This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
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English Ladies Orchestras

20 September 2013

As usual they are unknown. An unmarked postcard with no names, date, or place. Since I acquired it from a dealer in England, it would be reasonable to describe them as an English Ladies Orchestra.  But they might be Danish, or German, or even Welsh. What we can know is that this elegant ensemble has 10 women musicians posed on what appears to be an outdoor stage, perhaps a performance area at a seaside hotel garden or an amusement pier.

The orchestra has four violins, cello, double bass, flute, cornet, percussion, and standing 2nd from left, either the pianist or a violist. The conductress or orchestra leader stands in the center  wearing a black dress in contrast to the other 9 ladies in white. My guess based on their hairstyles and fashion is that they are from 1910 to 1918.

They captured my attention because of how they resembled the Greenhill Ladies' Orchestra which I featured on my blog back in July 2011. The postmark on this postcard was obscured but the stamp of King George V meant it was no earlier than 1912. These two ladies orchestras did not play serious chamber music. Not with percussionists anyway. Their music programs were more likely to have waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. than opera arias of Richard Strauss. This was a time when people heard the sound of music only if a live musician was performing. Since hotels and restaurants needed a hook to bring in more customers, ladies orchestras became a novel attraction for these respectable venues. The high class orchestras of the symphony hall and opera house were still a musical preserve for men only. But women found they could perform in musical groups if they were on stage with other female musicians.

Earlier this summer I acquired a small cdv photo, also from an English dealer, of an anonymous woman violinist. She stands on the ever present photographer's fur rug and in front of rather odd striped drapes. The lighting looks like it might be outdoors too. The woman has her violin and bow in a relaxed stance, and stands next to a music stand that sadly has too much glare for us to see the notes and read what music she is playing.

There are no clues, no identification, no photographer's name. Nothing. But something about her face seemed familiar.

I think she is Bessie Lillian Greenhill. She was born in 1873 in Hampstead and began performing in the 1890s with her older sister, Christine Greenhill, who accompanied on piano. Here is their 1891 census record for Wilsden, England where Christine, age 21 lists her occupation as Pianist, Professor and Bessie, age 17, is a Violinist.

The name of Bessie Greenhill - violinist, appears several times in musical journals and magazines of the 1890 - 1900 era. A cdv portrait like this would have been a useful promotional photo for a professional entertainer like Bessie. If we account for the age difference, I think these are images of the same woman separated by about a decade. Of course there can never be a certainty, but I think the likenesses are very close.

Bessie died in 1943 in St. Austell, Cornwall.  She never married, but I believe she made her living as a music teacher and violinist.  

In this pre-suffragette age, there were formidable challenges for a woman to become a successful professional musician. It required bravery to face the discrimination, the inequity, the favoritism, and even outright hostility that confronted working women. I imagine that brave face as Bessie's, and now I can imagine I have two images of her.

This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
Click the link for more vintage photos of strong women.


Wendy said...

I agree -- it appears to be Bessie alright.

The photos of the ladies both contain an interesting mix of expressions, some in that expected serious pose and a few here and there in an all-out smile.

Boobook said...

Another excellent blog Mike. Keep up the good work.

ScotSue said...

Such a wonderful set of photographs.

Deb Gould said...

They're clearly related, Mike -- and it looks a good bet that they're sisters! What flat-out good luck to find both of these!

Alan Burnett said...

I agree with you, there appears to be a very definite resemblance - something about the shape of the mouth. Masterly, as ever, Mike.

Postcardy said...

I thought of the women's orchestras as a novelty, but I didn't realize they were a result of discrimination.

Little Nell said...

How do you do that? I'd never have spotted the similarity. The ladies look so elegant.

Kristin said...

Do you think the two women's orchestras have the same women? I think the bass player looks like it could be the same one.

Sharon said...

Yes I agree. They do look to be the same lady.

Tattered and Lost said...

How wonderful to be able to identify her. It looks dead on to me. I am always a bit taken back when I see a group of women doing something other than teaching, nursing, or sewing. I just never think of them being musicians outside their home environments. I imagine they faced the same sort of filth spewed at them as actresses did.


There is a resemblance, therefore, you might be right. Nice sentiment to salute the courage of such women. Too often, their story goes untold...


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