Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis, by Alistair Murphy and Elizabeth Elmore

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Fishermen & Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis is a slim book produced to tie in with the first comprehensive exhibition, at the Norwich Castle Museum, devoted to photographer Olive Edis (1876-1955).  This was among my favourite exhibitions of last year and it is good to see Edis finally receiving the recognition she deserves for her remarkable output running the gamut from, yes, fishermen to kings, future kings at any rate.  She had a photographic career lasting half a century, beginning in 1900 when her cousin Caroline gave her a camera.  Edis later donated her first portrait, of Caroline, to the National Portrait Gallery.  A hand-written inscription on the back says it was this effort ‘which turned my fate’.  Photography was in the blood because her maternal great-uncle John Murray, Caroline’s father, had taken very early photographs in India.

Edis went into business with a studio in Sheringham in 1905, initially shared with her younger sister Katherine, until Katherine married and moved away.  Though born in London Edis had holidayed in Norfolk as a child and may have felt drawn to the Norfolk coast, and John Murray had retired to Sheringham.  An uncle, Sir Robert Edis, designed her first and a subsequent studio in the town, both with glass roofs.  Later she opened another studio at Ladbroke Grove in London.  All her sitters were treated equally, whatever their social standing, and she became very popular as a portrait photographer, building a thriving business as a result.  The bulk of her work was undertaken with a large format plate camera and portraits were composed using natural lighting whenever possible.  Her technical skills were allied to sound business sense and an eye for detail, even producing logos to identify her studio.  She joined the Royal Photographic Society in 1913 and was made an Hon. FRPS the following year, which would have boosted her reputation and assisted her marketing.

She clearly had a way of putting her subjects at ease, and her personality is reflected in her subjects; only rarely, such as with Ernest Shackleton, does the sitter look ill at ease.  In addition to the normal bread-and-butter work of a local photographic studio she compiled a portfolio of significant individuals, many well-connected socially.  Royal subjects included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), Prince Albert (later George VI), a blond 13-year old Prince Philip, Princess Beatrice, Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter, and her daughter Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, Queen of Spain.  Politicians included H H Asquith, A J Balfour, David Lloyd George (she also took interior shots of No 10, Downing Street in 1917), Austen Chamberlain, Ramsay MacDonald, and Lady Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in the Commons.  She photographed suffragists and women who were making their mark, such as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Millicent Fawcett.  Notable literary types included John Galsworthy (she married his cousin, Edwin Henry Galsworthy, in 1928), M R James, Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw.  Norfolk fisherfolk were a perennial favourite and are perhaps her most striking subjects, capturing their ruggedness but also their humour.  The book contains a number of pictures of her, charting her life from fashionable young woman to lively old lady.

She pioneered the use of colour photography with the recently-invented autochrome, a process developed by the Lumière brothers.  Ever the entrepreneur, Edis patented an autochrome viewer, the diascope, as the images needed to be backlit; examples of autochromes viewed this way were included in the exhibition, and the effect is far superior to that obtained on the printed page.  In 1920 she visited the Canadian Rockies to take advertising photographs on behalf of the Canadian Pacific Railway, some in colour.  As well as still photography she tried her hand at moving pictures, a wedding record and a film about Dutch waterways, both now lost.  For the 1951 Festival of Britain she created some stunning large-scale portraits by overpainting photographs with oil paint.

She was the first accredited female war photographer (though not actually operating in a war zone so her work does not prefigure that of individuals such as Lee Miller and Margaret Bourke-White).  She was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to focus on the role of women and spent a month from March 1919 touring France and Flanders, lugging round her large plate camera.  Besides showing the work of the British Women’s Services (and a group of well-fed American nurses who gave the party tea) she documented the devastation caused by the conflict.  She was able to talk to German ‘surgical cases’, being cared for by British medical staff, in their own language.  The technical quality of some of these photographs is not of the best, indicating the difficult conditions she worked under; a number of severely underexposed plates were kept and the images can now be recovered by means of digital technology.  Edis kept a diary of her trip that on the evidence here deserves to be published in full.  During the war she also took studio photographs of military personnel, including Marshal Foch, several of which conclude the volume.

There are 190 photographs in the Norwich exhibition, which finishes on 22 January 2017, but only a small selection is shown in the accompanying book.  Fortunately the exhibition is only one aspect of the on-going Olive Edis Project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Friends of Cromer Museum and the Norfolk Museums Development Foundation, which is designed to boost the profile of this neglected photographer.  Following the Norwich show’s conclusion a smaller permanent exhibition of Edis’s work will be put on display at Cromer Museum – her extensive archive was bequeathed to her assistant on her death in 1955, and the museum purchased it in 2008.  The book, compiled by Alistair Murphy and Elizabeth Elmore and published by Norfolk Museums Service, is welcome publicity for Edis’s legacy, but there is much left out (such as her images of Hong Kong, though these can be seen along with the rest of the Cromer holding on the Norfolk Museums Collections website), and it would be a fine tribute to her memory if a more comprehensive book on her life and work were published as an output of the Project.


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