Olive Edis (1876-1955)

Born: Mary Olive Edis; Also known as Olive Edis-Galsworthy

Sector: Media (Photography)

On 19th February 1919, Lady Priscilla Norman, Chair of the Women’s Work Sub-Committee of the recently formed Imperial War Museum, wrote a letter to the photographer Olive Edis.   She had been making plans to ensure the work of women abroad was properly documented and was now ready to get started.

“Dear Miss Edis,
I have arranged a very interesting trip – Boulogne, Calais, Bruges, Brussels, Amiens, Abbeville, Etaples, Havre, Rouen, Paris, Tours, Bourges, Paris again, Nancy Bar le Duc, Strasbourg.  The tour may take about three weeks.  We hope to start on Sunday 2nd March by the 8.50 train from Victoria Station if that will suit you.  Will you be sure that you bring a warm travelling rug and a warm coat and as little luggage as you can manage with for three weeks'”

We don’t know if any other women were considered for this high-profile assignment, which made Olive the first British woman to be an official war artist and one of only five British photographers commissioned to cover the First World War but she was an obvious choice.  She was a prize-winning photographer, sought after for her portraits and with more than 15 years’ experience. Yet despite coming from a family with artistic leanings, this career was probably not what the young Olive Edis would have predicted for herself.

Olive was born in Marylebone on 3rd September 1876.  Her father, Arthur Wellesley Edis, was a gynaecologist with a practice at 22 Wimpole Street but Olive’s education was cut short when he died in 1893 aged only 53.  With 13-year old twin sisters, money was tight and Olive dropped out of King’s College, London.  She knew she needed to earn her own living, but it took her a while to work out how. Mary Edis, Olive’s mother, was the niece of the Surgeon General John Murray, who photographed the architecture in the Mughal while he was working there.  In 1900 Caroline Murray, John’s daughter and a skilled photographer herself, gave Olive a camera. 

By 1905 Olive had enough confidence to set up a studio in Sheringham in collaboration with one of her younger sisters, Katherine.  This might not seem like the most obvious place to start out but the railway had reached Cromer in 1877 and by the turn of the century the north Norfolk coast was a holiday hotspot. Olive also had family connections to the area: her great-uncle Murray had retired to Sheringham and her father’s brother, the architect Robert Edis, who extended and rebuilt Sandringham House, lived in north Norfolk.  Olive preferred to work with natural light and he  designed her a workspace with a glass roof. 

Olive Edis by Sarah Jane Dugdale (née Hartland), half-plate autochrome,
early 1900s NPG x38479
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Olive’s early work is rooted in her local community, with shots of the landscape and fishermen, weddings and babies.  Like Christina Broom, she turned her images of the fishermen and their families into postcards for holidaymakers. She slowly built up her practice, possibly helped by family connections to gain access to famous Sheringham residents, giving kudos to her portrait work.  Olive was also related to Elizabeth Garret Anderson and published a photograph of her in 1908.  However, even if Olive did get a leg up in the early days, what really propelled her forward was her bold decision to start making portraits in colour.  
Autochrome was an early colour process commercialised by the Lumiere brothers in 1907.  They found a way to make coloured images by spreading a layer of potato starch injected with blue, red and green dye across a glass plate, producing a soft-toned colour image. The problem was that, at this point, the colour image could not be transferred from the glass plate to paper.  If you see an autochrome in a museum now the glass plate is usually mounted into a wall and backlit.  Olive invented her own version of the viewing device that was used at the time, a diascope, branded with her name and logo. 

Belcher Johnson by Olive Edis c.1914, autochrome, from Norfolk Museums Collections

In 1913 In 1913 Olive was elected as a member of the Royal Photographic Society. By now she also had a studio in London, at the new family home at 34 Colville Terrace, and the next year her profile really started to rise.  She won medals from the Edinburgh Photographic Society and the Royal Photographic Society, which also elected her as a Fellow.  She was very proud of one portrait in particular from this period, a portrait of Thomas Hardy.  In June, Olive was summoned to Buckingham Palace to photograph HRH Princess Mary.   The fact that the daughter of the King was being photographed in colour was seen to indicate that ‘a change of fashion in photographic portraiture may be expected and quickly’ and in 1915, a large show of Olive’s work was staged at the Royal Institution.  
The commission
The War Cabinet approved a proposal to create a National War Museum in March 1917 and it was renamed the Imperial War Museum later that year.  Right from the start it was recognised that the work of women needed to be documented and the woman chosen to lead this exercise was Lady Priscilla Norman.  

