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Friday, 29 January 2016


Artistic cabinet card back stamps
“I'm afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.”
Andy Warhol

 These days, when the word ‘art’ can mean pretty much what you want it to, some of us might feel nostalgic for the 19th century, when the word had a very precise definition. Or so we like to think. It turns out our great, great or merely great grandparents were just as vague on the subject. To them, ‘art’ didn’t necessarily carry a value judgment; it could refer to pictures in general, which is to say any pictures regardless of their quality. An artist was someone who made pictures. Of course they had artists – people of questionable morals and hygiene who couldn’t keep a proper job – but if a sign painter called himself an artist no one was going to correct him. In Nashua, New Hampshire, Joseph Gauthier advertised himself as an art photographer and to emphasize his credentials had the landscape on the easel. The mountain could be Mt Adams or Washington in New Hampshire, but it could as easily be a generic mountain. You’ll notice the palette and the brush at the bottom of the canvas. The logic suggests the painting is being completed while we watch.

 Thomas Donovan of Brighton and Boak and Sons of Malton and Driffield are just two other English studios that used this same back stamp. A glance at the bottom left shows it was produced by the printing firm Marion of Paris. The woman is supposed to be a figure from the Italian Renaissance but, given the period this was produced, we could also think of her as pre-Raphaelite. Note the ivy, a plant that has had numerous symbolic meanings throughout English history, some erotic and others more cerebral. What of the snake unwinding upon the vase? The first thought is that it is a nod to Genesis, but why? 

 There is little immediate information on the Curtis Art Gallery, most likely located in upstate New York, but we can imagine the kind of art that hung on its walls. Apart from views of Niagara Falls, we could expect a few mildly pictorialist scenes among the Currier & Ives type prints and a few still lifes. The clue is in the Japanese fan sticking out of the vase in the bottom right. C1880s the inclusion of Japanese elements in any kind of pictorial design was a nod to art: not the high art the Renaissance as in the first backstamp but an indication that the producer had a rarified and sensitive outlook. This was an era when drinking Japanese tea out of small bowls was a mark of wealth and sophistication.

 The acknowledgement to Japan is more explicit here in the umbrella. Again it is also a design by Marion, now of London as well as Paris. You’ll notice that, like Spence Lees and Curtis, J Maclardy offers services as a portrait painter. On the backs of CDVs sighted on Ebay, MacLardy says he or she also paints on ivory. That would be miniature ivory portraits. Although at this time (1880s) the idea of the artist as a member of the avant garde was being recognized, it would be churlish to argue that Maclardy was not an artist.

 P. Drew is Alfred Palmer Drew. The Cabinet Card Gallery has some information on him, including the tragic destruction of his studio in 1896. For now we are only interested in the rather excellent back stamp. Although it doesn’t carry a printer’s name it is hard to believe that Drew would go to the expense of producing this on his own. An earlier post discussed the putti (as the cherubs are properly called) and their unclear symbolism. Here as usual there’s a suggestion they are up to mischief. Note how the one at the top is about to pull the sheet from the easel, so revealing the painting underneath, but the camera nearby indicates it will actually be a photograph. You’ll also notice that the little thug at the bottom has upset a frame and allowed a photo to fall out, so presumably advertising the fact that customers can have their portraits framed as well.

 Two more putti, common enough on back stamps so we need not pay too much attention except that the one at the top wears an apron with the sun as a crest, telling us he or she an emissary from the sun or is the agent ultimately creating the photograph. The photo is from Bulgaria but the stamp was produced by Bernhard Vachs (?) of Vienna. There’s an evocation of Greek mythology here; of the putti caught up in a shroud discarded by Demeter, goddess of fertility, or even her daughter Persephone, associated with Spring.

This elegant design also has allusions to Greece and also the Orient, but it is the two ships that catch our eye. Smith’s Falls is on the Rideau River but these ships are on a somewhat larger body of water, the closest to the town being Lake Ontario, which is some distance away.  It’s proof if we want it that the back stamp need not bear any relation to the photographer’s business or philosophy. John Moore either consulted a catalogue or he found an ad in a photographic magazine, but when he saw this design he liked it at once.

