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Edith Tudor-Hart In London

February 18, 2020
by the gentle author

Mark Richards explores the controversial work of photographer Edith Tudor-Hart and her secret life as a Soviet agent in London during the Cold War.

Edith’s photographs are featured alongside the work of Dorothy Bohm, Elisabeth Chat, Gerti Deutsch, Laelia Goehr, Elsbeth Juda and Erika Kochin a new exhibition ANOTHER EYE: WOMEN REFUGEE PHOTOGRAPHERS IN LONDON AFTER 1933  at Four Corners in Bethnal Green from 27th February until 2nd May.

Child staring into a bakery window, Whitechapel, 1935 (Courtesy of National Gallery of Scotland)

On a wall in a flat in Maida Vale hangs this small photograph. It is a window into a world of social unrest, poverty, espionage and insurrection.  The photograph and the story behind it add weight to the view that there is often little truth in photography. What we see is what the photographer wants us to see.

I saw the photograph when I visited the late photographer Wolfgang Suschitzky for an interview and portrait session in 2016.  It was not taken by him, but by his sister Edith Tudor-Hart (1908–1973). The picture had pride of place on a wall of well-known photographs just inside the entrance.  Edith Tudor-Hart was one of the most talented documentary photographers of her time, but has now faded into obscurity after being being blacklisted for her Communist activity.

For me, it is one of the strongest photographs of its era. One of those pictures that all photographers hope to be able to capture one day. Its ability to tug the heartstrings and generate strong emotion remains even eighty years after it was taken. On face value, it is a photograph of a poor child staring into a bakery window in Whitechapel in 1935.  The disparity between the hungry child and the plentiful display has an enduring poignancy, inspiring a futile desire to intervene.

This photograph was first published next to another of a baby chimp in a zoo, which was much better fed than this girl. The message was clear, as was Edith’s ability to use her camera as a weapon for social justice. The picture was subsequently reproduced widely in Communist leaflets, representing a call to action. Yet to grasp the nature of this phenomenon and understand the other photographs that Edith took of the East End, we need to appreciate both the social context and her personal motives. None of the photographs that she took at that time can be taken at face value.

There is no doubt that this photograph was staged – the bundle clutched tightly in the girl’s left hand is evidence of that. We shall never know who the girl was or how she became to the subject. Edith destroyed her photographic records in 1951 for fear of prosecution, so the background to most of her work is now lost. She used photography to highlight social inequality and deprivation, realising early on – while studying at the Bauhaus – that photographs have the power to alter people’s beliefs and change the world. In her time, photography had become a medium for social change, ideal for the promotion of political views to a large audience, affecting them through the impact of the visual image more powerfully than by the written word.

Edith was acutely aware of the potential to use photography to break down social barriers and influence an audience like never before. For her, photography represented a move of the locus of control into the hands of the people, offering the possibility of self-representation for everyone. She understood that those who press the camera shutter can control the story that a picture tells.

As well as being an accomplished photographer, Edith was also a committed Communist and a Soviet agent who used her power to further her hidden agenda.  Born in Vienna in 1908, she had grown up during a period of unprecedented political and social upheaval which shaped her beliefs. Her radical views are probably best summed up in Das Eland Wiens by the Marxist writer Bruno Frei, which attacks the inequality of capitalism and demands a commitment to revolutionary activism and change. Unusually, the book contained photographs and this was probably a decisive influence in Edith’s choice to become a photographer.

Edith’s father ran a Socialist bookshop which stocked Bruno Frei’s work and she mixed in radical Jewish circles in Vienna. In 1927, she trained as a Montessori teacher in England until she was deported to Austria in 1931 after being photographed at a Communist rally. Once in Austria again, she worked as a photojournalist for the Soviet news agency TASS, but in 1933 she was arrested there, again for being a Communist activist. At this point, Edith fled from Austria with her husband and was exiled in England.

