In The Face of Britain, art historian and journalist Simon Schama explores the history of British portraiture, and unveils the secrets of some of the nation’s best loved works of art. In this extract, Schama tells the story of Christina Broom (nee Livingston) – Britain’s first female press photographer – and her photography of the Suffragette Movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Christina Livingston was not by any means the first professional woman photographer in Britain. Julia Margaret Cameron had become justly famous for belying Elizabeth Eastlake’s pessimism, taking photo-portraiture not just to the level of paintings but beyond it in imaginative expression. Clementina, Lady Hawarden, though not strictly a professional, had used herself and her daughters for a series of mesmerizing experiments in the way women saw each other and themselves, often in the mirror, sometimes in each other’s eyes, games and interrogations as brave and deep as anything put on the page by Virginia Woolf.

This was not Christina’s world, Christina’s mind or Christina’s work. But like Cameron and Clementina Hawarden, she was a pioneer nonetheless, the first British woman to become a press photographer, and she did it, moreover, because she had to. She was a lowland Scot, daughter of a bootmaker who had moved to Chelsea to make his name and fortune. At twenty-seven, she married Albert Broom, an ironmonger, but it was when his business collapsed in 1903 that the forty-year-old wife and mother borrowed a box camera and began another life entirely. Apart from a sharp eye for opportunity, Christina had the business head in the family, taking pictures of royal household guards with enough skill and friendliness that she became part of local life around Buckingham Palace, enough at any rate to open a stall selling postcards and cheap prints of her pictures to the public. She was, in fact, the first vendor specializing in this kind of British ‘tourist’ photo, graduating to become the official photographer of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race; of the Household Division of Guards; and fashionable and ceremonious horseracing events. King Edward VII and the Queen knew about ‘Mrs Albert Broom’, as she called herself professionally after her husband died in 1912.

By this time Christina had developed an entirely different line of subjects: the suffragettes. In May 1909, a Women’s Exhibition was held at the Prince’s Skating Rink in Knightsbridge, a cavernous, 250-foot-long space. Ostensibly (and deliberately) the exhibition seemed just to be the mother of all village fetes – a showcase of all the usual work with which women were traditionally associated: baked goods and confectionery, cakes and sweets; embroidery, hats and flower-arranging. But though she was the photographer of such occasions, this would not have drawn Christina Broom to take her pictures of the show. As a news photographer, she had already taken fine shots of a suffragette march from the Embankment to the Albert Hall in June 1908, and now, a year later, Christina knew that the Women’s Exhibition was a turning point in British history. The organizer of the exhibition was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and it was being held as a fund-raiser. Each of the fifty stalls had committed to provide not less than a hundred pounds’ worth of goods, and in the end the show raised five thousand pounds for the cause which Emmeline Pankhurst (the subject of one of Christina’s most beautiful portraits) described in her introductory brochure as ‘the most wonderful movement the world has ever seen, a movement to set free that half of the human race that has always been in bondage and to give women the power to work out their own salvation in the political, social and industrial spheres’.

By the spring of 1909, both Emmeline and her daughter Christabel (also beautifully and informally photographed by Christina) had been  to prison for disrupting Liberal party political meetings. All the same, it was surprising to find among the stalls selling suffragette ribbons and badges in their colours (white for purity, purple for imperial dignity, green for hope) a replica of a prison cell, designed to show the discrimination and degradation to which women were subjected even when they were behind bars. Around the mock-cell were lines of Edwardian women in their flamboyant hats waiting to get their tour and talk from suffragettes who had had personal experience. It was a tricky moment for Christina. She had a living to earn in the world of men; indeed, with the royals and the trousered powerful. But she was also obviously a whole-hearted sympathizer. In 1910, she was the photographer who captured the great march through London, culminating in a mass rally in Hyde Park. She photographed the Pankhursts and their leading comrades – Emily Wilding Davison, who would die under the hoofs of the royal horse at the 1913 Derby; Kitty Marion, the actress, who became the most dangerously militant of them all. For the last time, Christina was able to take photographs which portrayed the suffragettes as intent only on peaceful demonstrations for their cause.

After the 1910 elections, however, this changed. The Pankhursts and their sister comrades were regularly imprisoned and, when they embarked on hunger strikes, brutally force-fed. A ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act allowed the government to release the hunger strikers for as long as it took for them to recover physically, before re-incarcerating them. Faced with this more systematic oppression, theWSPU itself took a much more aggressive turn, which went from suicide and self-sacrificial tactics to a campaign of harm to others. Arson was the weapon of choice, but the chosen venues were extremely dangerous. In 1912, Mary Leigh, Gladys Evans, Lizzie Baker and Mabel Capper attempted to burn down the Theatre Royal in Dublin during a packed matinee performance, hiding canisters of gunpowder close to the stage and hurling petrol and lit matches at the combustibles. The principal target was the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, who was present and who that same morning had had a hatchet thrown at him by another suffragette. Postal incendiaries took a similarly lethal turn when phosphorus was thrown into pillar boxes with the intention of burning postmen picking up the mail, and in at least three cases succeeding. Any institution which the WSPU identified as speciously sacred to the official and especially male world was fair game. The tea pavilion and the tropical orchid house at Kew were bombed; another bomb was discovered in the nick of time outside the Bank of England; still another went off at the Royal Astronomical Observatory in Edinburgh. The bomb set at the Lyceum Theatre in Taunton was paintedwith the slogans ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’, ‘JUDGES BEWARE!’ and ‘MARTYRS OF THE LAW’.

Christina Broom stopped taking photographs of the suffragettes. But someone else was. In 1913, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, purchased, for the sum of seven pounds six shillings and eleven pence, for his department an eleven-inch Ross telecentric lens, the first long-distance lens to be made in Britain, patented just a year before. A high-level joint meeting of the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office held in the spring of 1912 had decided that, since the WSPU had become a terror organization, some sort of pre-emptive surveillance was required to avert threats to the kind of public institutions they seemed to be favouring. A photo dossier, the first such security surveillance file, was to be compiled while the women were in prison and thus captive subjects. It was assumed, of course, that none of the suffragettes was likely to oblige the photographers by remaining still enough for their image to be taken. Some contorted their face in a grimace, hoping to make the picture useless as an identity record. Initial efforts to take mug shots met with similar futility. One remarkable print was doctored so that the policeman’s arm gripping the recalcitrant suffragette Evelyn Manesta in a neck hold showed instead nothing more threatening than a scarf.

The Face of Britain hi res coverExtract taken from The Face of Britain, by Simon Schama (Viking). 

The Face of Britain is on BBC iPlayer now. Visit Simon Schama’s Face of Britain at the National Portrait Gallery from 16th September 2015- 4th January 2016

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