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
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.