Lady Norman on her scooter, c.1916

Lady Norman came from a family of liberals and suffragists and she had spent the early years of the war running a large hospital in Wimereux, for which she was recognised with a CBE in the first war honours list of August 1917.   

The honorary secretary, Agnes Conway (1885-1950), was the daughter of the museum’s director, Sir Martin Conway, and graduate of Newnham College, Cambridge.  They were a determined and energetic pair and made rapid progress gathering materials to show what women had been doing at home but as it became clear the war was heading to its conclusion, they realised they also needed to record the work of women abroad. They knew that a woman photographer would be able to access areas that a male photographer could not and hoped that by spending time living among the women in their camps she would be able to achieve photographs that captured the everyday details of their lives, at work and off duty. 

On 9th October 1918 Agnes set about getting the necessary permissions from the Army for “a tour for the purpose of securing adequate photographs of the nursing services and the QMAAC [to be] undertaken by Lady Norman and myself with Miss Edis, the photographer.” 

Agnes wrote to Olive on 19th October 1918, laying out the details of the trip including the commercials (Olive’s expenses would be paid but there would be no salary) and the working conditions (“as the light will be poor and most of the subjects will be interiors I imagine it would be necessary to do them by flashlight, but I do not suppose this would prevent any difficulty for you”).

“The idea attracts me very much, it would be a most interesting trip” Olive replied the next day.   She was, however, keen to dress the part.

“I feel that it would be far more satisfactory to go out with some official position. I do not suppose that as the trip is so short there is any question of a uniform allowance but..would like the right to wear at any rate a badge.  If I am the photographer of the British Women’s Forces in France there would surely be no difficulty about this.”

Honorary Secretary Agnes Ethel Conway MBE, Imperial War Museum. Copyright: © IWM.

Negotiations continued, between Agnes and the permit-givers over access and between Agnes and Olive over the details including inoculations, insurance and badges.

Olive to Agnes: 27th October:

“I am having a waterproof motor cap, too – and wonder whether I might have a badge for that?  I would willingly pay for it.”

Agnes to Olive: 28th October:

“The two badges I sent you are the very last in existence and I am afraid it will be impossible for you to get another.”

One of the two badge can be seen here on Olive’s cap.

Postcard of Olive Edis, photo by Olive Edis from Norfolk Museums Collection. 

The ‘very interesting trip’
In the end it took another four months to secure the necessary permissions and so it was early on the morning of Sunday 2nd March that Olive finally made her way to Victoria station.  She was in good spirits: her photographs of Marshal Foch and David Lloyd George had appeared as full-page images in a wide range of papers and magazines and she was revelling in the publicity. Sitting on the train she examined ‘the precious white pass which Lady Norman said hardly any woman had been given – a permit to travel wherever the British Army was in occupation.’  But there was a catch.  

‘One clause amused me – armed with my photographic outfit was I was.  It seemed a little suicidal to sign my name to it.  It ran as follows:  “The holder of this pass is specially warned that under no circumstances is a camera or any other photographic apparatus, instrument or accessory to be brought into the Zone of the Armies.  If this pass is disobeyed the Camera etc will be confiscated, the Pass will be cancelled and the individual who has broken this rule will be placed under arrest.”
I signed it, however, and took the risk.’

Olive kept a travel diary, which now forms part of the Imperial War Museum collection and records the many ups and downs of the following four weeks. Arriving in France, the group received a less-than-enthusiastic reception, a result of a view that the trip ‘was a joy-ride of Lady Norman’s and the places visited had little left in them to be worth photographing.’  Olive’s images, more than 150 of them, put lie to the value of them making this journey. Women of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) were running aero-engine repair workshops, signalling operations, printing operations, transport stores and bakeries.  The civilian nurses of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and the First Aid Yeomanry Nursing Corps (FANY) were hard at work in hospitals and convalescent homes or driving patients back to the ports to make their way home. 