Finally, we come to Paul Darby, whose claim to fame, such as it is, was that he photographed James Joyce at his graduation in 1902. We don’t know whether Darby was Irish, French or British but we can see that by century’s turn he has embraced the design and typography of Art Nouveau; well who wouldn’t. to be an artistic photographer was as much about being wise to contemporary fashion as it was about being up with ideas in painting and sculpture. The idea of purity, of suffering for art had caught on around Montmartre but over on the Boulevard de Strasbourg hunger and struggle were the last things anyone would admit to.


Thursday, 17 December 2015


Pages from an American photo album 1916-1920
“If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement... a piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”
James Agee

An album found in Ottawa, filled with more than sixty photographs taken in New York State and thereabouts between 1916 and 1920. Most of the images have captions and were carefully placed in pages that were then dated. This tells us it was put together some years after the fact. What that fact was becomes one of the album’s essential mysteries.

The photos are of the German community living around Utica in Oneida County C WW1. In the way that Swedish emigrants settled throughout the upper Midwest, Ukrainians the Canadian prairies and Basque sheepherders made Nevada their own, the great arrival of German emigrants that began in the 1850s became established predominantly in mill towns in the north-east. Unlike earlier waves of immigrants (nice phrase that; sort of like David Cameron’s ‘hordes of refugees’ but obviously better dressed), the Germans of the mid-19th century were motivated by economics and were not escaping religious persecution. The Anabaptists – Amish, Mennonite, Hutterite – who had arrived in the seventeenth century were exclusive and kept to themselves but where Germans settled in the 1850s they formed communities where it was common to see a Lutheran and a Catholic church close by each other. Several local histories suggest that back in Bavaria or the Rhineland, Protestants and Catholics kept a deliberate distance from each other but in towns like Utica the Catholic Germans were more likely to hang out with their Lutheran compatriots than their Irish brethren.

Around the same time these photos were taken, over in Hustiford. Wisconsin, German had become established as the majority language, meaning that a generation after their parents arrived the children had no need to learn English. Even non-German residents saw the necessity in learning the German language. The people in these photos are also most likely first generation, defined as being born in the U.S though their parents weren’t. The terms ‘first’ and ‘second’ generation need clarifying since demographers appear to use both interchangeably. Whoever put the album together used English in the captions so considered him or herself a native English speaker but probably spoke German at home.

 They ate and drank German too. Prior to the generation from the 1850s becoming established, beer was not especially popular in the U.S. Within the decade the new arrivals set to put things right. Soon enough Pabst, Coors and Budweiser were unleashed upon the world, leaving non-Americans to shudder at the thought things had somehow improved. That generation of Germans also introduced bacon and ultimately the hot dog, pretty much guaranteeing that America will be bed-ridden by 2100CE and effectively deceased soon after. 

A quick skim through the archives doesn’t throw up a Nellie Stiefvater in Utica but a Nellie Wilson born in California on September 17 1877 and dying in May 20 1959, did marry a Julius Stiefvater: all events taking place in the same state. We do find dozens of Stiefvaters in the cemetery records across Oneida County. Like Tremblay in Montreal, it appears that the surname has become so synonymous with place that others from different parts of New York might have assumed at once that a Stietvater came from Utica. 

What about Henry Witte? On draft card Form 886 No.99 we have a Henry Witte, born January 29 1889 and resident at 526 Varick St, Utica. What are the chances this is the same? He fits the bill, but the Henry on the card describes himself as a conscientious objector “opposed to warfare”. This is interesting. Who possessing the merest spark of an IQ isn’t opposed to war? Thousands of Americans tried to declare themselves conscientious objectors in WW1, especially after reading what was going on in France, but there were very few grounds for having the claim accepted without a trial, which was costly, undignified and guaranteed to end in some form of imprisonment. One was if you belonged to a handful of recognized religious groups like the Amish or the Mennonites, and both were originally Germanic. What if the Henry Witte in the public records argued, not unreasonably, that he was opposed to going to war against his ancestral homeland? 

The turnvereins were German community sporting clubs. When they began in Germany during the Napoleonic era they had a marked nationalistic aspect – the idea was to breed a generation of physically healthy German youths who would defend the Fatherland when required (hmm). By the time they were established in the U.S the politics had lost its sting. They were more about getting der jungen from one factory town to play der jungen from another while der mutters und der vaters drank beer, ate sausages and cheered like crazy. 

The people in these photos are not just very normal looking; they are very normal looking Americans. The Henry Witte photo is the only one where the war gets a mention. That’s not surprising; it’s only a reminder that photo albums tell the truth but they don’t tell the story.  It must have been hard for a Stiefvater to walk to school in 1916, let alone 1917 when the U.S entered the war.

