In this issue [of Faith and Freedom: Volume 73, Part 1, Number 190] we are pleased to include Mária Pap’s review of the Lindsey Press’s new book Unitarian Women. A Legacy of Dissent. One of the subjects rightly featured in the book, and also included within the book’s cover illustration, is Gertrude von Petzold. Although her career as a Unitarian minister was relatively short it was also quite effective and was remarkable because it was such a trailblazing achievement, the first woman minister of any organised denomination in Britain. Her achievement is perhaps all the more impressive because she was not born in Britain, English was not her first language, and she achieved all that she did in the teeth not only of prejudice because of her sex but also because of her nationality. In every sense she was an outsider in her chosen field and yet she established herself in her profession as a leader of considerable authority who inspired tremendous affection and loyalty from her congregations.
Postcard of Gertrude von Petzold, taken by Burton & Sons published by Rotary
She was also an undoubted celebrity in her own right. The image of her reproduced in the book and on the cover of this issue travelled far and wide and has retained a place in the public imagination, at least for those interested in this aspect of Unitarian or women’s history. In the last couple of years an enlargement of this same image has been framed and hung on the walls of Harris Manchester College, a fitting tribute from her old college, but a compliment too to the photographer.
When the picture was first taken in 1904 it was ubiquitous. It must have sold, as a postcard, in the thousands. Not only that, three weeks after being inducted as pastor of Narborough Road Free Church in Leicester the same image graced the cover of the Tatler magazine.
The picture was taken by Burton & Sons, a long-established photographer local to Leicester but with studios across the Midlands. They also had the task of creating something new – no one had ever photographed a woman minister before. How should such a subject be depicted? With what clothes, posture, style? How do you present someone doing an entirely new thing, the first of her kind? There is no precedent for this kind of illustration. So where do they go for inspiration? The answer is simple, it is a celebrity photograph. The model used by the photographer, and by market leader Rotary who subsequently produced and sold her image as a postcard, is that of the top celebrities and postcard favourites of their day – the stars of the stage. Although she is wearing her academic hood and holds a book as indicators of her academic status, Gertrude von Petzold is dressed very elegantly, she gazes off into the middle distance her head resting on her left hand. This is a classic pose of an actress or musical hall star in 1904, she was being packaged as a celebrity in the terms of her era.
Postcard of Miss Phillida Terson/Miss Phyllis Terry published by J. Beagles & Co. 1912. As can be seen the pose is almost identical to that in Rotary photograph of Gertude von Petzold. (Described as ‘an actress of distinction’ in the ODNB she combined stage appearances with film roles in later life).
You have to acknowledge too that she also must have projected something of a star quality herself. You can find other examples of pictures of women graduates from this era and they lack that extra element that undoubtedly helped to make this postcard sell.
Unnamed Pre-1914 female graduate. Wickens Studios, Bangor, North Wales
To many of us this [image of Gertrude von Petzold] is a familiar picture. But it was not an inevitable depiction of the first woman minister. How else might an Edwardian photographer think that a woman minister might be shown? Well the answer comes with the postcard that is reproduced alongside this article. This is a far rarer postcard than the one produced by Rotary and, it has to be said, is not as well produced although it was published by J. Beagles a long-established London photographic publisher. Like Rotary they specialised in royalty, musical hall artistes and actors and actresses but unlike them they had a different model in mind for the picture of the first female minister. What inspired them was the image of a woman as a nurse.
Postcard of Gertrude von Petzold by J. Beagles & Co. London 1904.
This was already a well established outlet for women’s work – a caring profession characterised by service, so it was not a surprising model to be chosen by the photographer. Although again there are academic accoutrements, this picture, with plainer clothes, a high collar, long sleeves and even the hands pushed into the pockets of the skirt or pinafore, is exactly reminiscent of contemporary photographs of nurses. With a fuller face, if not exactly gazing directly at the camera, this is one of the ways that members of the nursing profession were presented on postcards in the Edwardian era and right through the First World War. J. Beagles were not alone in this; Elliot and Fry, another firm of London photographers, also produced similar images of Gertrude von Petzold.
Postcard of an Edwardian nurse (‘With very best wishes for the future from Eunice to Molly’, no photographer or publisher named). She doesn’t have her hands in her pockets as many similar photographs did but the similarities of pose and dress can be seen with J. Beagles’ photograph of Gertude.
But here we have two ideas of this pioneering woman minister. Was she a star, a glamorous personality, an elegant figure fit to grace the cover of magazines? Or was she a nurse, someone inspired by practical purpose, a worker, a servant? I wonder how she preferred to be seen herself? In the end, though, there is no doubt which card was the most popular. The ‘nurse’ picture is very rare indeed. The postcard image of this minister as a celebrity and star is very common and is frequently offered for sale on eBay right up to the present day.
This article appears in the SPRING AND SUMMER 2020 Volume 73, Part 1 Number 190 of Faith and Freedom. All the illustrations are from my own collection and may not be reproduced without my express permission.
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The current situation with Covid-19 has delayed production and distribution of this issue but another article in the current issue can also be read online. To read Jim Corrigall’s review of Stephen Lingwood, SEEKING PARADISE: A UNITARIAN MISSION FOR OUR TIMES, Lindsey Press, London 2020, pp 142, ISBN 978-085319-094-3. £10.00 pbk. click here.