It is almost a year now since I first laid eyes on an extraordinary private collection of photographs by Christina Broom. Mrs Albert Broom, to use her professional name, was a very familiar woman to me because of our existing collection of her work – around 300 glass plates including fantastic suffragette processions and events. I thought I knew about her to a certain degree. So it was with great eagerness that I delved into the dusty boxes and albums of this remaining content.
At this point I was quite oblivious to how much her life story would entice me over the forthcoming months. As I browsed through the hundreds of photographic postcards I soon realised I had so much to learn about the breadth of her work in London, ranging from Royal events, society occasions, the Boat Race through to most substantially the Guards of the Household Brigade. By the second time of viewing I was hooked. Alongside the mass of compelling photographs, the personal letters and ephemera relating to her entrepreneurial London life drew me in – it was impossible to ignore.
It was with the fast approaching centenary of the First World War that we considered this acquisition for the museum. Broom photographed between 1904 and 1939 and saw the war through her photography of the soldiers going to and returning from the Front as well as documenting London before, during and after that time. From the outset however I also wanted to focus on this work of a woman photographer; a woman who was unique, intriguing, skilled and largely underappreciated, her story not yet being widely told. That Broom was 40 when she taught herself photography, and that her daughter Winifred made all the prints, is in itself a great story opener.
So since the exciting day of the collection’s arrival in the museum, after succeeding in acquiring it, I’ve spent several hours scratching the surface of the contents, finding my way around the photographs and ephemera, and uncovering little gems of interest. The ambition to share Christina and Winifred’s story in full is I hope going to be realised. And this week is where it all begins, with the opening of a small introductory display and the announcement for a larger scale exhibition in the pipeline.
This collection, to which I feel a great attachment, has gone global. On Monday as I skipped to the newsagents for the first piece of press about the acquisition I was struck by her intense portrait staring back at me from the front-page of the Guardian. I was so pleased that, 75 years after her death, she was having her moment, on the front-page no less, this pioneer for female press photography. Winifred wrote in one of her letters that ‘museums are more than happy to have our negatives, but are not interested in our lives’. How mistaken she was.