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For other persons named Ernest Brooks, see Ernest Brooks (disambiguation)

A sketch of Brooks made in France, 1917 or 1919, by the artist William Orpen.

Ernest Brooks (23 February 1878 — after 1936) was a British photographer, best known for his war photography from the First World War. He was the first official photographer to be appointed by the British military, and produced several thousand images between 1915 and 1918, more than a tenth of all British official photographs taken during the war. His work was often relatively posed and formal, but several of his less conventional images are marked by a distinctive use of silhouette. Before and immediately after the war he worked as an official photographer to the Royal Family, but was dismissed from this appointment and stripped of his official honours in 1925.


Image taken by Brooks during the Battle of Broodseinde, showing a group of soldiers of the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment moving up to the front, silhouetted against the skyline.[1][2]

A front-line combat photograph: soldiers of the Wiltshire Regiment going "over the top" on 7 August 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.[3]

Born on 23 February 1878,[4] he grew up near Windsor, Berkshire, where his father worked in the Great Park, and as a child frequently encountered members of the Royal Family.[5] After leaving school in 1890, he worked as a boy on the estates, where one of his duties was to look after a mule given to Queen Victoria by Lord Kitchener. In 1892 he enlisted in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and after leaving the army a few years later joined the Glamorganshire Yeomanry as a volunteer.[5]

His first encounter with photography came after he took a position in the household of Lady Vivian, widow of Hussey Vivian, 3rd Baron Vivian; Lady Vivian's twin daughters each had a camera, and Brooks was entrusted with developing the films. He bought a camera himself, paying by weekly shilling instalments, which he used to take pictures of prominent people for publication; his first portrait was sold to several newspapers through an agency, earning him the sum of seven guineas.[6]

Realising that he could support himself comfortably on this income, Brooks left Lady Vivian's employment, and returned to Windsor. Here, he worked as a freelance newspaper photographer, using his contacts within the royal household to arrange access to his subjects. After a short period, he became an official photographer to the Royal Family. By 1906 he was established enough to accompany Princess Ena to Spain for her marriage to King Alfonso XIII, where he took the first formal portrait of the couple before their wedding.[7] Brooks' photographs were published in a wide range of newspapers, including the Daily Mirror,[8] and the Manchester Guardian;[9] his contract with the Royal Family prevented him from selling exclusive rights to any particular publication.[10] Each photograph sold for around 10s 6d.[11]

In late 1910, he accompanied the Duke of Connaught to South Africa, and in 1911 accompanied King George V to India for the Delhi Durbar, where he had the opportunity to photograph the King on a tiger hunt as well as in more formal contexts.[12] After returning from India he left the royal household to open a studio on Buckingham Palace Road in central London,[13] though he continued to describe himself as the Official Photographer to the King and Queen.[14]

After the outbreak of the First World War he served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, enlisting on 25 January 1915.[4] When the Gallipoli landings were being prepared, Winston Churchill, who had himself been a war correspondent, arranged for there to be journalists and photographers accompanying the expeditionary force. Brooks, as a professional photographer already in uniform, was appointed as the Admiralty official photographer.[8] In March 1916, he was transferred from the Admiralty to the War Office, given the honorary rank of second lieutenant and appointed the official photographer for the Western Front.[15] He was the only professional photographer to cover the Battle of the Somme, recording the attack on the first day from the front-line trenches near Beaumont Hamel.[16] In 1917 he was appointed a Chevalier of the Belgian Order of the Crown.[17] In 1918, he covered the Italian campaign and naval activity.[18] The same year, he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre.[19]

He later returned to royal service, accompanying the Prince of Wales on his tour of Canada and the United States in 1919, and Australia in 1920.[20] The American tour posed some problems with people trying to capitalise on the Prince's appearance for publicity purposes; one prominent actress, Mildred Harris Chaplin, passed herself off as the niece of a local dignitary in order to be photographed, whilst another simply offered Brooks a bribe of a thousand dollars to arrange the picture. He admitted that he "nearly gave in", but backed out at the last minute for fear of offending the Prince. He was less successful in avoiding offence with another photograph, this time of the Prince in his bath during the voyage; after it was published, George V strongly objected to it as inappropriate, and Brooks was reprimanded.[21]

