SOLDIERS & SUFFRAGETTES
The Photography of Christina Broom
by Anna Sparham, with contributions by Margaret Denny, Diane Atkinson and Hilary Roberts
Christina Broom was indeed an extraordinary and quite remarkable lady. Around the turn of the 20th century she became a self-taught photographer, and her output for much of the next 40 years was considerable. Although not recognised as such until many years later, she was almost certainly one of the first press photographers, submitting photographs to picture agencies for publication in magazines and national newspapers. Indeed, she was probably the first professional female photographer anywhere in the world. Working mostly in and around London, she recorded many scenes of human interest as well as street and sporting landscapes, church interiors, and photographs of the Royal Family.
Mrs Albert Broom (her professional name) would make her way around London carrying her heavy equipment, camera, tripod, and a generous supply of glass plate negatives, and she had a keen eye for composition. Not only was she taking photographs for publication, but also for the production of postcards and with the help of her daughter and assistant, Winifred, her output was huge. At their busiest, particularly during the First World War, they were producing 1000 cards a day. Postcards were of course popular, perhaps the closest form of communication to the brevity of text-messaging of today. There was much competition among the many postcard manufacturers, and although Christina Broom became ‘the most prolific female publisher of picture postcards in Great Britain, if not in the Western world’, she has not hitherto been given the credit she deserves. Her postcard scenes very much reflected the British way of life: pageantry, events, and people. Most notable and memorable are her photographs of soldiers and suffragettes, and their faces and characters shine from the page. The wry smile of Miss Christabel Pankhurst at the women’s exhibition, Princes Skating Rink, Knightsbridge in 1909. The determined looking Barbara Ayrton, dressed as Grace Darling at another exhibition in the same year.
And then there are the soldiers, their expressions as timeless as ever, and some of the most poignant are those taken shortly after the outbreak of war. Capt Greer of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards and his Maxim machine-gun team were photographed just before leaving for the front; by the end of the year all 13 in the photograph had been killed. And then there are the group photographs of soldiers and their families. There were some lucky ones, but for many it was to be the final goodbye. Then, as the war goes on, we see officers and soldiers back home on leave preparing to say goodbye yet again; will their luck hold? Some of them look weary and battered, for example, Captain E S Wyndham DSO of the 1st Life Guards, photographed in 1915 at Hyde Park Barracks. He appears to have no illusions about what awaits him when he returns to the front; he is prepared for the worst. But he was one of the lucky ones; he survived the war and died in 1967.
This is an excellent book, published to coincide with an exhibition at the Museum of London of Christina Broom’s photography. It is the first substantial publication on the subject and it is long overdue. The Household Division has much to thank Mrs Broom. Early on she gained the support of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, the Colonel of the Irish Guards, who put a good word in for her with King Edward VII and, from then on, she had unprecedented access to the Guards in and around London. She also had exactly the right approach when it came to photographing both soldiers, officers, and, indeed, suffragettes; she ‘captures’ them all. To quote Hilary Roberts, the Imperial War Museum Research Curator of Photography, ‘Her strong personality and ability to communicate at every level enabled her to negotiate entrenched social and military protocols and transcend early 20th century barriers of gender and class’.
Without Mrs Broom, we would not have the rich and varied photographic record that conveys so much of what it must have been like to be a Guardsman in the first half of the 20th century. She was a determined and talented lady, and in this quality she displayed much of the character of those soldiers and suffragettes that she photographed throughout her professional life.
Soldiers & Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is published by Philip Wilson Publishers on behalf of the Museum of London. The supporting exhibition runs at the Museum until 1st November 2015.