‘It was like discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun’ – Famous Norfolk nature photos resurface after 100 years
- Credit: Turner Archive / BTO
Century-old photographic plates belonging to enigmatic Edwardian naturalist Emma Turner have been rediscovered in Norfolk – shining new light on her trailblazing work to catalogue the wildlife of the Broads.
The find, in a battered old cardboard box gathering dust in a storage cupboard at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) in Thetford, was a cause for great excitement among conservationists, who have likened it to archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Miss Turner spent many of her summers living on a houseboat on Hickling Broad where she, along with local gamekeeper Jim Vincent, discovered nesting bitterns had returned to Britain in 1911.
Her image which proved it was a landmark for ornithology and wildlife photography – but the original glass plates which captured this historic moment were lost after her death in 1940.
But now they have resurfaced along with hundreds of Miss Turner’s other plates and slides, becoming the only known survivals of her work.
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And the timing couldn’t have been better for James Parry, the Norfolk conservationist who was in the process of co-writing a book about the photographer with former BTO director Jeremy Greenwood, which has now been published by the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society.
The discovery was made last spring after Mr Parry took a call from Mike Toms at the BTO, asking if he wanted to look at some wildlife slides which he had found.
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“In about three seconds I was in the car, speeding towards the BTO,” he said. “We went through all these slides and there was lots of interesting material, but nothing from Emma Turner. Then at the back of the cupboard there was a battered old cardboard box. We pulled it out and Mike pulled a slide out a slide of a grebe and a coot sitting side by side. I immediately recognised it as Emma Turner. Then we turned the box round and written on the other side of it was written ‘Emma Turner slides’.
“In a sense it was like the Emma Turner equivalent of Howard Carter discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. It was an amazing moment, and it is remarkable that these slides came to light when they did. Before this, all we had were reproductions of her pictures in her books and some prints in the archive, but the reproduction quality was not at all good in the 1920s when her books were published. But the quality of these slides is amazing. The BTO has done some poster-size enlargements and the quality of them is incredible when you think that these things are 100 years old.
“The thing to remember is that this is nothing like the complete collection. She would have had thousands of these plates and slides, and we still don’t know where those have gone. What we found at the BTO is just a fragment of what would have been a much larger collection. I am hoping maybe there are more discoveries to be made.”
Mr Parry, a trustee of Norfolk Historic Buildings Trust and a former Norfolk chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said Miss Turner’s 1911 bittern picture was important for several reasons.
“That was one of the landmark achievements of her photographic and ornithological career, because that image proved that bitterns had bred again in the UK, but it also demonstrated that the camera was a better tool for proving a bird’s presence than the gun,” he said. “In the pre-photographic era nobody believed that a bird had been seen or had bred anywhere unless there was a specimen in the hand, so the bird would have to be shot.
“That is why that image became so iconic. We found a whole sequence of images that she took of that bittern.
“As the story goes, they found the bird in a reed bed quite late in the day and the light was fading and it was not good enough for photography, so they scooped the bird up, stored it overnight in a building nearby and then took it back to the same location first thing next morning and did the photography then. It was an amazing moment and she writes about it extensively in her book Broadland Birds.”
Mr Parry said the book was a chance to reinforce the legacy of a pioneer who was little-known despite her “immense achievements”.
He said: “Both Jeremy and I felt that here was somebody who has played a really important role in the history of wildlife and bird photography, in the history of ornithology, but also in the history of Norfolk. She also did much to raise the profile of women in a male-dominated world. And yet she was hardly known, and I think in a sense that is partly because nobody knew where her original slides had gone. If there had been an amazing archive of images and everybody knew where it was I think someone would have investigated this before.
“Later in life she lost her eyesight through a bungled cataract operation, which was a particularly cruel fate for somebody who had relied on their eye for her craft.
“Also, the technology soon developed beyond black and white plates and, in her last few years, she was saying to people: ‘I think my work has all been in vain, because now colour photography has come and nobody is going to be interested in my black and white pictures’.
“I’m very proud that we’re bringing back her amazing black and white images to public attention, and that is something I think she would never imagine happening 100 years later.”
• The book, “Emma Turner: A life looking at birds”, is available from the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society website.