Exhibition Review: Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom (Museum of London Docklands)

In Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet observed that the advent of technology allowed more women to go into work and not just in the traditional farming and cottage industry sectors but into the white collar sector that was previously the domain of men. The invention of the telegraph, telephone, typewriter and adding machine provided employment opportunities for women to the point when certain jobs such as telephone operator, typist, secretary, bank teller and bookkeeper became female dominated and seen as “women’s work”. Owing to their nimble fingers and dexterity, women were seen as the ideal gender to operate and manipulate these pieces of machinery.

In the same way, technology also allowed women to pursue hobbies other than the usual sewing, drawing, painting, music and others that were deemed appropriate to their gender. Photography is one example and with the invention of the hand held camera, many men and especially women took to taking photographs with enthusiasm. Queen Alexandra of Britain and the four daughters of Czar Nicholas II of Russia were examples of women who enthusiastically embraced the wonder of photography, becoming proficient with using a camera and it is through them that we have had glimpses of the less formal and human side of the restricted and regimented lives of the British and Russian ruling families.

Just as the invention and development of the telephone and typewriter enabled women to enter the workforce the camera allowed women not just to excel as amateur photographers but also enabled some to pursue photography as a profession. An exhibition currently running in the Museum of London Docklands entitled Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is devoted to the works of one such woman.

Christina Broom or Mrs Albert Broom (as she was professionally known) turned her hobby into a business when an accident forced her husband to retire early from his job at the family’s ironmongery business. Largely self-taught and with a canny nose for business, Broom spotted a gap in the market for picture postcards and in 1903 she and her husband set up a stationery shop which sold postcards among other objects. Their stationery business eventually grew into one where they sold their own postcards: with Christina taking photographs of London landmarks, daughter Winifred serving as assistant and husband Albert writing the captions and taking orders.

With initiative, tenacity and an entrepreneurial spirit, Christina Broom expanded her business becoming in effect Britain’s first woman press photographer. She went from photographing London landmarks to covering events of national importance as well as securing the all-important accreditation from the Royal Household and the Army to cover important ceremonial events and record soldiers as they prepared to go to the Front during the First World War.

Drawn from the Museum of London’s collection of Christina Broom’s own negatives and papers as well as being supplemented by those from the Royal Collection and other collections in the UK and in the US, the exhibition traces Broom’s life and times and divides her work into three main categories – her coverage of the suffragette movement’s activities in the years before the First World War, photographs of soldiers during the war and lastly, those of royal ceremonial and other London spectacles. Alongside the photographs are also displays of Broom’s business cards, her accreditation passes issued by organisations such the Royal Household and the Metropolitan Police, magazines and newspapers that featured her photographs, postcards she produced, adverts for the Broom stationery shop, purchase orders and receipts.

All in all, the exhibition has been thoughtfully curated to give the visitor a chance to see a world that is now unfamiliar to us through the eyes of a woman who witnessed it all and captured them for posterity with her camera. The images though from mostly a hundred years ago can seem modern in the way they demand the viewer’s attention and how Broom established a rapport with the people she photographed which could be seen as one advantage she had over male photographers, giving her photographs a much more personal and intimate air.

The photographs also highlight Broom’s attention to detail and the high standards she set for herself. Writing in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition Anna Sparham noted that when it came to photographing soldiers or the staff at the Royal Mews for instance, Broom refrained from using feminised props and artificial lighting for her photographs: preferring instead to take them in a straight forward way, carefully directing her subjects and relying on eye to eye contact to produce photographs that capture the sitter’s personality despite them wearing their uniforms and carrying the props that denoted their role: be it the head coachman or a lowly private. What came over very strongly in the exhibition from her work with the army and the Royal Household is that Broom did not have the privileged access she did because as a woman photographer she was a novelty, but because she was a person dedicated to her craft photographing men equally dedicated to their profession as soldiers and royal servants.

Christina Broom

Increasing ill health forced Christina Broom to curtail her photography and her daughter Winifred attempted to continue the family business but changes in regulations allowing freelance photographers access to the army during the Second World War meant that she would be unable to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Instead, on the suggestion of Queen Mary, Winifred Broom sought to keep her mother’s memory alive by donating all the negatives and family papers to various museums and institutions with the Museum of London acquiring the last of the Broom negatives and papers still in private hands in 2013.

Christina Broom book

Christina Broom’s story is all the more remarkable given she lived in an era where it was not exactly respectable for women to go into trade and become the sole breadwinner. But armed with only her determination; a cumbersome box camera, tripod, glass negatives and reliant on public transport; Broom would go on to carve a successful business and career that against all odds would secure her a place in British history as this country’s first woman press photographer.

Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom is on at the Museum of London Docklands until 1 November 2015. Admission free

Catalogue edited by Anne Sparham is available at the museum shop.

Notes:

  1. The bloggers visited the exhibition last 11 July 2015
  2. Photo of Christina Broom from https://www.pinterest.com/kathrynfhinds/early-women-photographers/

3. Photo of catalogue is blogger’s own

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