By Amanda Hopkinson
In recent years, Edith Tudor Hart has become renowned at least as much for her secret as for her public life. Unmasked as a Soviet secret agent responsible for recruiting the ‘Cambridge Five’ (including Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess), she was a committed Communist, a campaigner for social and political change.
For Photo-Oxford, the focus is on the archive of this highly original, pioneering and experimental black-and-white photographer. Born in 1908 and raised in Vienna where her Jewish parents ran a left-wing bookshop in a working-class district, Edith (née Suschitzky) trained first with Maria Montessori as an infant schoolteacher in London, then in photography at the Bauhaus in Dessau, with Walter Peterhans. All three influences were formative in her work, combining political propaganda with practical action, in a style that graphically shaped and lit strong images viewed with a ‘continental eye’.
In 1933 Edith met and married Alex Tudor Hart, a Welsh fellow Communist, at the British Consulate in Vienna. A GP, he was there to pursue an Orthopaedics course, at the end of which - and with Hitler now in power in Germany - they returned to Britain. Here Edith continued to document social conditions and children’s education for mass circulation magazines such as Picture Post and Weekly Illustrated. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, Alex enlisted as a surgeon in the International Brigade, leaving their small son behind with Edith. When Alex returned in 1939, the marriage was effectively over and by the start of the Second World War, Edith had become Tommy’s sole provider.
Edith’s work on early education expanded, and she documented children exploring free movement and exercising outdoors for a book, published by the Ministry of Education in 1952, called Moving and Growing. It went in tandem with desperately seeking a ‘cure’ for Tommy’s increasingly extreme condition (almost certainly undiagnosed autism). Children represented intimations of hope in postwar Britain, where a postwar Labour government introduced free education, the NHS and, most radical of all, the ‘cradle to grave’ support of a Welfare State. Edith’s work gradually shifted from documenting the aftermath of the War in Blitzed cities, to more positive projects on miners, fishermen and factory workers, and on the South London Hospital for Women and the London Women’s Parliament. And she contributed to numerous books on urban planning, housing and healthcare, with titles such as Working Class Wives, published by publishers with politics such as New Left Books.
Peter Jungk’s film, Tracking Edith, contextualizes the life within the work rather than the other way around. In the 1950s MI5 began closely pursuing Tudor Hart, causing her to destroy rather than make new photographs lest her entire archive be seized. Unable to make a living by photography, and obliged to put Tommy into a care home, she took a post as a live-in housekeeper for a lawyer.
Although Tudor Hart found herself forced to abandon photography as a profession she remained convinced, as she wrote in an article for Housewife magazine, it was:
‘... one eminently suited to women. Technical skill is essential, but to my mind, the qualities of intuition and the ability to understand and get on with people, as well as a creative and artistic imagination, are even more important.’
And, most importantly, the legacy of her working life demonstrates her commitment to photography as the medium for her time.
See also the entry on Hart Edith Tudor [née Suschitzky], 1908-1973 by Amanda Hopkinson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.