Joy-ride could not have been a more inaccurate description of what was clearly a very challenging month. Lady Norman had not only mapped out the journey, she had written a detailed list of the specific shots she wanted and her ‘very interesting trip’ was more like an endurance test, with up to seven shots scheduled each day in multiple locations for four weeks rather than three.  The shot list in the archives lists 37 locations to ensure the wide range of women’s work was documented. The working day could finish as late as 11.30pm, there was sometimes a desperate search for accommodation and on at least one occasion what was available was so basic that it ‘was pretty near to camping out in the trenches’.  
Olive had only one plate allocated for each shot and any mistakes, like a plate being loaded the wrong way round, meant the picture was lost.  She was used to working in a studio with great natural light, competent assistants and plenty of time to set up.  Now she had to work fast in poorly-lit rooms often with a flash and ‘most of my helpers were of a ..scattered mind, naturally having other interests, and it was no joke to keep them within hail when wanted and to be sure that everything was collected.’  Occasionally they even dropped her camera.  Generally, however, she seems to have taken great satisfaction in what she was doing and when things when wrong she got creative.  Just before the end, the focusing screen on her camera was smashed but she managed to improvise a solution: ‘I got the radiographer to squeeze an oiled piece of tissue on to an X-ray plate and screwed it in place and on this quite satisfactory substitute I finished my tour.’

Even when she got the shot she wanted, there was always the risk of the plate cracking.  Most of the roads were in a terrible condition, cratered and muddy.  They ‘jolted through lakes and shell holes till it was a marvel our axles did not break’ and a journey completed without a puncture was celebrated.  With the three women and their driver taking up most of the space in the car, there was an ongoing challenge to keep the weight and volume of the luggage as low as possible, not easy when Olive’s photography equipment was heavy and bulky, the precious glass plates were packed into what became known as the sardine tin, a metal box with a lot of padding.  On the very first day, all the women had to do a major re-pack.  Lady Norman kept only the essentials – her pistol and her ‘flu vaccine.  Anxiety about the influenza epidemic sweeping through the war-weakened communities is a recurrent theme.  Olive remarked at one point that ‘the danger list from influenza and pneumonia hanging in the office was terrible.’

Clockwise from top left: Members of QMAAC machine room that formed part of the RAF engine repair shops at Pont de l’Arche; four medical staff, caped and gowned in white, preparing a patient in the operating theatre at Wimereux;First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) drivers with their snow-covered motor ambulances at Commercy; women of the QMAAC working in the Stores Office at the 61st Advanced Motor Transport Section at Abbeville.

The three women travelled through mile after mile of endless chaos, passing by shattered, desolate, empty towns and villages.  Verdun was ‘a most appalling heap of wreckage’; at Ypres ‘not a house with a roof or a semblance of entirety – all shattered and wrecked’.  In Rheims, only a handful of houses were still standing, with bedsteads, machine tables and wrecks of furniture lying amongst the ruins.  Lassigny was a heap of charred and twisted girders, scattered bricks and timbers with one old woman left camping out in what had been her home.   Regardless of where they went, there was not a cat, dog or chicken to be seen. 

Abandoned helmets littered the roadside and in the fields ‘great derelict aeroplanes shot down to lie and rot in the mud lay like skeletons’.  Crosses marked the dead of both sides.  Ambulances which had ferried the wounded to hospitals were now being used to distribute food to isolated, starved villages.  

Snow lay thick on the ground for most of the month and a journey to Toul, near Nancy, in an open-topped car was ‘the coldest experience I had ever been through, snow and sleet falling till one could hardly keen one’s eyes open..I never quite fully realised before what wind “cutting like a knife” meant, but it gave an extraordinarily realistic feeling of some one digging a really sharp knife into your cheek and working it round and round.’ 

Member of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) acetylene welding at a Royal Air Force engine repair shop at Pont de l’Arche, France. Copyright: © IWM.

Despite all this, in her diary entries Olive comes across as remarkably resilient and good-natured.  There are clearly times when she is frustrated: she wants time to photograph the landscape and ruins while Lady Norman insists on her using every available minute to complete her commission.   Generally, though, she tends to be more bothered by the exorbitant cost of charging her lamp or needless bureaucracy, irritated at queueing in a post office behind a small boy with eleven parcels, each one of which was ‘solemnly examined, marked, listed, stamped, sorted, re-stamped, re-entered’.  When at the end of the month her two travel companions commended her amiability, ‘I had many internal qualms, knowing that this had not quite always been the case.  I only hoped that I had at any rate been able to dissemble’ and it feels as if she was pretty successful.   

Amidst the snow and the suffering were always moments of pleasure and joy.  When Olive arrived in Toul, frozen-through, she was treated to ‘a truly wonderful American tea’ at the American Evacuating Hospital.  She was delighted by the chocolate cake solid with brown icing and ‘chunks of white soft candy which was not exactly “fudge” but something like it, with nuts embedded in it’, or as we now call it, nougat.  She took pleasure in small things – learning some of the differences between American and British English or a finally reaching a hotel with lots of hot water.  She spent a night in the 6th arrondisement in Paris in ‘the most attractive little apartment I ever saw – four rooms running out of each other with the most perfect old furniture and mirrors imaginable and a fascinating little kitchen entrance.’  

