Archive Visit - Birmingham Central Library


From October 20-28th, I went on my first big Archival Research Trip of my PhD! 

I spent Thursday October 21st in the Archives of the Birmingham Central Library, who hold the papers of the Birmingham Photographic Society (BPS).  I went in looking for anything related to the photographer Emma Barton, who was a member, and exhibited under the name Mrs. G. A. Barton.

To date, Barton has been very overlooked by photographic historians.  She was a very active photographer in her heyday, winning the top prize at the Birmingham Photographic Society Annual Exhibition several times throughout her tenure as a member, and exhibiting at the Royal Photographic Society Annual Exhibition, and across Europe.  Although an attempt at recovering more of her history was made in the mid 1990s, culminating in the 1995 traveling exhibition Sunlight and Shadow, little further work has been done.

I initially believed there was personal material on Barton at the Sutton Coldfield Library north of Birmingham, however, this turned out to be an incorrect interpretation of their catalogue on my part.  This led me to a last-minute scramble to find additional archival material I could access that would be helpful, just days before my already-booked train down to Birmingham.  Very fortunately, the archival staff at the Birmingham Central Library were able to fit me in for one day of my planned time in Birmingham, and I am very grateful to them.

Since no personal materials of Barton’s appear to exist outside of the personal family archives of her descendants (which will take longer to track down), I looked for any trace of her that I could find within the BPS’s Annual Exhibition Catalogues, Journal, and Ordinary Meeting Minutes.

It was in the Exhibition Catalogues that I found the most mention of Barton.  Before her induction to the society in late 1903, she exhibited in the Open Section of the competition in 1902 and 1903.  Once she joined the society in 1903 she went on to win the most prestigious prize of the exhibition – the Silver Cup – Three? Was it three years in a row? CHECK THIS.  And most importantly to me, within these catalogues were some small glued-in mini reproductions of two Barton images I had never seen before – including A Dream of Spring (pictured above).

In the Ordinary Meeting Minutes I was able to determine that Barton was nominated for membership on October 20th 1903 and inducted October 27th, and that her last appearance on the Members list was in October 1913.  I was also able to determine that Barton was, I believe, the third female member to join the BPS.  I thirdly was able to track Barton’s exhibited works with the society, as well as the broader content of all submitted work (based on listed titles), and how the sub-categories changed in response to artistic trends of the time.

Furthermore, I was able to take note of patterns of female membership in the BPS.  Not only did I identify whom I believe to be the first female member (a Miss Silverstone in 1899), but I was also able to note the exponential growth of female membership throughout the following 10 years, and I believe there is more work that can be done on this subject in the future.  

Barton is a tricky case for me.  She’s quite late in the timeperiod I’m looking at, and actually did not begin photographing until after the conventional cut off of the Victorian era.  However, I find it justifiable to include her in my research set given that having been born in 1872, she is still very much a product of the Victorian values and culture that I am attempting to read within early narrative photographs.  There also seems to be a much smaller chance of being able to include any first-hand accounts of her photography from Barton herself within my thesis, which is disappointing.

Next on my research trip, I was off to the Wren Library at Cambridge to spend time with the papers of another understudied female photographer, Eveleen Myers.

I am very grateful to the British Association for Victorian Studies for the generous research grant I received to undertake this trip. 


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