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28 Nov 2019

Introducing Violet Brodie: Part III – Violet’s last album

Written by Lily Barnes – Morton Project Documentation and Digitisation Officer
A page in a photo album with five black and white photographs pasted on to it. Three of the photographs show a group picnicking in a wood. One shows a boy and a toddler standing beside a building, another shows them with a woman, and a third shows the toddler walking in a coastal landscape.
This page marks another change in style in Violet Brodie’s albums (National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle)
Violet Brodie’s photo albums changed in style around the year 1904, corresponding to her transition from socialite to wife and mother. In 1911, tragedy would change them irrevocably.

In 1909, Violet Brodie began a new photo album. Much like her previous album, this one was filled mainly with images of her daily life, and in particular with images of her children. Shortly after beginning the album, she gave birth to her second son (Michael, also known as Peter the Great) in August 1909.

Though her albums now featured images of this new Brodie, his birth did not dramatically change her style. She still neatly pasted a selection of images onto each page, accompanying them with diligent notations naming people, places and photographers.

In the spring of 1911, however, Violet’s annotations suddenly become increasingly accurate. Where she previously included a date and year, three photographs in the middle of May are suddenly dated down to the day.

On the next page is an image which explains this change. The single photograph, accompanied by the poignant text ‘Flowers on the Little Grave’ tells us all we need to know. There are no more photographs of David, who passed away after complications arising from a bout of diphtheria in June 1911.

A black and white photograph of a grave covered with flowers and cards. The photograph is pasted into a photo album.
David’s grave in the grounds of Brodie Castle, photographed by John W Henry in the summer of 1911

In this context, the increased level of detail in the documentation of the previous images becomes especially sad. These were the last photographs Violet would take of her son. Taken just days before his illness and death, they give no indication of the blow about to befall the family. It’s likely that these photographs were added to the album after his death; when Violet was grieving, she returned to her album to preserve these last glimpses, and to record as much information as she could.

From carefree scrapbooks journalling parties and holidays to an exuberant record of the life of a young family, Violet’s albums now become a space for her to memorialise her son, and her grief for him. The initial image of David’s grave marks the beginning of this process. To create this important image, Violet again employed the services of John W Henry of Forres – the same photographer who had photographed David in his christening robe.

What follows is a collection of four neatly trimmed photographs of David’s grave over the summer of 1911. As bouquets of flowers are replaced by living plants and vegetation, there’s a palpable sense of a family beginning to come to terms with their loss, as it becomes part of the landscape around them.

There are just four pages of photographs following the ‘Little Grave’. The rest of the album is completely blank, and we have no evidence that Violet ever created any more. Previously, we had viewed this break purely in terms of her grief; that she had put aside photography after the heartbreak of losing her first son. Some research into the family, however, has suggested a slightly different reason.

On 12 June 1912, Violet gave birth to her third and final son, Ninian. His birth – exactly one year to the day after David’s death – may have marked a new chapter in her life. Perhaps her decision to step away from photography and album-making was not due to something coming to an end, but rather due to a new beginning.

A black and white photograph of a narcissus flower in a glass vase on a table.
Narcissus ‘Hildegarde’, cultivated and photographed by Ian Brodie in May 1912 (National Trust for Scotland, Brodie Castle)

This is one of the photographs from the final page of the album, taken by Ian Brodie in May 1912. The flower is a specimen of Narcissus ‘Hildegarde’, cultivated by Ian in the castle grounds. Seen in the context of David’s death, the bloom might seem vulnerable, alone and exposed. As a photograph taken in the month before the birth of their third son, however, it’s possible that this flower may have seemed more hopeful than mournful for the Brodies. Perhaps Ninian, like Ian’s daffodils and narcissi, would be a welcome burst of colour after a long, grey winter.

Find out more about Violet Brodie’s photo albums in Part I and Part II.

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–21, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the collection of photographic collections from across the Trust, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.

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