Mary Edith Durham first visited the Balkan region in 1900, having been prescribed a rest by her doctor. Having been educated at the Royal Academy, she may have initially been attracted by the rugged landscape and the opportunities to sketch which it presented. In the following years she revisted the Balkans many times. She travelled against a complex, and changing, political backdrop. Conditions were basic. She took only a local guide, and travelled on horseback, wearing “a waterproof burberry skirt and a Scotch plaid golf cape”.
On her travels Edith Durham made a personal collection of costume and textiles from the region, as well as collecting various items on behalf of British museums, such as the Pitt Rivers. Durham made her collection between 1900 and 1912. She donated her collection of textiles to Bankfield Museum in 1935.
She was often given things as gifts by the people she met on her travels. More usually she purchased them – in some cases from people impoverished by conflict. She seems to have quite enjoyed the experience of “shopping” – of the market at Prizren she wrote “The gold embroidery is not to be surpassed anywhere; the tailor shops are a blaze of gorgeous colours and designs. Had it not been for the difficulties of transport, I should have ruined myself”.
She meticulously collected information about these items, recording details of their acquisition and use. We still have many of the original labels hand written by Edith herself.
This label refers to this pair of socks:
There can be no doubt, that Durham made a significant contribution to our understanding of the history and traditions of the Balkan region. After having visited Albania in 1908, Edith Durham wrote “I have in fact had an extraordinary glimpse (for it is only a glimpse) of the life of bygone centuries. I feel as if I must have dreamt it, or be hundreds of years old . . . “
Very little was known about many of the tribes which Edith Durham encountered. Behind her collecting was the desire to document examples of disappearing traditional crafts, and to understand the customs of the places she visited. The collection of textiles forms an important record of traditional craft of the Balkan region, many examples of which may not have survived subsequent political turmoil in the area.
She grew to love the Balkan region, both the landscape and the people. On her return to England she involved herself in the politics of the region from a humanitarian standpoint, campaigning for the people with whom she was so familiar.
During the uprisings and wars between 1903 and 1914, Edith distributed aid to refugees, worked in hospitals and campaigned on behalf of the people. Her forthright opinions led her into conflict with the British Foreign Office – she is apparently immortalised in their card index as “Durham, Miss M.E.: Inadvisability of corresponding with”. She also worked as a newspaper reporter, reporting for the Manchester Guardian and The Times.
The Edith Durham textiles are a record of her travels through the Balkan region. The collection represents something of the lives of the people who wore them and made them. The social and political history of the Balkans are embedded in the collection. Edith Durham witnessed a period of dramatic social change and political upheaval.
More items from the collection are currently on display at Bankfield Museum.