pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom. Museum of London, 06 19– 11 1, 2015.
Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom (exhibition catalogue). Anna Sparham, ed. With contributions by Margaret Denny, Diane Atkinson, and Hilary Roberts. London and New York: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2015. Pp. 240. $35.00 (paper).

Just over a century ago, London photographer Christina Broom began selling postcards from a stall at the gates of the Royal Mews in London. Her access to the Royal Mews was her passport to success—it gave her the distinction that she needed to become recognized as an established photographer.

Born in 1862, Christina Broom, a bootmaker’s daughter (as was her own mother), came to photography late. Seven years into her married life in Fulham and with a six-year-old daughter, she faced becoming her family’s principal breadwinner when, in 1896, an accident incapacitated her husband, Albert. With her brother-in-law a stationer, she invested in a stationery and toy shop in Streatham, but the business failed to thrive. By 1903, her husband was ailing further with tuberculosis, from which he would die in 1912.

Obliged to earn a living, she seized on photography as a source of much-needed income. She decided to cash in on the contemporary craze for postcards. Borrowing a small box camera, she began experimenting on London’s streets. Completely untrained, she got noticed almost immediately when she photographed the winning horse at the 1903 derby. Setting herself up as a photographer required a relatively small investment. She bought a second-hand, medium-format, glass-plate camera and turned her gaslit coal cellar into a darkroom. Trading by her married name, Mrs. Albert Broom, she advertised herself as a postcard specialist, turning her photographs into picture postcards. Most popular up to 1914, these 5½-by-3½-inch cards became the core of her business. Her only assistant was her daughter Winifred, who once helped print 1,000 postcards overnight. From the age of fourteen onwards, Winifred Broom would print all of her mother’s images, and in 1920 she was awarded the title of Best Printer in London. [End Page 243]

Fig 1. “Portrait of Christina and Winifred Broom,”<br/><br/>unknown photographer (c. 1915) ©Christina Broom/Museum of London
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 1.

“Portrait of Christina and Winifred Broom,”

unknown photographer (c. 1915) ©Christina Broom/Museum of London

Christina Broom, who styled herself a photojournalist, witnessed key moments of early-twentieth-century life in London. She photographed suffragette demonstrations, military manoeuvers, and royal pageantry, including Edward VII lying in state. Unusually for a woman, she became the official photographer to the prestigious Household Division of the British Army, with a darkroom at the Chelsea barracks. The soldiers bought postcards made of photographs of themselves for 2d.1 each, which included an envelope for writing home. Broom’s association with the army continued for thirty years. She was also the regular photographer of the annual Oxford and Cambridge boat race for thirty-five years. Of Edwardian fame, she continued to flourish as a freelance photographer throughout the 1920s and 1930s, publishing her work in The Illustrated London News, Tatler, The Sphere, and Country Life, among others. Her death [End Page 244] in early June 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, marked the end of a remarkable career that had, until recently, been largely forgotten.

Fortunately, Broom’s daughter deposited her mother’s work with institutions like London’s Imperial War Museum and National Portrait Gallery. The Museum of London has cared for over 300 of Broom’s half-plate glass negatives, among other items that it received from Winifred Broom before she passed away in 1973. More recently, in late 2009, some 2,000 of Christina Broom’s images, mainly of military subjects, were auctioned at Sotheby’s in London but failed to sell and were subsequently added to the museum’s collection. Plans to digitize Broom’s photographs are afoot with an aim to make her work more widely known and accessible to the public.

In the early 1960s, Winifred Broom wrote in one of her letters that museums were more than happy to have Broom’s negatives but were not interested in either her or her mother’s life. To correct this, the Museum of London presented Soldiers & Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom as a temporary exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands through June to November 2015. The exhibition aimed to tell the full story of Broom’s life and work. It sought to look more closely at Broom herself and at Winifred Broom’s contribution, and to consider the photographs in terms of how they enhance London’s visual documentary history.

The exhibition consists of four sections, each displayed in galleries of similar size. A biographical timeline of the Brooms’ lives leads the way into the galleries, the first of which is dedicated to Broom’s photographs of suffragettes. They hang in a white-walled room in a clean display that highlights the crisp, black-and-white tones of her images of suffragist parades and fundraisers. Alongside the photographs are displayed suffragist banners in green, purple, and white: the colors signifying dignity and hope that branded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Established in October 1903 and led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928), WSPU was perhaps the most militant of the several organizations involved in the suffrage movement.

The second gallery features Broom’s photographs of soldiers. Here the viewer is confronted by sombre, dark-grey walls and display cabinets. Lined up with only their backs visible as you enter the gallery, the narrow cabinets evoke tombstones. Their fronts display postcard images that Broom took of soldiers readying for war in August 1914. With them are displayed items of ephemera, including notes, press passes, and notebooks. Adjacent interactive screens allow you to absorb the fate of individual soldiers, whose stories are briefly narrated. The next display features Broom’s photographs of London streets alongside her views of London pageantry and of annual spectacles like the University Boat Race.

The last quarter of the show looks at the reception of Broom’s work after she died and Winifred Broom donated her negatives to public institutions. Here we are asked to evaluate Christina Broom’s importance and consider her legacy.