By the latter stages, though, real fatigue set in and ‘the question “where did you sleep last night?” or “where did you lunch today?” was a complete poser to any one of our party.’   Olive was working right up until the very last minute she left France, shooting a group of demobilized Army Sisters about to sail home and later writing that: 

‘This was my very last large plate, a fitting finish to the extraordinary varied set I had taken during this most eventful month, comprising surely every kind of British worker who had set foot in France during this historic four years.  Jolly, sporting, happy girls most of them were, though many of the older, however, bore the marks of long and strenuous labour; but aged and tired as some of them undoubtedly were, I doubt if one of them would have foregone the privilege of working and toiling as they had done and backing up “the boys” as they so splendidly had done.’

In that final statement, Olive is clearly echoing her own sentiments: however hard the trip had been, she too would not have foregone the privilege.

Back to normality
Olive travelled home with her camera smashed, her cases soaked and ruined, her clothes torn and worn.  As they left France, Lady Norman and Agnes confessed to Olive that they realised ‘that they had nearly, as they said, killed me’.  In recognition of what she had gone through and the excellent job she had done, it was later proposed that she should be given an honorarium. 

The months following the trip were spent sorting out all the details of the printing and in 1920, Olive had an exhibition of her work in Cambridge that included photographs from France and Belgium. She then set off on a tour of Canada. She had been invited by the Canadian Pacific Railway to travel round the northern wilderness, documenting the lives of Native Canadians and European settlers as well as the landscape.  She was kitted out with her own photography carriage, with darkroom, bedroom, dining-room and kitchen and made some of the first colour photographs of the Rockies.  She also travelled to the United States that year, photographing the British Ambassador in Washington.  The scientist James Dewar allowed her into his laboratory to photograph soap bubbles he had preserved in vacuum flasks and always challenging herself she also tried her hand at film-making.

In 1928 Olive married Edwin Galsworthy, cousin of the writer John, another one of Olive’s subjects, and a director of Barclays Bank.  He was 15 years older than her and a widower, so Olive became a stepmother to his two grown-up children.   

Galsworthy Wedding Group,1928. Olive’s husband is next to her on the right. 
From Norfolk Museums Collection.

Olive continued working for another twenty-five years, sometimes taking on advertising commissions but principally making portrait work, including this 1934 image of a young Greek prince. 

Prince Phillip of Greece (Duke of Edinburgh) 30th August 1934 from Norfolk Museums Collection

An interview she gave to the New York Evening World in 1920 reveals her approach to making successful portraits. She claimed that ‘the wrinkles, the long nose, the chin that is not classical must stay in the photograph..if the subject is to look natural.’  Although she was certainly not above touching up negatives, she drew a distinction, in her own mind at least, between the ‘prettifying’ of photographs, to which she was strongly opposed, and creating an image which represented ‘truthfully the subject at his or her most attractive moment.’
Olive died on 28th December 1955, leaving a vast portfolio from a remarkable career of more than fifty years.  Her assistant, Cyril Nunn, took great care of her archive.  Now the National Portrait Gallery holds over 400 of her images and the record of her 1919 trip to Belgium and France is part of the Imperial War Museum collection.  Fittingly it is in Norfolk, where she started her career, that the bulk of Olive’s archive is held, with a collection of over 2,000 prints, plate negatives and autochromes and a permanent exhibition on her life and work in Cromer Museum. If you happen to be in Norfolk, it is well worth a visit. 

Sources include:

Norfolk News 4/10/1905; Eastern Evening News 22/6/1907; Illustrated London News 20/6/1908; Surrey Advertiser 5/4/1913; The Scotsman 23/2/1914; Westminster Gazette 17/6/1914; Surrey Advertiser 20/6/1914; Sheffield Independent 29/6/1914; The Gentlewoman 26/6/1915; The Minneapolis Sunday Tribune 16/1921;

‘Back in the Frame’ by Val Williams in The Sunday Telegraph 25/6/1994; ‘Fishermen and Kings: The Photography of Olive Edis’ by Alistair Murphy and Elizabeth Elmore (2017); ‘The Women’s Auxiliary Corps in France 1917-1921’ by Samantha Philo-Gill (2017)

Records of the Royal Photographic Society; Imperial War Museum Archives.

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