Grace Robertson: life and work

Grace Robertson (1930 – 2021) was a pioneering photographer and observer of British life, who championed the lives and work of women throughout her career.

Robertson began working as a photographer in the 1940s, a time when the profession was usually reserved for men. Speaking in 1986, she remembered, "[t]he idea of your job, what you might do when you grew up, was still narrow. Aunts would say to me, darling, are you going be a nurse or a secretary? And I had absolutely no desire to be either of those things." So she decided, "there's nothing to stop me being a photographer."

Women enjoying a day off in Margate
Photograph from Mother's Day Off, by Grace Robertson, 1954, Margate, England. Museum no. E.1645-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robertson's interest in photography was encouraged by her father, Fyfe Robertson, who gifted her a Leica camera when she was 18. Fyfe Robertson was a respected journalist at Picture Post, a pioneering and influential weekly news magazine, founded in 1938. Socially conscious and left-leaning, the publication pushed certain social campaigns, including a national health service and greater access to welfare. It is now remembered for featuring some of the most iconic images of post-war Britain. Picture Post was the first publication to feature Robertson's work.

Cover from Picture Post magazine
Cover from Picture Post, serial, 1949, England. NAL: 38041800897514. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Interior spread from Picture Post with article titled 'This is War!'
Interior spread from Picture Post, serial, 1938, England. NAL: 38041800715880. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The young photographer's first submission to Picture Post was under a pseudonym, Dick Muir. Robertson did not want to draw attention to her relation to her famous father, or to her gender. As she noted, at the time photography was "a man's world". She later reflected that gender did not seem to be an issue at Picture Post, commenting "you were as good as the work you produced". After a few rejections, her first published series in Picture Post was in 1951, under her own name. A personal and joyful study of her sister, entitled A Schoolgirl Does Her Homework, the series foreshadowed Robertson's subsequent style that, in her own words, focused on intimate stories, closer to home.

Women enjoying a day off in Margate
Photograph from Mother's Day Off, by Grace Robertson, 1954, Margate, England. Museum no. E.1650-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robertson's most celebrated and powerful works are united by their focus on the lives of everyday women, often depicting fleeting, slight but potent moments of expression and release, with a non-judgmental, observational quality. This is particularly true of her most famous series Mother's Day Off. Captured in 1954, the series depicts a group of women travelling from a pub in Bermondsey, London to the seaside resort of Margate in Kent. Robertson spent three days in the women's company, drinking at their local pub, in order to gain their trust. The method worked, Robertson gained an intimate insight into the women's lives and their tight-knit community.

Women enjoying a day off in Margate
Photograph from Mother's Day Off, by Grace Robertson, 1954, Margate, England. Museum no. E.1637-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robertson described the series as her 'most enjoyable' – the photographs revel in the women's unselfconscious, joyous celebrations – singing, drinking and entertaining. However, there was also a sense that this community was disappearing, and Robertson wanted to preserve it with her lens. When Robertson first pitched Mother's Day Off to Picture Post, it was rejected on the grounds it lacked 'broad appeal'. Determined, Robertson submitted the photographs to the editor. They clearly had an impact, forming the lead story in the next publication. In 1956 a similar story was commissioned by Life magazine, cementing the series' fame internationally. Mother's Day Off was acquired by the V&A in 1989.

Women enjoying a day off in Margate
Photograph from Mother's Day Off, by Grace Robertson, 1954, Margate, England. Museum no. E.1636-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Robertson felt a responsibility through her photography, aiming to shine a light on the lives of others. Following the collapse of Picture Post in 1957, she continued to produce socially conscious work as a freelance photographer, submitting to various publications and photographic agencies. After the birth of her first child, she left photography, retraining as a primary school teacher. She dedicated her later years to championing the lives and work of women, lecturing on women in photography and using her award from the Wingate Scholarship to fund the project 'Working Mothers in Contemporary Society'.

Robertson's photographs are at once powerful and gentle, a celebration of human experience and humanity. Reflecting on her process, she stated, "The indefinable something, as to when you click the shutter, you have to get the feeling inside yourself".

Women enjoying a day off in Margate
Photograph from Mother's Day Off, by Grace Robertson, 1954, Margate, England. Museum no. E.1651-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Written by Catlin Langford, V&A Curatorial Fellow in Photography, supported by The Bern Schwartz Family Foundation.

Background image: Photograph from Mother's Day Off, by Grace Robertson, 1954, Margate, England. Museum no. E.1636-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London