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Recruits file into a recruiting office. Treaty Lodge, Hounslow, the HQ of the 8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, September 1917. © IWM.

In 1917 George Elliott Dodds, a writer and editor at the Department of Information, suggested publishing a series of photographically illustrated booklets showing various war activities on the Home Front. After three years of war, the potential propaganda value of such publications for combating war weariness and maintaining domestic morale was recognised. However, the Department of Information lacked the resources required to deliver such an ambitious project, relying at the time on commercial picture agencies to supply all the photographs it required.

Consequently, in June 1917 Ivor Nicholson, in charge of Pictorial Propaganda, wrote to the Treasury for permission to employ a full time photographer, arguing that in order to deliver Dodds’ scheme there had to be a photographer permanently attached to his department. Nicholson already had someone in mind for the post. He added: ‘For some time since I have been here, I have been in touch with Mr. Horace W. Nicholls, an expert photographer…I am confident that this gentleman is fully qualified to act as our own photographer.’ The Treasury agreed to Nicholson’s request and in early August Horace Nicholls took up his appointment.

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© Horace Nicholls Estate. Reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate'.

© Horace Nicholls Estate. Reproduced with kind permission of the Horace Nicholls Estate.

As the first official photographer on the Home Front, Horace Nicholls documented the impact of total war on the British people during the First World War. After the war, Nicholls photographed the unveiling of the Cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. However, underlying these records of national mourning and collective remembrance there is also a story of personal loss. One hundred years ago, on 9 April, Easter Monday, 1917, Nicholls’ eldest son, George, was killed on the opening day of the Battle of Arras. He was just 22.

In 1914, George had been amongst the first to enlist, joining the Honourable Artillery Company as a private. By early 1917, he was serving as a second lieutenant with the 15th (Warwick) Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery. On 5 April he wrote home:

“Great news! I am going up to the guns tomorrow morning early. I feel so relieved, as life at wagon line is very tedious and uninteresting.”

Three days later, he wrote again:

“I am now with the Battery…I have no news for you except that I am well and very cheerful. My love to everyone. George.”

George was killed the next day.

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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.

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