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Happy Birthday, Horace

Fashionable ladies at the races, by Horace Nicholls © IWM

Fashionable ladies at the races. Photograph by Horace Nicholls, reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate.

17 February, 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of an important and yet comparatively little-known British photographer. Perhaps more than any other photographer, Horace Nicholls has shaped our perception of Britain during the first decades of the twentieth century. Even though his name is probably unfamiliar, you will almost certainly recognise his iconic images of fashionable upper class ladies at Ascot or, in stark contrast, women munitions workers during the First World War.

During the early twentieth century, Horace Nicholls was one of Britain’s best known photographers. As one of the first photojournalists, Nicholls’s work shaped that of succeeding generations. Nicholls photographed the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. He clarified legal copyright in photographs in a landmark court case in 1901. He photographed Edwardian social and sporting events and documented the impact of total war on the British people. As Britain’s first official photographer on the Home Front, he had unique access, particularly to women war workers. After the war, at the invitation of the Women’s War Work Sub Committee, Nicholls became the first head of the new Imperial War Museum’s photographic studio where he worked to secure and develop the museum’s photographic collections.

Today, whilst many of Nicholls’ photographs are familiar, comparatively little is known about the man who took them. There has been no significant research, publication, or exhibition of his work for nearly 30 years. As well as the 150th anniversary of Nicholls’ birth, 2017 marks the centenary of his appointment as the first Ministry of Information Home Front official photographer during the First World War. It is also the centenary of IWM’s request to Government that he create a photographic essay of women’s contribution to the war effort.

A female coke heaver at the South Metropolitan Gas Works, Old Kent Road, London. © IWM.

A female coke heaver at the South Metropolitan Gas Works, Old Kent Road, London. Photograph by Horace Nicholls © IWM.

Horace Nicholls’ archive is now dispersed and little known – a factor which has contributed to his relative lack of public recognition. His archive is preserved as part of the Royal Photographic Society Collection, by the IWM, and by the Horace Nicholls estate. My PhD will investigate this primary archival material and, by considering it in the context of its contemporary use, properly evaluate the achievements of Horace Nicholls, the influences that drove him and the significance of his legacy.

Until August 2016 I was a curator at the National Media Museum in Bradford, where I had worked for many years. It was there that I first came across Nicholls’ work. Now, after a short gap of 37 years, I am a student once again. From having a supporting role amongst a very large cast of photographers, Horace Nicholls has now taken centre stage – an analogy that I am sure Nicholls, a passionate theatre lover, would appreciate.

Over the next three years, as my research develops, I shall  share some of my thoughts and discoveries via this blog and, of course, show a selection of Nicholls’ photographs. In the meantime, ‘Happy Birthday, Horace’.


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