Who is Emma Barton and why is she getting honoured by a blue plaque?

Carbon print by Emma Barton.  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)Carbon print by Emma Barton.  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)
Carbon print by Emma Barton. (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Emma Barton, a pioneering female photographer , receives Birmingham Civic Society Blue Plaque honour

Emma Barton (1872-1938) was an English portrait photographer who lived and worked in Birmingham

She was one of the few women photographers highly respected for her work during her time period, and she won several awards and exhibited internationally. 

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She is now being honoured by a blue plaque from the Birmingham Civic Society, which recognises individuals connected to the city who have made a significant contribution to their field or community.

The Blue Plaque unveiling will take place on Thursday 14th March 2024, at 10am at Birmingham City Centre, in celebration of Barton’s life and legacy.

Early life and career

Emma Barton was born Emma Boaz Rayson in 1872 into a working-class family in Birmingham. She became the wife of a solicitor, George Barton, with whom she had five children with.

 Photograph by Emma Barton (1872-1938).  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images) Photograph by Emma Barton (1872-1938).  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)
Photograph by Emma Barton (1872-1938). (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Throughout her career she focused on portraits, producing these using simple equipment usually taken somewhere within her own home or garden. Her models were her family and friends and she regularly photographed her own children from infancy to young adulthood. 

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She first became known by publishing portraits of Dan Leno, the music hall star, in 1898.

What kind of photography did Emma Barton specialise in and what influenced her style?

Emma Barton's photography was influenced by Pictorialists such as Julia Margaret Cameron,  and the Pre-Raphaelites. She specialised in portraits and religious subjects, often using soft focus, dramatic lighting and symbolic props. She was also an early user of the Autochrome Lumière process for colour photography.

Carbon print by Emma Barton.  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)Carbon print by Emma Barton.  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)
Carbon print by Emma Barton. (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images) | Getty Images

She exhibited her work at the Royal Photographic Society, where she had her first solo show in 1904. She also showed her work at the Salon of the Photo Club of Paris, the Universal Exhibition of Photography in Berlin, and the American Salon. She won the Royal Photographic Society Medal in 1903 for The Awakening.

At the height of her fame she was possibly the most published woman photographer of her time, rivalling her contemporary Christina Broom (1862–1939).Her work appeared in magazines such as The Sketch, The Sphere, Country Life, and Illustrated London News. 

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She was praised by critics and ranked alongside "the best works of Kasebier, Duhroop, Baron de Mayer, Steichen, Demachy, Puyo, and the other photographic giants...".

Later life and legacy

Emma Barton stopped exhibiting her work after 1918 and focused on photographing her family. She retired to the Isle of Wight in 1932, where she died in 1938.

Portrait photograph of a young girl by Emma Barton (1872-1938).  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)Portrait photograph of a young girl by Emma Barton (1872-1938).  (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images)
Portrait photograph of a young girl by Emma Barton (1872-1938). (Photo by The Royal Photographic Society Collection/Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Her work is now held in collections such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Photographic Society, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her work was also featured in a book, Sunlight and Shadow: The Photographs of Emma Barton 1872-1938, published in 1995 .

When and where will the blue plaque honouring Emma Barton be unveiled?

She is being honoured by a blue plaque from the Birmingham Civic Society, which has put up over 50 blue plaques since the 1950s to commemorate notable people and places in the city. The plaque will be unveiled at Birmingham City Centre, South & City College Digbeth Campus, in celebration of Emma Barton on Thursday 14th March 2024, at 10am

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Some of Barton's photographs will be exhibited at the event. It is open to everyone and does not require any fee. If you want to join the event and discover more about Barton and her photography, please RSVP in advance.

Emma Barton was a pioneering female photographer who made a lasting impact on the art and history of photography and is now celebrated for her achievements and contributions to Birmingham and beyond.

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