Photographer Olive Edis (1876-1955) was well known in her lifetime and celebrated for her portraits of the great and the good. She was also remembered for her work as Britain’s first female war photographer, tasked with recording the role of women in the armed services during the first world war.

Now, a new project to digitise her work and journals has received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), enabling the creation of a fully accessible archive.

Norfolk Museums Service has been awarded £81,000 for the project and will draw on its own collection of Edis’ photographs – housed at Cromer Museum – as well as those at the Imperial War Museum, National Portrait Gallery, National Media Museum and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre in Austin, Texas.

Alongside the creation of the archive, which will be available online later in the year, the museums service says it will use the funding to ‘boost awareness of Edis’ inspirational life’.

The project will enable better access to the collection of over 2000 images held at Cromer, with visitors able to explore the photographer’s life and work using smartphone and touch screen technology. There will also be a series of workshops and events.

Pioneering approach

Edis opened her first studio in the Norfolk town of Sheringham in 1903 where she specialised in portraits of local fisherman and members of the local gentry. She quickly gained notoriety as a pioneer of the autochrome technique, an early colour photography process developed by the Lumière brothers in France in 1907.

As her reputation grew, so did that of her sitters which included George Bernard Shaw, Emmeline Pankhurst, David Lloyd George and members of the royal family.

Commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 1918, her work as a war artist provided a unique insight into the changing role of women in conflict. Her journals from that time reflect the experiences of her subjects, both at home and on the western front.

Announcing the funding, Robyn Llewellyn, head of HLF East of England, said: “Olive Edis’ work spans social, gender and geographical boundaries to provide an incredible glimpse into the personal world of her subjects, particularly those who were affected by the first world war.

“We are thrilled to support this project which will finally provide her inspirational story with the recognition it deserves.”