Readers who have visited Lawn Road, as a FreeFrom Food Awards judge or for other reasons, may have noticed some rather fine old sepia photographs both on the way up the stairs and in the drawing room. A shepherd driving his flock along a misty road, a young girl peeping through torn brown paper, the actress Gladys Cooper (below), race goers disporting themselves at Epsom.
The photographs are by Horace Nicholls, the webmaster’s grandfather. And after half a century of snoozing gently in the vaults of the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Photographic Society and the family’s various lofts, Horace’s photographs are once more seeing the light of day – and Horace himself is gaining recognition as one of the founders of modern photojournalism.
Anyone who, on their visit to Lawn Road, had actually made it the whole way up to the top of the house would also have seen some beautifully detailed and delicate Victorian watercolours of country scenes and fruits. These are by Arthur Nicholls, Horace’s father and a pioneer photographer, from whom Horace, in the 1880s and 90s first learnt his trade.
His first professional engagements, however, were not not in the Isle of Wight where the family lived and Arthur worked, but in Chile, as an assistant in a photographer’s studio in Valparaiso. Travelling the world in your early 20s is nothing new. From his earliest photographs, Horace made pencilled notes on the back of his prints and the one on this image from his Chile days says: ‘Tierra de Fuegan Indians (Better class)’.
Horace not only catalogued his prints but often modified them to suit his purposes. His father had loved to indulge in photographic trickery, making pictures such as a man wheeling himself in a wheelbarrow, by superimposing images in the darkroom. And from his earliest days, Horace was also to be found cutting, pasting, touching up, airbrushing and the re-photographing images to create the result he wanted.
An early and relatively unsophisticated example can be seen in his published image of Edward VII’s funeral cortege in 1910. The first image is of Windsor Castle, the second of the funeral cortege. But for the final published image, he cut out and superimposed the cortege on the backdrop of the castle thus creating a much more interesting composition.
Among the many thousands of prints which have moved from family loft to family loft over the last 50 years are numerous examples of how he worked: cutting, pasting and retouching, ready to be re-photographed. How he, and Arthur, would loved the opportunities that a programme such as Photoshop would have given them.
From Chile Horace moved to South Africa to work in the Goch Studios in Johannesberg. In 1893, now in his mid twenties and accompanied by his new wife from England, he took over the management of the studios – and they flourished. But the outbreak of the Boer war opened up new opportunities for a budding photographer and in 1899 he was taken on as the official correspondent covering the conflict for the London-based journal South Africa. Below is his famous picture of the troops gathered in Ladysmith after the battle of Nicholson’s Nek.
By the end of the Boer War in 1902 Florence and the family had already returned to England where Horace soon joined them. But his experiences as a war photographer had opened up the possibilities of photojournalism. So once back in England he went freelance covering sporting events such as Ascot, the Derby, Henley and Cowes, and the great royal and state occasions for the the major journals and newspapers of the day while still keeping his hand in with occasional portraits.
Formal images were obviously necessary for the society journals, but merry makers at all stages of the game were food for his lens. ‘Society’ at Ascot, ‘On the way to the Derby’ and A Derby Day lunch. (The Ascot image, interestingly, is another example of Horace’s cutting and pasting. The group of three in the centre in black were attending the 1910 Ascot races just after Edward the VII, a great racing supporter, had died. In his honour, all the ladies wore black. The other two couples obviously date from a different year when the ladies wore their customary white or pastel shoes.)
On the outbreak of war in 1914 Horace was already in his late 40s and therefore considered too old for active service at the front, even in the capacity of a war photographer. But in 1917, soon after his beloved eldest son George was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras, he was appointed by the Ministry of Information as their official photographer (the first ever) ‘…to take photographs in Great Britain for publication in neutral and allied countries for propagandist purposes’.
This resulted in what is probably Horace’s most powerful body of work, his images of the women who worked in the armaments factories, the naval dockyards and the coke works, who ran the trollies, brewed the beer, tilled the fields and drove the ambulances while the men were at the front.
Female electric trolley driver for luggage and mail at Liverpool Street Station, Great Eastern Railway.
Female munitions workers Chilwell
A female worker loading sacks of coke on to a van at the South Metropolitan Gas Works, Old Kent Road London.
A group of female brewery workers, London.
To see more of these extraordinary photographs, see the Horace W. Nicholls website here.
Interestingly, although Horace was happy to adapt his peacetime photographs to his needs, none of the war photographs appear to have been altered in any way; it was officially not allowed. The famous Frank Hurley who was photographer with Shackleton in Antarctica, and who went on to photograph for the military at the front line, had a successful battle with the authorities over cutting and pasting in order to achieve more telling, powerful pictures with greater impact. But it appears that in this respect at least, Horace toed the official line.
After the war and until five years before his death in 1941, Horace continued to work for the Imperial War Museum, and as a freelance photographer and photojournalist. However, it was really the Women at War series, maybe given extra intensity by the death of his son in the year in which he started them, that mark the high point of his creative career.
So, after over 50 years of slumbering in obscurity, his photographs only recognised by a few experts, Horace’s work is finally coming to be appreciated. The Imperial War Museum whose first official photographer he was and who hold much of his work, and the Victoria and Albert Museum who hold the other large collection of his pictures, are now actively engaged in promoting him.
The WW1 commemoration, There But not There has used Horace’s photograph of a soldier on the front line as the inspiration for their Perspex Tommies which will appear all over the country as the WW1 commemorations draw to a close.
Colin Harding, a past curator of photographic technology at the National Media Museum in Bradford, is now well advanced on a PHD on Horace’s life and work, books and exhibitions are planned. Already there is a website showing some of his photographs put together by grandson number two, the actor David Mallinson, who also now gives talks and lectures about his work.
And how fitting that all this should have come to fruition on the hundredth anniversary both of his son’s death and the commissioning of some of his greatest work.
So, next time any of you visit Lawn Road, look with more care at what hangs on the walls – those are not just any old photographs!