Obituary: Grace Robertson

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The British photographer known for her trailblazing series documenting the joys and challenges in the lives of everyday women is remembered

One could say that Grace Robertson was destined to become involved in photojournalism from the start. Born in Manchester on 13 July 1930, she was the eldest daughter of Fyfe Robertson (1902-1987), a well-known figure as both a BBC broadcaster and journalist before and after the Second World War. The stars seemed even better aligned when in 1943 he became the picture editor of Picture Post magazine, where his daughter would later make her first mark. 

The renowned magazine was founded by Edward Hulton in 1938 as a liberal and anti-fascist news weekly. It took inspiration from Life magazine in America and its European predecessors of the 1920s by using photojournalism to document everyday life as well as the big issues of the day. It also played an important role in wartime and postwar Britain, placing an emphasis on the major social issues of the time, and strongly supported the election of the Labour government in 1945.

A female journalist interviewing Tobacco Dock workers, London, UK, March 1952. Original Publication: Picture Post - 5751 - Women Journalists - unpub March 1952. © Grace Robertson/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By her teens, Robertson knew she did not want the conventional life of a typical young woman from her background. As she later wrote: “If you were a middle-class girl there were [only] three jobs [considered by society as appropriate] – teaching, secretarial work or nursing, just to fill in until you got your man.” She left school early to help care for her mother, who was living with rheumatoid arthritis, and worried she would not be able to get a job or marry. But a chance observation while queuing at a shop proved enlightening, and directed the young Robertson towards a new career. She recalled, “I was standing watching two women talking, it was drizzling, and a bike had fallen over. And suddenly this butcher, whom I loathed, became a picture.”

Although there were a small number of notable women photojournalists active at the time – including Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, Dickey Chapelle, Thérèse Bonney and Sabine Weiss – it was still generally considered to be a male occupation. But Robertson’s father was encouraging when she told him about her interest in the metier, and offered support by buying her a Leica. She began by submitting her work to Picture Post under a male pseudonym, Dick Muir (utilising her mother’s maiden name), which was met with a disheartening response: “Persevere, young man,” was the message on the rejection slip. Persevere she did with the assumed name, but was soon being offered assignments under her own. 

In 1951, her series A Schoolgirl Does Her Homework, featuring her sister, was finally published in the magazine. The same year, she received her first commission, what she called her “idyllic” project, to record the work and lives of Welsh sheep-shearers on a hill farm in Snowdonia. A year later, she took on an assignment whose subject would characterise the rest of her career. It was to document the lives of a group of women, a well-known dance troupe of Parisian cabaret called the Bluebell Girls, on their tour to Italy. She later wrote: “I felt I was an observer of society. I never thought about my presence in it. My driving force in photographing women was to find out what made them tick.” 

April 1953: A group of children queuing outside a sweet shop. Original Publication: Picture Post - 6456 - Sweets - unpub. © Grace Robertson/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the greatest examples of Robertson’s work was her series, Mother’s Day Off. In 1954, as she became evermore enamoured with the lives of ordinary, working-class women, she met up with a group of friends, who often gathered in a Bermondsey pub. They were organising a day trip to Margate and invited their new photographer friend along. Robertson later recalled: “I noticed two things – that the women were getting ready for a day trip that weekend, and that around me younger people, ex-soldiers, were talking about new high-rise flats, new estates outside London. I knew at that moment I was capturing a bit of history, and that it was all going to be broken up, the whole area… So I set off on the Saturday with the women in the coach. Their energy was awesome. These women were survivors. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies, and they had been through two wars and that depression in the middle. They were incredibly exuberant.” 

The story was a big hit with Picture Post’s readership, and certain images have become iconic Robertson photos. The series’ fame spread as far as the US, and two years later, in 1956, Life magazine commissioned Robertson to repeat the photo story, but on this occasion with women from a pub in Clapham, south London. 

A nurse handing a newly born baby to its mother, 1956. Original Publication: Picture Post - 9111 - Analgesia - unpub. © Grace Robertson/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Members of a Bluebell Girls dance troupe after a rehearsal at the Nuevo Teatro in Milan, November 1951. Original Publication: Picture Post - 5672 - Miss Bluebell Takes Her Girls To Italy - pub. 9th February 1952 © Grace Robertson/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In 1955, Robertson married a fellow Picture Post photographer, Thurston Hopkins (1913-2014) and they had two children, who survive them. Their photography – as with that of many who worked for the magazine, such as Bert Hardy or John Chillingworth – expressed in the postwar era the specifically British version of photographic humanism in a society rebuilding itself after a devastating war. The same year, Robertson’s intimate series about childbirth and young mothers was seen as pioneering, showing a rawness and reality like never before. 

Picture Post folded in 1957, but Robertson’s work remained firmly focused on the lives of women. She continued to take pictures and support many projects designed to bring the medium to the attention of a wider public, such as the British Library’s Oral History of British Photography sound archive (in which she figures as interviewer and as subject). She was awarded an OBE in 1999 for her services to photography, as well as a Wingate Scholarship to fund her ongoing project on Working Mothers in Contemporary Society.

Grace Robertson died in January 2021, age 90. 

For more information about Grace Robertson’s work, click here