The exhibition presents Broom as an unsung female trailblazer of press photography. She is regarded today as the first British woman to have a successful career as a photographic journalist. Broom’s work was recently exhibited in 1994, when London’s National Portrait Gallery showed the work of four prominent Edwardian women photographers. That exhibition, Four Women Photographers, also included: Eveleen Myers (1856–1937), who was active up to the mid–1890s and was photographed in her childhood by Julia Margaret Cameron; Olive Edis (1876–1955), who is known as Britain’s first woman war photographer, being commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to photograph the 1918–19 battlefields of France and Flanders; and Alice Hughes (1857–1939), the leading London portrait photographer, whose work offers an important glimpse into high-class British society. These women enjoyed privileged social connections, with personal links to the political and intellectual elites of their day, which is something that Broom lacked. She was a product of her age, and her work was a response to a burgeoning market for illustrative material. The times saw a boom in creative and documentary photography and photographic illustration as demand increased with the advent of illustrated magazines. Photography was also widely used in book illustration. Garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932), for example, took up photography in 1885 and used her own photographs in some of her publications. Broom emerged as a photographer in the era of the ubiquitous cinematograph and the widely promoted Kodak Girl. In the early 1900s, George Eastman (1854–1932) made photography accessible to millions with Kodak’s Brownie camera, advertised with the message that anyone could learn to take pictures in just ten minutes. With anyone and everyone enabled to take photographs, the era of the snapshot began. [End Page 245]

Women have been actively involved with photography ever since the medium was first introduced in 1839. Compared to the traditional visual arts of painting and sculpture, the practice of photography was relatively free from gender-based barriers and, as Broom found, it offered women a relatively easy means to earn a living and independence. Consequently many women took part in the genesis of modern photography. This may also partly explain Broom’s interest in the art. Generally speaking, the urban street scene was the preserve of men, while women like Alice Hughes, for example, worked as studio photographers. Broom shot on location in the open air and positioned herself at the heart of the action. Being under five feet tall and of petite frame, Christina Broom needed physical courage and tenacity to confront the hazards of urban street life. Her equipment, a tripod and a heavy half-plate camera with dozens of glass-plate negatives, was weighty and cumbersome. Photographs of Broom with her camera show her looking diminutive and stern-faced but clearly purposeful.

Fig 2. “Suffragettes in Hyde Park on Women’s Sunday, 21 June 1908”<br/><br/>©Christina Broom/Museum of London
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 2.

“Suffragettes in Hyde Park on Women’s Sunday, 21 June 1908”

©Christina Broom/Museum of London

Her photographs of the women’s suffrage movement between 1908 and 1913 mostly captured groups. Some women posed for her, like the Drum and Fife Band of the WSPU photographed in Knightsbridge in May 1909. More often than not, Broom captured her images in the midst of the crowd, as she did on “Women’s Sunday,” the WSPU demonstration on June 21, 1908 which saw the largest-ever political gathering in Hyde Park to that date. She was skilled at getting the shots she wanted. It was one thing to photograph a small group of people standing still, as in her image of nine women behind a fundraising Sweets Stall of the WSPU. It took a whole other level of skill to shoot from the center of a moving crowd, as in Broom’s photographs from the Hyde Park rally or the suffragettes parading past watchful policemen.

The faces of those she photographed show that she commanded their respect. This suggests an empathic relationship between Broom and her subjects: she was more than a mere bystander. After all, she herself displayed a single-mindedness comparable to that of the suffragettes she photographed. With her camera, Broom took charge of her domestic difficulties to gain financial independence and enjoy a sense of self-determination. [End Page 246]

Fig 3. “Captain Greer of the 1st Irish Guards and his machine-gun team” (c. 1916)<br/><br/>©Christina Broom/Museum of London
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 3.

“Captain Greer of the 1st Irish Guards and his machine-gun team” (c. 1916)

©Christina Broom/Museum of London

Yet while her work arguably conveys a sympathy with women’s suffragism, no documentation apparently exists to support this. It appears that Broom’s motivation to document the fight for women’s equality may have been strictly professional: she needed an income, the suffragettes were of topical interest, and there was a market for her images of them. Perhaps she was simply a dispassionate eye objectively presenting what she found before her.

Fig 4. “Soldiers from Household Battalion leaving for the Front” (1916)<br/><br/>©Christina Broom/Museum of London
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig 4.

“Soldiers from Household Battalion leaving for the Front” (1916)

©Christina Broom/Museum of London

[End Page 247]

Broom’s photographs of soldiers were taken at the same time. While her images of suffragettes could arguably have been matter-of-fact snapshots spurred by the events themselves, her photographs of soldiers more closely resemble what Alfred Stieglitz called a “considered snapshot.” Broom brought pictorial and patriotic forethought to her images of soldiers. One of the exhibition’s display panels quotes her saying that she only presented the crack Brigade of Guards in a good light: “if … even one man is out of line or in any way not up to the high standard of the Guards I smash the negative.” There is an absence of sentimentality in her photographs. However it is clear from notes that she made, and as the war dragged on, that many of the men she photographed, a number of whom she knew, would not return home. While noting their fate, listing those who died, she avoids injecting personal interpretation into her photographs of them. Objectively presenting them and the events in which they figured, she captured the swiftly-changing impact of the war.

American photographic historian Naomi Rosenblum points out in the introduction to her book, A History of Women Photographers (1994/2000), that women’s work in photography and its historical importance has generally been disregarded and has not received its due consideration. In Broom’s case, women played their part in correcting such bias. Mary of Teck, queen consort from 1910 and photographed by Broom, was herself a keen amateur photographer (like Queen Alexandra before her). Queen Mary advised Winifred Broom to lodge her mother’s work in museum collections to ensure Christina’s reputation in posterity.

The scholars responsible for this exhibition’s catalogue are photo historian Margaret Denny; women’s historian Diane Atkinson; the Imperial War Museum Research Curator of Photography, Hilary Roberts; and Anna Sparham, Photographs Curator at the Museum of London, who assembled the show. They bring to our attention the work of Christina Broom and her daughter Winifred, who dedicated their lives to documenting aspects of the times in which they lived. They have left us with a remarkable window into London as it was ushered into the twentieth century.

Eileen Chanin
University of New South Wales

Notes

1. That is, 2 pence before decimalization took effect in the UK in 1971. [End Page 248]