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The Photo Collection of Edith Durham

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Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, 1903 - 1913

Mary Edith Durham (1863-1944) came from a large and prosperous middle-class family of North London. Her father was a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital. She was the eldest of three brothers and six sisters, who were mostly successful in their respective careers in medicine, engineering and the civil service. Edith Durham, known to her family as Dickie, attended Bedford College in London (1878-1882) and then trained to be an artist at the Royal Academy of Arts. In this connection, she illustrated a volume of the Cambridge Natural History in 1899, and later left numerous sketches and paintings of the Balkans. As the eldest daughter and the last one still living at home, she was entrusted with the duty of caring for her ailing mother, a monotonous life which drove her to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Her doctor recommended that she get away and travel, so at the age of 37, Durham set off in 1900 with a female companion on a cruise down the Adriatic coast to Kotor. She was enchanted and came to life. The following year, she travelled extensively in Montenegro, and thereafter, until the First World War, she spent at least two months a year travelling in the Balkans, which became her passion and her lifeline. In 1902-1903, having immersed herself in the study of the Serbian language and in Balkan history, Durham travelled through Serbia in order to collect material for her first book Through the Lands of the Serb, London 1904, reprint 2015. She also visited Shkodra and Kosovo in Ottoman territory, rare journeys which at the time required a good deal of courage and stamina, in particular for a woman travelling on her own. Durham had both. At the end of 1903, she returned for a five-month stay in the Balkans to work for the Macedonian Relief Committee. This journey and the appalling humanitarian situation in the rebel region of Macedonia are described in her book The Burden of the Balkans, London 1905, reprint 2015, which also includes an account of her first lengthy expedition to southern and central Albania. In the following years she travelled through Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, collecting ethnographical material, which was much later to be published in her book Some Tribal Origins, Laws and Customs of the Balkans, London 1928, with illustrations by the author. The expansionist policies of Serbia and Montenegro that she had encountered on her travels led her to turn away from these countries and to focus her attention and her sympathies increasingly on Albania and the wild Albanians. In the summer of 1908, she travelled once more to Montenegro and from there to Shkodra and through the Albanian highlands to Kosovo, a journey she described in her most widely read book, High Albania, London 1909, reprint 2015. Many readers regard High Albania even today asthe most delightful book ever written in English about Albania. Edith Durham acquired quite a reputation among the northern Albanians for her interest in and support of their cause, and was soon known throughout the mountains as Kraljica e malesorëvet  (The Queen of the Highland Peoples). Indeed, rumour spread among them that she was the sister of the King of England. Her next book, The Struggle for Scutari (Turk, Slav and Albanian), London 1914, reprint 2015, focused on the bloody Montenegrin siege of Shkodra/Scutari at the time of Albanian independence. This book is perhaps Durham’s most ambitious piece of writing. It is a harrowing description of war, starvation and humanitarian catastrophe. She also visited Vlora in southern Albania only to find that conditions were no better in the south of the country, much of which was under Greek occupation. After the First World War, she published the book Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle, London 1920, reprint 2015. This bookconstitutes a culmination and synthesis of Edith Durham’s writing. It covers the period from her first visit to the Balkans in August 1900 to the years of the First World War, and could be regarded in many ways as her memoirs. Edith Durham’s last visit to the Balkans was in 1921. After that, she was unable or unwilling to travel, primarily for health reasons. She did, however, continue to campaign on Albania’s behalf over the next two decades. She was a founding member of the Anglo-Albanian Association and wrote many press articles and countless “letters to the editor” to counter ignorant views and to focus public attention on Albania and its plight. She was, in addition, the author of numerous scholarly articles on Albanian and Montenegrin folklore and on Balkan history and politics, a collection of which was published recently in the volume The Blaze in the Balkans: Selected Writings, 1903-1941, London 2014. It was also in this period that her controversial, though perhaps outdated book The Serajevo Crime, London 1925, appeared. It dealt with the background of the Sarajevo assassination and the causes for the outbreak of the First World War. In later years, her home in London became a rallying point for friends of Albania and for Albanians in exile. She died in November 1944, two weeks before the communist takeover of the country. The Edith Durham Photo Collection Edith Durham bought herself a camera, a new portable Kodak Brownie, in the spring or summer of 1900 before her first trip the Balkans in August of that year. She took it with her, seemingly, on all of her Balkan travels. In all, we have about 450 of her pictures from the Balkans. They are preserved for the most part at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, the British Museum  in London, and at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. We are grateful to the Royal Anthropological Institute, of which Edith Durham was once a distinguished Fellow, for its assistance in making a selection of these long forgotten images available to the public. Robert Elsie
Robert Elsie Early Photography in Albania Photos