When Edith Tudor-Hart wasn’t working as a Soviet agent, she was taking lovingly realistic portraits of London’s workers and street children. Now, for the first time, a retrospective is celebrating her double life.

Being a Soviet agent doesn’t seem to have come naturally to the photographer Edith Tudor-Hart (née Suschitzky). For one thing she used the code name “Edith”, which was not subtle. For another, when she moved to London from her native Vienna in 1933 she liked to attend and photograph demonstrations led by the Communist Party of Great Britain.
She was, nevertheless, successful in one important regard: she is thought to have recruited Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five.
As a photographer working in the period her success was limited as well, at least in terms of her influence. It wasn’t that Tudor-Hart wasn’t innovative – she was, breaking the mould of static, studio-based portraits of children by introducing a more naturalistic style which showed them in their own environments, such as her photograph of children being treated for rickets using ultraviolet light. It was more that because Special Branch had her under surveillance (doing so until her death, in 1963), the Ministry of Information blacklisted her work and Fleet Street followed its lead.
Yet her work has since become significant and she is now the subject of a major exhibition at the National Galleries of Scotland. The photographs have been printed from her negative archive, which was donated by her family in 2004. But because she destroyed her negative lists when Philby was first arrested, not all the figures in the photographs are identifiable. “She seems to have had a nervous breakdown when Philby was arrested,” Duncan Forbes, the exhibition’s curator, says. “But it wasn’t until Anthony Blunt’s confession in 1964 that she was really dropped in it.”
Tudor-Hart’s work had a strong social message, and she saw the camera as a political weapon. Her documentary projects took her from street markets in London’s East End to the slum housing areas of Tyneside and south Wales. Her recurring themes were child welfare, unemployment and homelessness.
Her most popular image from the Thirties was Child Staring into Bakery Window, taken in Whitechapel, London. The juxtaposition of the plenitude of the bakery window with the dishevelled and hungry child emphasised the gap between rich and poor, and it was reproduced in a number of socialist propaganda pamphlets. It also reflected her preference for strong contrasts of black and white.
“She liked the detail that came with a medium-format Rolleiflex camera,” Forbes says. “And seeing the world from waist height, which is where you hold those cameras, meant she was able to communicate better with her subjects. Her face wasn’t hidden. What intrigued me about her was what a good picture maker she was, bridging the divide between a documentary style and something more pictorial.
One of Tudor-Hart’s “signature shots”, says Forbes, was of diagonal steel structures plunging into space. Mostly, though, she liked to photograph children on the streets and families in their homes, shooting them “through windows to emphasise her voyeurism, and limit the sentimentality”.
Had she not been arrested in Vienna in 1933 – for being a Communist sympathiser – she would probably have remained there. Instead she escaped imprisonment by marrying an English doctor and was exiled to London. “When she moved from Vienna to Britain she moved away from Bauhaus-style social realism to a more emotional identification with the figure in the picture,” Forbes says. “Her work became more direct and affecting. It can’t have been easy being a German-speaking émigré in wartime Britain. I think the move meant her life became a struggle.”
‘Edith Tudor-Hart: In the Shadow of Tyranny’ is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until May 26. Tel 0131 624 6200, or vist nationalgalleries.org