Back in England, she continued her affiliation with the Communist party, both as an activist and a Soviet agent. It is likely that she had been recruited by the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) as early as 1927. Edith is often portrayed as a low-level agent yet she spotted and recruited Kim Philby. He was one of the Cambridge spy ring with Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who caused damage to British interests and threatened its intelligence relationship with America during the Cold War. Edith knew Kim Philby’s wife Litzi Friedmann and was the one who introduced Philby to Arnold Deutsch, the Soviet Agent who managed the Cambridge spy ring. Her recruitment of Kim Philby was a seminal moment in her espionage activities.

In 1964, Anthony Blunt described Edith in his confession as being ‘the grandmother of us all.’ Yet, although she continued to be monitored by the security services until her death in 1973, she was never prosecuted for spying due to lack of evidence.

She had planned to produce a book of her photographs called Rich Man, Poor Man, after the nursery rhyme:

Daisy, daisy, who shall it be?

Who shall it be who will marry me?

Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief,

Doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief,

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor…

The ambition of the book was to highlight the contrast between rich and poor in British society and it would have featured her photographs of the East End, together with a series she took of mining communities in Wales.  The shocking juxtaposition of her ‘Poodle Parlour’ photograph with the picture of the Clerkenwell slums at Gee Street in Lilliput in 1939 demonstrated he power of her approach. However, the book was never published. Eventually, the difficulty of being a woman photographer as well as being blacklisted for her Soviet connections led Edith to abandon photography altogether at the end of the fifties.

Some of the images that were intended for this book are incredibly powerful and reveal the nature of her talent as a photographer. Her method included talking to her subjects instead of photographing them from a distance and she showed a real ability for putting people at their ease.

Bakery Window was to have been the cover photograph of Rich Man, Poor Man and what a book it might have been. Today it lies unconstructed among the negatives of her photographic archives held by the National Gallery of Scotland which were given to them by her brother Wolfgang in 2004.

Slums at Gee St, Clerkenwell 1936

Poodle Parlour, West End, 1935

Family Group, Stepney, 1932

No Home, No Dole, London 1931

Communist Party demonstration, Hyde Park, c.1934

In Total Darkness, London 1935

Caledonian Market, 1931

Self portrait with unknown man, Caledonian Market c.1935

Edith Tudor-Hart, self portrait 1936

Photographs courtesy National Gallery of Scotland

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17 Responses leave one →
  1. February 18, 2020

    What a remarkable woman . It is such a pity that her idealism was misplaced in Russia and communism. I have so much sympathy with where her heart lay but I wonder had she known of the Gulags and Stalin’s atrocities whether she would have done it all again ?

  2. Justine Khaldi permalink
    February 18, 2020

    I so enjoyed reading this article and seeing ETH’s emotive photographs.
    The child looking into the bakery is very familiar to me but I did
    not know that it was judged to be staged. I do not understand the significance of the bundle in the child’s hand as evidence of staging and would like to know more from someone who knows…

  3. February 18, 2020

    Amazing Pictures in the Dark Times. So Sad and need to show us. Thank You So Much.??????

  4. paul loften permalink
    February 18, 2020

    Thank you and Mark Richards for this very interesting history Of Edith Tudor- Hart and the photos. I shall definitely visit the photographic exhibition in Bethnal Green , The photo of the man holding the banner at the demonstration led me to a train of thought of just how mistaken people can be in the beliefs that they hold so passionately to the point of them giving their life for the cause. It’s not the place to go into the history here but just to say how Ernst Thalmann suffered for 11 years in solitary confinement at Buchenwald concentration camp and was finally shot on the orders of Hitler in 1944. Yet Thalmann himself had partial responsibility for the rise of Hitler to power in Germany. The Communist Party played a big role in the history of the area with Phil Piratin being .elected as their .MP for Bethnal green in 1945

  5. February 18, 2020

    Thank you, G.A. I had no idea she existed. I’ve checked her pictures, a really great photographer. A very intelligent woman. If she lived today, she’d take the same pictures. Things have changed superficially, but not deep down.

  6. February 18, 2020

    A fascinating figure, and little doubt from reading the MI5 files that she did huge damage to the country [and took interesting photos in her ‘day job’].

    Her recruit Philby wreaked havoc with my father’s post-war MI6 networks behind the Iron Curtain, and interestingly she was a close friend of the parents of people I know slightly who think she also recruited their father, but who MI5 never even remotely suspected [at last that’s what MI5’s official historian told me].

