I had always known that my paternal grandfather, Joseph Lazarus, had been a photographer in Lisbon. But that was all. My father had spent his early years growing up there until he was 11. The premature loss of both his parents and the onset of war brought him back to the UK where he was then adopted by his uncle and aunt and became a brother to his two older cousins.
When I interviewed my father about his childhood in Portugal, in April 2013, he produced the only evidence he had of that time — none of which I had seen before: a dusty, plastic bag of family photos, a few letters written to him by his father and his uncle Maurice and a box of medals. Inside were two sets of heavy, ceremonial-looking collar chains, each dominated by a red sword centrepiece surrounded by green laurels with what appeared to be a motto, Ciencias, Letras, E Artes engraved around the sword’s tip. On the lid was an inscription in Portuguese, dated 1930 and signed by the then President of Portugal, Oscar Carmona. Dad did not know the medals’ origin, nor had he ever thought — or wanted — to find out.
But I was intrigued and even more so once the citations were translated. The medals, known as Ordem Militar Sant’Iago da Espada (Order of St. James of the Sword) are an official honour given by the President of Portugal for outstanding artistic, intellectual or scientific merit. It was an extraordinary revelation. Both men had received the Order, which accounted for the two chains, in recognition for their work as photographers for the Portuguese royal household and then later, for the Republic.
I thought little more about the brothers until February 2015 when, in a moment of boredom, I made a random Google search for J & M Lazarus, their trade signature. It was only then that I discovered that they had lived and worked in Africa, in Lourenço Marques (present day Maputo), between 1899 and 1908, as well as operating a studio in Beira, a coastal town in central Mozambique.