A Portrait of Promise

In some ways this blog has a very tenuous link to the history of Toc H since it looks at something that happened over two years before Talbot House opened its doors and even further before Toc H was formed. And yet the event focused – quite literally because it was a photographic session – on the man whose name adorned the house but more crucially, whose death in the First World War became archetypal of the loss of almost an entire generation. Gilbert Talbot was almost certainly destined for a career in politics and these photos actually give an indication of this. We will never know what impact he, and the many other young men and women who lost their lives before their potential had been unveiled, would have had on the Twentieth Century but then of course, the War that claimed their lives, meant the world was irrevocably transformed in any case.

There is another reason that I wanted to write this blog though, and that is the photographer. Mary Olive Edis (She usually dropped the Mary professionally) was born in London in 1876 to a successful physician and his wife. She took up photography at the age of 24 and by 1905 had set up a studio in Sheringham, Norfolk with her sister. It was between here and a studio in Notting Hill that she divided her time and became a competent and sought-after portrait photographer. At different times she also had studios in Cromer and Farnham. Thus it is the former, along with Sheringham, that gives me local interest, and the latter, where I believe the photographs featured here were taken.

Edis took photos of everyone from local gentry to the fishermen of Sheringham and much of her collection is now at Cromer Museum, which is housed in a former fishermen’s cottage just down the road from Edis’ studio. She started using Autochrome, an early colour photography technique, in 1912 and became renowned for it. Her most famous body of work is probably from just after the Great War as in 1919 she became a War Photographer, the first female photographer to be officially engaged as such. She married in 1928 and became Olive Edis-Galsworthy and died in 1955. Her ashes are in Sheringham Cemetery.

But it is the session she had with Gilbert Talbot that we share today.

Gilbert Talbot by Olive Edis © Norfolk Museums Service

Gilbert Walter Lyttelton Talbot was born in Leeds on the first day of September 1891 to Edward Talbot, Bishop of Winchester and Lavinia Lyttelton, a niece of Gladstone. His uncle, John Gilbert Talbot was Conservative MP for the Oxford University constituency 1878-1910.

In 1905 Talbot went to Winchester and was in Trant’s House. Trant was the name Wykehamists gave to Mr Bramston. After a shaky start, he turned into a model student, won the Duncan Prize for reading and edited the Wykehamist magazine. Whilst at Winchester, he write to a London paper with such an air that he received a response from a major Liberal politician believing the schoolboy was a figure of great importance. And perhaps he was, even then. He was a prefect and head of his house and was looked up to by the younger boys in his charge. It was said he showed splendid moral courage and purged school life of its ‘pollutions’.

In 1910 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford to read Literae humaniores (Greats) then in 1911 his father was appointed Bishop of Winchester and the family moved to Farnham Castle. Talbot would spend his holidays there. During his visits home he would often meet politicians and other important men who stayed at Farnham Castle. Some of them influenced his thinking and stirred his political ambition.

A Conservative who recognised the need for a policy of social reform, he once told his parents:

 I want to lend a hand in the fight against poverty and misery and wrong … My greatest ambition is to be among the great world problems and to try and give my part to their solution.

Gilbert Talbot by Olive Edis © Norfolk Museums Service

At Oxford he was a founder member of the New Tory Club, Secretary of the Canning Club and President of the Oxford Union. Amongst his contemporaries was Harold MacMillan, a future Premier. He later said of Talbot:

I feel certain that if he had been spared he would have made a great mark in our politics.

He wrote early on for some periodicals on subjects such as Public School Life and at Oxford, he spoke often at the Union. The Times asked him to write about the Prince of Wales’ time at Oxford, which he did with aplomb.

Canon H. Scott Holland knew Talbot well and wrote a short character sketch of him just weeks after his death. He said that Talbot loved getting to the principle of the matter and analysed motives admirably.

Of all those he met at his parent’s house, none had a greater impact on him than the former Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour. Balfour visited the family at Farnham Castle on a number of occasions. After a visit in April 1912 Talbot wrote:

AJB can never have been in better form. As usual I was quite overpowered by the charm of the man. It’s simply the size of the intellect that first strikes one – in a different class to everyone else’s in the room

At this period he was out of the political limelight. After a landslide defeat to the Liberals in 1906 Balfour continued to lead the Tory party but stepped down in 1911. He would return to political power during the war but spent the interregnum as MP for the City of London and giving talks.

In March 1913 the Pall Mall Gazette and many other newspaper carried an advert announcing that Mr Balfour promised to debate a “subject of present day importance” with Mr. Gilbert Talbot, son of the Bishop of Winchester, at the Farnham Corn Exchange on April 25. He was a guest of the family at Farnham Castle for the weekend following the Friday night debate. The Bishop took the Chair. The discussion was organised by the Farnham Field Club as the finale to their lecture season. It was a condition of Balfour’s attendance was that no press coverage was allowed.

A newspaper article about the debate

Nevertheless, the subject was leaked and turned out to be The Future of the British Nation. The local paper, took the view that they should be allowed to publish the basic facts and said that Talbot, in opening, spoke at length about the decadence in the life and aspirations of the English people. He was supported by Mr. Livingstone who also took a pessimistic view of the future of this country. It should be noted, at this point, that Talbot was sometimes described as a clever controversialist, so he may well have been looking for a strong reaction from Balfour.

The Rev. A. E. M. Sims and Mr Balfour took the opposing view. The paper doesn’t go any deeper into the debate except to say that Mr Balfour’s charming personality was much appreciated by the audience and there was a ‘hurricane of applause’ for him. The meeting closed after two and a quarter hours.

However, Talbot wrote his own summation later in which he admitted to be nervous at first but once he got into his subject he lost that and felt very excited about it all. He was glad to hold their attention throughout.

I suspect that the Edis photographs featured in this blog were taken at this weekend, probably in Edis’ Farnham studio which was at 68 Castle Street, just down the hill from Farnham Castle. She opened the Farnham studios for a couple of months each spring and it was open in April/May 1913. Given that the debate had attracted much interest, it seems fitting that they should mark it by having their picture taken together. Nevertheless its possible it was in 1912 or another time altogether. That doesn’t really matter. It just matters that they were taken.

Arthur Balfour and Gilbert Talbot by Olive Edis © Norfolk Museums Service

And this is what it left us. One of the great portrait photographers of the time, capturing for posterity a man with his life and career ahead of him.

Of course a long life and great career were not to be. I expect most reading this column know how Gilbert Talbot lost his life at Hooge on the 30th July 1915 and how a humble soldiers’ club in Poperinge took his name and held it for eternity.

Balfour wrote:

I loved Gilbert – he was always delightful to me, and I cherished the most confident hopes that if he lived he would do great things for his country. He has done great things – the greatest and most enviable – but not in the way I expected

It was Balfour who said that had he lived Gilbert Talbot would have one day been Prime Minister of England and thus this final photo from the Olive Edis’ session shows the former prime Minister alongside the one who may have been.

But let us, as so often we do in Toc H, leave the last word to Tubby Clayton, who said of Gilbert Talbot:

 One would have been to English public life what Rupert Brooke began to be to English letters

The memorial to Talbot in All Hallows – destroyed in the Blitz (The cap is not his but belongs to Sidney Woodroffe VC who died alongside Talbot at Hooge

2 thoughts on “A Portrait of Promise

  1. Thanks Neil. Whilst one of the photos is quite common, I hadn’t realised it came from a set until I was reading an article on Olive Edis. Needless to say that led on to some research about Talbot and Balfour, and I thought I’d share my findings.


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