  7. Mary permalink
    February 18, 2020

    A wonderful set of photographs taken by a fascinating but controversial woman. Thankfully her photographs were not lost but now held in a national archive.
    The woman in the Stepney family photograph reminds me of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and was taken around the same time.

  8. Penny permalink
    February 18, 2020

    The bundle is obvious to any child who has been sent to get the shopping. It’s the’ money’, usually wrapped in paper so you don’t lose the change. Not unusual to look dirty either or dwell longingly outside cake shops. Or to be clipped round the ear and sent back with the wrong stuff.Breeds character, self-reliance and the ability to do mental arithmetic from an early age.

  9. February 18, 2020

    The photo of the family on the rooftop brought me to a full stop. The humanity of the group,
    huddled in the midst of decayed relics and castoff debris — it left me breathless. The young boy smiling up at the camera…….the vertical mean boards, the useless chair legs thrusting up…. the careless chunks of concrete and brick…..the graceful diagonal of clothes line and the fragile drape of fabric……everything seemingly devoid of “conventional ” beauty and yet throbbing with
    narrative power. To me, this was one for the ages.

    Thanks for shining a light. Amazing.

  10. Ros permalink
    February 18, 2020

    Very good to see these fine photos again and I hope to get to the exhibition at Four Corners. There is a photograph you have featured showing Tony and Libby Hall’s reflections in a mirror with a price tag painted on it in Cheshire Street, and I wondered if this was a conscious homage to Edith Tudor-Hart. I suppose the unknown man in Edith’s picture is not her brother Wolfgang?

  11. February 18, 2020

    So tempting to dismiss her as merely politically naive, but ‘No Home No Dole’ and ‘Total Darkness’ show graphically how far short our own system fell, to the point at which even a monster like Stalin might have seemed to offer a viable alternative.

  12. Steve Davies permalink
    February 18, 2020

    When she married Alexander Tudor-Hart, she became the step-mother of Julian Tudor-Hart. He was a GP in Glyncorrwg and Communist Parliamentary candidate for Aberavon, my home town. His obituary- is well worth a read.

  13. Molly Porter permalink
    February 18, 2020

    Edith Tudor-Hart did die a lonely death, but her work is receiving significant attention and respect now. Two years ago I was able to see an excellent documentary about her life and work, entitled ‘Tracking Edith,’ which was shown at a Regent Street cinema; and last September there was a Victoria & Albert Museum large gallery room exhibition devoted to her photography equally along with that of her brother, Wolfgang Suschitzky. Her Wikipedia entry seems a fair brief summary, and I appreciate the Gentle Author publicising what sounds like a most interesting exhibition at Four Corners, which I look forward to attending with a friend who is a member of the Tudor-Hart family and is the person who ‘introduced’ me to Edith’s life history.

  14. Lesley permalink
    February 18, 2020

    Thank you GA. I love her social commentary. She was a very brave woman.

  15. February 19, 2020

    What courage a real heroine!

  16. Torsten Busch permalink
    February 20, 2020

    It appears historically ironic (at least to me) that Edith planned a book titled “Rich Man, Poor Man” when John Le Carré some 40 years later wrote the novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (later a major BBC-tv serial) with the spy (Bill Haydon) by and large modelled on Kim Philby, Edith’s recruit! Le Carré used the nursery rhyme as a code for the five suspects “Control” is after.

  17. February 23, 2020

    As the biographer of Edith Tudor-Hart I am quite shocked to read that Mr. Richards believes Edith “has now faded into obscurity”. He writes this right after a magnificent show ended at the Tate Britain, no less, which lasted fort several months? I also wonder why Mr. Richards does not mention Duncan Forbes’ amazing research and wonderful book ‘In the Shadow of Tyranny’, why he doesn’t mention my book on Edith published in Germany and France, does not mention my documentary film ‘Tracking Edith’ which was widely seen in the UK in 2017/18 and widely reviewed in the press, in The Guardian among others? But worst of all is portraying Edith as a kind of fraud who in some way staged or perhaps even faked her photographs. That assessment by Mr. Richards borders on the scandalous.

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