In Sheringham two local women assisted with processing.

By 1912 Olive Edis had become one of the first women to use autochromes (introduced in 1907), responding sensitively to their rich colours and inventing her own viewer. She won a medal with an autochrome, Portrait Study, at the Royal Photographic Society's 1913 exhibition, became a fellow of the society the next year, and exhibited regularly for many years. In 1918 the Imperial War Museum commissioned her to record war work by the British women's services in France and Flanders. As the only official woman photographer, and with a specially designed uniform, she travelled 2000 wintry miles in March 1919, testing her stamina, ingenuity, and three cameras to the limit, and brought back unique and poignant pictures. Many are still in the museum's collection with the diary that she kept. One shows six WAACs at Étaples in 1919, tending rows of war graves bearing temporary numbered wooden crosses, a bleak, snow-covered and wooded hill in the background. In 1920 she was commissioned to make ‘colour plates … of the Rockies’ for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and she extended her travels to visit Washington, DC, and to learn to film. The commissioned photographs were exhibited in London later, but sadly none has been traced.

On 27 June 1928 Olive married Edwin Henry Galsworthy, solicitor, a cousin of the writer John Galsworthy. Now she became known as Olive Edis-Galsworthy, and Edwin moved into the Colville Terrace flat. After her mother's death Olive and her husband moved to 32 Ladbroke Square. She gave up the Church Street studio in Sheringham and moved to South Street, where she built a replica studio in the garden, although after her marriage she carried out fewer commissions. Following her husband's death in 1948 she annotated some of her best portraits and presented them to the National Portrait Gallery. She also made a scrapbook ‘to hold some autographs and some notes of interesting days’ (Edis, MS scrapbook, priv. coll.). Her exhibition in Cambridge in February 1920 included a representative sample of her work: portraits of six members of the royal family, various generals, bishops, university dignitaries, politicians, and titled people that were reasonably flattering and reassuringly conventional representations. Her style, with or without colour, showed great naturalism and changed very little over the years; her favourite medium was the 10 inch by 8 inch platinotype, with its velvety, deep-brown effect, used with natural light wherever possible.

Olive Edis-Galsworthy died on 28 December 1955 at her Ladbroke Square flat. She was cremated at Golders Green on 2 January 1956 and her ashes interred in the Weybourne Road cemetery, Sheringham, beside her husband, on 5 January.

Shirley Neale