For reasons that were not publicly disclosed, his appointment as a royal photographer was cancelled in 1925.[22] His appointment as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and his British Empire Medal (BEM) were also "cancelled and annulled".[23] A subsequent newspaper story suggested that his downfall was linked to another indiscreet photograph of the Prince of Wales, taken by Brooks and widely published, showing the Prince dressed in a woman's kimono and wig after appearing in a play.[24]

However, he continued to work as a photographer; in 1928, he was convicted of disorderly behaviour outside a ball in Grosvenor Square, after claiming that he was acquainted with the hostess and that had been invited there to take pictures.[25] He continued in photojournalism at least as late as 1936, when he is credited with taking two photographs of Jerome Brannigan being arrested, after Brannigan had attempted to assassinate King Edward VIII.[26]

Photographic work

Wounded British soldiers and German prisoners heading to the rear during the Battle of the Somme, 19 July 1916.[27]

Much of his wartime work, though technically proficient and consistent,[28] was rather conventional, often involving posed photographs rather than more candid impromptu shots of his subjects.[29] His work was noted as being characterised by a "conscious seeking after a publishable photograph",[28] and it was recorded that he occasionally persuaded soldiers to pose for staged pictures of routine activity in the trenches.[30] However, he was insistent that combat photographs were never faked – "we have strict instructions not to do – we have never done it".[31] He had a fondness for a dramatic use of silhouette, with images composed to show soldiers walking along a ridge against the light. These images, where individual men were not easily recognisable, often were used to illustrate the "anonymous heroes" of the war.[32]

Brooks was the first and the longest-serving of the British war photographers, and took more than 4,400 images.[33] This was the most of any individual photographer, and represented more than 10% of all the official photographs.[34] A large collection of his photographs is now held by the Imperial War Museum, and a second collection is held by the National Library of Scotland as part of Earl Haig's papers; both have been digitised.

Formal portraits from his pre-war service with the Royal Family include a portrait of Prince Arthur of Connaught and Princess Alexandra, taken at their wedding,[35] and two portraits of the young Prince John, both in 1913.[36]


  1. Imperial War Museum. "Official First World War Photographers (Q 2978)". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  2. National Library of Scotland. "(311) C.2494 - Troops moving up at eventide - men of a Yorkshire regiment on the march". First World War 'Official Photographs'. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  3. Imperial War Museum. "The First World War 1914 - 1918: The Western Front: The Somme Offensive 1916 (Q 1142)". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve: Records of Service, WW1—Image details—Brooks, Ernest". DocumentsOnline. The National Archives. Retrieved 7 August 2009. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Brooks (1921), p. 204
  6. Brooks (1921), pp. 204-5. The identification of the Vivian household ("a lady of quality") is based on the twins being Maids of Honour to Queen Alexandra, which is referred to by Brooks.
  7. Brooks (1921), pp. 205-7.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Carmichael, p. 36
  9. The Guardian carried a photograph of the "King's Children at Balmoral", 22 September 1910; this is the first picture in their files attributed to Brooks.
  10. Brooks (1921), p. 209
  11. Brooks (1921), p. 206
  12. Brooks (1921), pp. 207-8
  13. Brooks (1921), p. 208
  14. London telephone directory for January 1914, p. 131; 1915, p. 101
  15. Carmichael, p. 48
  16. Carmichael, p. 49
  17. "No. 30302". 21 September 1917. 
  18. Bourne, p. 40; Carmichael, p. 66
  19. "No. 30568". 8 March 1918. 
  20. Brooks (1921), p. 211
  21. Brooks (1921), p. 212
  22. The Times, 6 May 1925; p. 19
  23. "No. 33044". 5 May 1925. 
  24. "Those "Awful" Pictures which Peeved Royalty". 27 December 1925. p. 22.,831910. 
  25. Article in the Manchester Guardian, p.13, 14 July 1928
  26. There are two photographs of this event credited to Brooks in the Hulton Press Library; nos. 2666173 and 3355372 at Getty Images.
  27. Imperial War Museum. "The Battle of the Somme 1 July - 18 November 1916 (Q 800)". Imperial War Museum Collections Search. Retrieved 21 February 2012. 
  28. 28.0 28.1 Carmichael, p. 39
  29. Carmichael, pp. 61–63
  30. Carmichael, p. 52
  31. Fraser
  32. Carmichael, p. 63
  33. Bourne, p.40
  34. Carmichael, p. 142
  35. Digital copy at the National Portrait Gallery.
  36. Two portraits of the prince attributed to Brooks are held in the Hulton Press Library; nos. 3304766 and 3305272 at Getty Images.


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