Obituary: Elinor Wiltshire – photographer, botanist and artist
Her pictures of 1950s Dublin are one of the most popular collections in National Archive
Elinor Vere Wiltshire: May 30th, 1918- January 20th, 2017
Elinor Vere Wiltshire (née OBrien), who died earlier this year, was a talented Limerick-born photographer whose pictures of Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s are one of the most popular collections in the National Library of Ireland’s Photographic Archive, comprising some 1,000 negatives and 300 prints. They were first presented in an exhibition “If Ever You Go to Dublin Town” in 1999 and a selection was published in a book of the same title.
Eldest child of Hugh, an engineer, and Margaret OBrien, a musician, she and her brother Murrogh grew up on Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary. Educated at home until a teenager, with a front-row view of the transatlantic flying boats on the river, and travelling to and from the village by rowing boat, she was then sent to Newtown School in Waterford.
After leaving school, Elinor worked at various jobs in Belfast and Dublin, including at E and T O’Brien Printers (predecessor to O’Brien Press; the initials were for Elinor and unrelated Tom). In her 30s, she set up the Green Studio at St Stephen’s Green in Dublin with her husband Reggie Wiltshire, himself an accomplished professional photographer. The Green Studio was a commercial venture, and in parallel Elinor photographed Dublin street scenes and events of interest, such as Corpus Christi processions and the 1954 commemoration of Bloomsday by Dublin literati. She and Reggie were friendly with the poet Patrick Kavanagh, and he invited Elinor to photograph him in his home county of Monaghan. She used a Rolleiflex camera held at waist level looking down at the 6cm-square screen rather than directly at the subjects, resulting in more natural compositions.
When she was 94 she announced that she was 'ready for a fresh start', and moved back to Dublin
After Reggie’s death in 1968 and following on from their interest in photographing Irish antiquities, Elinor spent six weeks in Ethiopia in 1971 taking photographs of early Christian churches – she met the emperor Haile Selassie while there. Those pictures were exhibited in Dublin. Elinor moved to London later in 1971. She worked for Intourist from 1974 to 1983, arranging specialist tours to the Soviet Union, helped by her knowledge of the Russian language. This job took her to many remote corners of the USSR with groups interested in everything from narrow-gauge railways to hand-knotted rugs and botanical gardens.
Elinor lived in London for 40 years. During the 1980s, she drew designs based on London scenes which she then turned into colourful cards and tapestries of wool on canvas. A dozen of these wool works are now in the collection of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. There were a number of artists among her relations at Ballyalla, near Ennis and Cahirmoyle and Curragh Chase in Limerick. Her paternal grandmother Florence Vere OBrien, who revived the Limerick lace industry, had a keen eye for design.
An enthusiastic naturalist, Elinor was always a meticulous researcher. She took up botany seriously at the age of 70, influenced by her niece, botanist Sylvia Reynolds. She was an active member of the London Natural History Society and took part in their detailed survey of Buckingham Palace gardens in the mid-1990s, later published. She was a member of the British Bryological Society and held the office of honorary field meetings secretary in the Botanical Society of the British Isles. For many years until the age of 89, she worked productively with the Central Royal Parks Wildlife Group, at the same time doing voluntary work in the botany department of the London Natural History Museum where she was given the title of scientific associate in 2003. She had more than 20 publications on such diverse topics as the flora of two London parks, the concept of Greater London as an arboretum, investigations of rare oaks, and mosses and liverworts in the London area as well as in Co Limerick.
Elinor adopted digital photography and, in her 80s, put up galleries of her photos of birds and park life on an international website and had many thousands of hits. When she was 94 she announced that she was “ready for a fresh start”, and moved back to Dublin where she spent the last five years with the companionship and support of family and friends. Elinor was a remarkable person with a positive and forward-looking disposition, and a wonderful gift for encouraging others in their projects, particularly the younger generation.
Elinor Wiltshire was predeceased by her husband Reginald Wiltshire, and by her brothers Murrogh V OBrien and, as a child, Turlogh.