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Fashionable ladies at the races, by Horace Nicholls © IWM

Fashionable ladies at the races. Photograph by Horace Nicholls © IWM

Guest post by Colin Harding

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.

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EVA16_TomFlanagan and Megs Morley_A History of Stone ,Origin and Myth_2016_HD Video, Colour ,Sound Image courtesy of Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley_Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan & Megs Morley_2 edit 2

A History of Stone, Origin and Myth (2016), Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley, Photo courtesy of Tom Flanagan and Megs Morley

‘I grew up with that border and I wouldn’t want it back again…’ intones the septuagenarian taxi driver taking me from Shannon Airport to Limerick. He is speaking of the boundary separating British-governed Ulster in the north from the Republic of Ireland, which since 1998 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, abolished border controls, symbolically softening an 800 year-long conflict. Now, in the aftermath of June’s referendum, the border’s return seems inevitable:  a clear indicator of the disruption to the Irish peace process resulting from Brexit.

I am visiting EVA Interantional, Ireland’s biennale of contemporary art, coinciding this year with the centenary of 1916 Easter Rising, a calamitous event, which definitively swung popular opinion against the British Administration leading to the War of Independence and the constitutional division of the country.

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Image of British Army Personnel in Sierra Leone

Since 2009 IWM has been running a project to collect the experiences of British military personnel serving in contemporary conflicts. Until last year, the dominant experience was the war in Afghanistan. But as this conflict began to draw down, British forces were deployed to help with other pressing concerns.

The latest IWM display, the fourth in the Contemporary Conflicts Programme, focuses on two different, concurrent deployments. Operation Gritrock was the British military’s contribution to the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone. Operation Shader is the British element of the fight against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), the Islamic extremist group, in the Middle East.

As with the previous displays, Fighting Extremes utilises material gathered directly from personnel who have served on these operations. The IWM team has conducted interviews and gathered film footage, photographs and other artefacts at locations ranging from Cyprus to Belfast. A selection of this material forms the basis of the new display.

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C Eliot Hodgkin, ‘The Haberdashers’ Hall, 8th May 1945’, tempera on panel, © IWM, Art.IWM ART LD 5311.

June is the month when rosebay willow herb comes into flower, growing from derelict buildings, on wasteland and railway embankments across the UK. During the Second World War and in the following years, its spires of magenta flowers were common to see amidst the ruins and cleared bomb sites, hence the name it was given at the time – fireweed.

Yet to flower in this painting of May 1945, the fireweed is depicted at the very forefront of the remains of Haberdashers’ Hall, Staining Lane, which was destroyed during one of the worst night raids of the Blitz on the 28/29 December 1940.

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During the Second World War the German Army established a number of POW facilities in the artillery forts in the old Hanseatic city of Thorn (Toruń ) in northern Poland. The camp bore number Stammlager  (Stalag) XXA and held Allied prisoners of various nationalities.

Bridge linking courtyard and entrance gate to Fort XI of Stalag XXA. © IWM DC 552.

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American airmen with British civilians after VE Day

US official photograph showing American airmen having a drink with Brits outside the Waggon and Horses pub in Great Yeldham, near their base at Ridgewell, Essex, on 17 May 1945. They are gathered around a now defunct local pastime: ‘Bet! V.E. before July’ (FRE 13699)

The American airmen did not simply pack up their bags and board troop ships as the final notes of the VE Day big band faded away. Instead, the Roger Freeman Collection of photographs shows how they spent the time between the end of war and their return home, up in the air and on the ground.

One of the quirks of researching the impact of American airmen on Britain during the Second World War is that very often airfields across East Anglia remained in American hands until the winter of 1945. By November of that year, the bright days of May had faded somewhat and although the August news relieved airmen of possible duty in the Pacific it must have been a homesick bunch of GIs that kicked about East Anglia, as the trees lost their leaves, waiting for orders to go home.

The Roger Freeman Collection gives a good picture of life at war but I’ve taken the chance of the approaching VE Day Anniversary Air Show coming up at IWM Duxford to find out what it reveals about what life was like for Americans in England after the Nazi surrender.

One of the stories told by Bomb Group veterans is that they used the days after VE Day to give lifts to ground crew, who had spent their days making the bombers airworthy and armed, to show them the effect of Allied bombing raids on Nazi industrial sites.

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The Official War Artist, John Keane, using a video camera to film British self-propelled artillery in training prior to the Ground Assault. © Ken Lennox/Mirrorpix (IWM GLF 1321).

A little known piece of the museum’s history is that the art collection was the principal reason cited in the House of Lords to acquire the Bethlem Hospital building in Lambeth, which is now the IWM London site.

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Operation Chastise which destroyed the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe Dams was launched on the night of the 16th May 1943.

IWM FILM 2342. No. 617 Squadron practice dropping the bomb at Reculver bombing range, Kent. The bomb rises from the water after its first ‘bounce’.

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Official cinematographer Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins (right), with the official photographer Lieutenant Ernest Brooks, at a coffee stall behind the lines on the Somme, 1916. © IWM (Q 1456)

One of the recurrent pleasures of historical research is proving that something we assume to be up-to-the-minute in fact has a long back-story…

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During the First World War, the troops made an effort to mark Christmas, despite the obvious difficulties. Words, objects and images from Imperial War Museums’ collections and elsewhere reveal how the soldiers negotiated some space for family, sharing and festivity.

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