 But could we be looking for something that isn’t there? There’s that line that sooner or later every historian feels obliged to quote: ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are all manner of events and situations we don’t see in these photographs simply because they are not something that would have invited a photograph. That’s the problem with photo albums: they don’t show us the highs and lows so often as the grey spaces in between.

I do not think it is a Model T because if it was it should have grilles on the bonnet. There are several other candidates including the Detroiter, the Scripps-Booth Rocket, the Turnbull Runabout and even the Saxon Roadster, all of which sound like someone’s dream machine, but the more important question is who Wenzel is; apart from being the one with his hands on the steering wheel of course. What’s his relationship with the photographer? Have we met him before? What’s the point of a photo if it offers evidence then fails to explain what it is evidence of? 

 We’re lucky. It’s not that albums like this tell us what we don’t know but what we never thought much about. Prior to discovering this album, what might be called a history of the German Diaspora to the U.S was more accurately described as a statistic, so far as I was concerned anyway, and that’s being generous. It’s history from the side door: we should appreciate that.


Thursday, 10 December 2015


The Holmfirth disaster of 1944
“Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
H. G. Wells

During the last week of May 1944 an anticyclone developed over the south western Mediterranean, bringing cloudless skies and above average temperatures. Further north the system created an increase in humidity and storms developed over southern England. As the air currents were pushed northwards in a clockwise direction they brought with them a phenomenon known now as an atmospheric river, which expressed itself (for want of a better description) over the Holme Valley in Yorkshire. None of these events were especially unusual; the fog and drizzle that defines the English summer can be attributed to similar effects. In this case however the rains brought flash flooding to Yorkshire on Whit Monday, a public holiday. That was probably fortuitous. A lot of people would have travelled to nearby coastal resorts like Blackpool so missed the full impact. Three people were killed in the floods but the real damage was measured in the destruction of property, which was enormous.

 Holmfirth, a town on the edge of the Pennines better known today as the location for a quaint, rustic sitcom called The Last of the Summer Wine, received the brunt. These photographs were taken by Bray And Son, a photographic company set up in Holmfirth by Harry Bray after World War 1 and continued by his son, Trevor. They were published by the Bamforth Company. Neither Harry nor Trevor Bray considered themselves news photographers as such but realized they had to go out and document the destruction of the Whit Monday Floods, just as the Bamforth Company understood the importance of publishing them. Importantly however, the floods struck just a week before D-Day, when the British Government was heavily censoring all information concerning conditions inside Britain. Very little information on the floods was released at the time. These postcards would have been published months later, if not after the end of the war.   

What they tell us about then is not so important as what they say about today. This week storms struck the same area, and wider parts of central and northern Britain. So far another three people have also lost their lives and the damage is estimated in the hundreds of millions of pounds. The real difference is that when these floods struck in 1944 they were half expected as a once in a century event. Storm Desmond as the present catastrophe is called, should be understood as part of what has now become an annual cycle. But although it was seen on the horizon, so to speak, nothing much was done about that.

Despite the Government apparently being caught by surprise, events have unfolded along a predictable course. Firstly, defences against flooding prove inadequate. Reports emerge that standard procedures can’t be enacted because government funding to the responsible departments has been slashed. TV cameras zoom in on the faces of people who have lost everything. The army steps in. A Captain or Colonel tells reporters he can’t believe basic, sensible steps weren’t taken. In a few weeks official reports will, yet again, outline a woeful response by a careless administration. Next year the process will begin again. In 1944 the Government could present a case as to why it was not prepared for the Holme Valley floods, this being a time of war and an era when available technology could at best only suggest something might happen. Seventy one years later all such excuses are indefensible.

 These photographs aren’t just a reminder from the past of Britain’s future today.    During the war the chimes of Big Ben everyone heard on the BBC were recordings played to prevent the Germans from interpreting weather conditions: the more humid the atmosphere the more muffled the sound would have been. This was the level of sophistication the weather bureau was able to exercise. Today meteorologists can not only see atmospheric rivers developing, they can also reasonably predict how much water will be dumped and where. This raises the obvious question of why the British Government is always unprepared for weather disasters. Consistent failings defy common sense. Not to push the conspiracy argument too far, but you could be forgiven for thinking someone sees some kind of advantage in scenes like these.