A Special Leica III
In September 2013 I purchased an excellent, all-original, example of a Leica III, complete with 5cm Summar and Ever-Ready case, from MW Classic in London. This is the story of who first purchased it and how it became the subject of this web page.
Photos. (c) 2013, Lyon & Turnbull Auctioneers Edinburgh.
Click on the images for larger versions.
Elizabeth Watt's Leica
Elizabeth Watt was not a famous photographer, let alone a well known person, but she was a pioneer in her field - though that wasn't photography . . .
The Purchase that nearly went wrong
This camera was purchased by me in September 2013; it was the final variation of the classic Leica 'Barnack' rangefinder cameras that I wanted in order to complete my line-up. Over the past few years vintage Leicas have become more expensive, and really clean well-looked after ones are becoming scarcer and dearer. This one was one of the best I have seen for ages and at the right price, so it was a good deal.
At the time of purchase from MW Classic in London I was told that the original base-plate had been engraved with the owner's name and that a replacement base-plate would be supplied instead. Mahendra at MWC did this because many people, especially collectors, seem to dislike such engravings which are believed to 'reduce the value'.
When the camera arrived, inside the memo pouch of the camera case I found a document which provided a little information about the original owner. It showed that the buyer - whose name was rather indecipherable - purchased the Leica III, 5cm Summar, Leica 617 light meter and Every-Ready case in Edinburgh in May 1935. However, there was no price given on the document.
Because the camera was not now totally original, MW Classic agreed to send me the original engraved base-plate. This then cleared-up some confusion about the original owner's name - it was Elizabeth Watt. Thus started a search for further information on the owner, which is still on-going.
The camera has now is now all original and complete, although the light meter is missing. However, these are notoriously unreliable and it was probably mislaid or found to be faulty long ago. The camera was clearly cherished by its previous owner (or owners): it is in excellent condition and appears to have been quite recently serviced.
The story that has evolved so far is that this Leica III camera and lens were made in 1934-5 and was supplied to J.C. McKechnie, Optician and Photographic Dealer at 5 Castle Street, Edinburgh. In May 1935 the ensemble was purchased by Miss Elizabeth Watt. The Leica III camera was very much 'state of the art' in 1934-5 and together with the lens, meter and case then cost around £40. That roughly equates to around £1500 or more nowadays.
Clearly Elizabeth Watt was quite 'well-heeled.'
The Leica Camera
The camera itself was apparently bought in Edinburgh during a trip there in May 1935. Some time afterwards Miss Watt seems to have needed proof of purchase, but not of its value, and evidently she wrote to McKechnie's to ask for confirmation of the purchase. This is confirmed in the document that was almost hidden in the pocket of the camera case (left).
This isn't a bill of sale as such, and the fact that it has accompanied the camera to this day strongly suggests that Miss Watt needed proof of ownership or purchase for an overseas trip, and especially to avoid paying import duty on her return, and so forth. It is very unlikely that the 'receipt' was required for insurance purposes because it was carried with the camera at all times and also because it did not give an insurance value.
Who was Elizabeth Watt?
My research has revealed that Elizabeth Watt was one of five children a prominent Edinburgh solicitor who lived in the fashionable Morningside district of Edinburgh.
She had graduated from Edinburgh University with a degree in Law in or around 1924 and was licensed to practise in both Scotland and England, but worked only in England. She wasn't the first female law graduate in the UK, but she was subsequently the first woman allowed to practise law without male supervision.
In the mid to late 1920s Miss Watt was working in London. By 1935 or 1936 she was living in a reasonably affluent part of London with the grand name of Palace Court where there are still fashionable apartments. Around that time she had also established the first all female law firm in the UK.
Information provided by Elizabeth Watt's niece reveals that her aunt travelled widely, both in the immediate pre-war years, and later. These travels included many favourite destinations for the 'well-heeled' such as America, France, Switzerland, Italy and possibly cruises on the Norwegian fjords and maybe even pre-war Germany.
Sadly, the family do not have any surviving photographs taken by Elizabeth Watt with this camera.
In addition to being a prominent solicitor, during the early 1930s Elizabeth Watt began collecting contemporary and modern English paintings, and other art works, and this continued for the next 50 years or more.
Over many decades, Elizabeth Watt clearly socialised with many avant-garde artists, particularly members of the London Artists' Association. Some of these appear to have had connections to the small, picturesque, Northamptonshire village of Aynho, and this may be what introduced her to the village in the early part of the Second World War.
In 1942 she was recorded as living in 'Number 17 Aynho' and also having bought some adjoining land where she intended to build a new house after the war.
In or around 1944, she became a Conveyancer in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, which is remarkable because there were still less than 200 women solicitors practising in the UK at that time.
After the Second World War Elizabeth Watt continued her successful career and also continued to collect modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures, including many by world-famous artists. In 1956-7, she commissioned the architect Raymond Erith to build her a "small" house (or possibly re-model an existing house) at Aynho named 'The Pediment' (photo, above right). Erith was a very highly regarded contemporary architect who worked in the Classical tradition. A later addition to the property was built specifically to house Miss Watt's growing art collection.
I wonder whether the name '"Pediment" for her new house was a pun on a legal term 'impediment' - an obstruction in doing something? Maybe for Miss Watt her house at Aynho enabled her to do something; namely, to enjoy her collected artworks?
At the time of her death in October 1989, Elizabeth Watt had accumulated art works to the value of £1.8million. Having no children - she remained a spinster - some of these artworks were bequeathed to the Tate Gallery (London), Ashmolean (Oxford), Edinburgh Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum (London) and the Holburne Museum (Bath). For example:
'Her bequest, which totals more than 50 items, includes bronzes by Epstein, Leon Underwood and Emilio Greco, but the real significance of the collection is the English paintings from the 1920s to the 1950s.' (The Herald, Scotland, May 1990).
Two examples of the contemporary-modern British paintings owned by Elizabeth Watt are are shown here and are linked to their 'parent' website. Many smaller and more personal items made their way back to family members in Scotland, including the Leica III. In 2013 that camera was sent to auction in Edinburgh and eventually ended up in my possession.
Research on Elizabeth Watt is continuing with the help of her niece, Ann Walker, and we hope to add more information to this page periodically.