To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, Curator Henrietta explores the life of a little-known Birmingham photographer.
Many of the photographs in our archive have the name of the photographer stamped on them. In the Victorian and Edwardian period, most of these photographers were men. I was quite excited, therefore, when I noticed the name ‘A. Clara Cooper’ on photographs of the Nettlefold family.
Searching through the archive I discovered that Clara had in fact photographed four generations of the Nettlefold family! The earliest image of hers that I found was this one of Margaret Nettlefold’s mother, Louisa Chamberlain, which must have been taken in around 1892.
This beautiful photograph conveys the gentleness of Louisa’s character, but also an element of sadness. Louisa was already unwell and died in 1892. Perhaps the family felt it was important to capture her likeness because they didn’t know how long they would have her with them, and it’s interesting that they chose a young woman for the job.
So, who was Clara Cooper? Born in 1877, Clara grew up at a time when the exciting new medium of photography was really making its mark, and her father Howard was a professional photographer. Her father must have taught her the craft, and it appears that she started operating the camera at a very early age. She must have been only 15 when she photographed Louisa.
By 1901, Clara was based in Bearwood Road, Smethwick. In that year, Clara and her father became founder members of the Professional Photographers’ Association, which was launched in Fleet Street with 100 members. This press photograph shows the PPA assembled in 1920. Clara appears in the back row, third from left. Even in 1920, the group is overwhelmingly male, and Clara cuts quite a dash in her glamorous hat and coat.
Meanwhile, the Nettlefold family were continuing to employ Clara’s services. In 1920, she was the official photographer at the marriage of Nina Nettlefold to Edward Carter.
In around 1922, she took a series of studio portraits of Evelyn Crosskey (the Nettlefolds’ eldest daughter) with her little girl Peg. These photos are particularly relaxed and engaging, and they show how talented Clara was at putting children at their ease.
At the time, Clara was working on the Hagley Road in Edgbaston, in a building which still stands today. She was by now the head of a photography studio with employees, and she had become well-known for child portraiture. The Smethwick Telephone newspaper records her taking the prize photos for a ‘bonny baby’ competition in June 1927! Sadly, Clara died later that year at the age of 50. Her obituary comments upon her ‘outstanding artistic abilities’, plus her devoted work to a ’variety of causes’.
I never expected to find any more photographs by Clara, but I was amazed to spot one in a charity shop a few weeks ago! It depicts a cricket club, and Clara’s name is clearly stamped underneath with an address in Bearwood Road, Smethwick. This was where she was living at the time of the 1901 census, and by 1911 she had moved to a different address in the same road. The photograph must therefore have been taken before 1911. It shows that Clara’s range extended to all kinds of group photography. This photo is now in our collection and will be displayed in the house in due course.
Clara was a talented woman operating in a male-dominated profession, and she must have faced obstacles and prejudice along the way. The Nettlefolds clearly rated her work highly and continued to return to her. This progressive family, who promoted women’s education and supported campaigns for women’s rights, no doubt valued Clara not just for her talent but also for her contribution to the breaking of boundaries.