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Saturday 15 October 2016


Nine photos of Edwardian children
 “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.
Graham Greene

 The children in these British photographs, especially those taken in the north of England between 1905 and 1914, belonged to the first generation in over two hundred years who were given a good chance of surviving until adulthood. The mother of this baby, taken by John Brown Smithson of Leyburn in Yorkshire, had grown up in a world where, statistically, one in four children would die at birth and only half live past the age of five. Disease took most of them but the real culprit was industrialization. In factory towns the smog carried cadmium and lead and other dangerous metals that poisoned infants. Studio scenes of adoring Mum with her newborn in this pose are not that common. Generally photographers preferred the mother to be seated although in this case Smithson got to show off his five headed badger rug.

In Citizen Kane reporter Jerry Thompson sets out to discover the meaning behind Kane’s dying word, ‘Rosebud’ and fails to discover it was the brand name of his sled when he was a little boy. For Kane the sled is not only one of his earliest memories, it takes him back to that age of innocence before everything he won and lost destroyed him.  You get the feeling the rabbit in this image has been invested with similar power. In years to come, most of her early childhood will be consigned to fog but she will remember the rabbit. For a while it was her best friend.

 Unknown child, unknown photographer, unknown date but certainly taken at one of England’s seaside resorts about 1905. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the major resorts at Brighton, Blackpool, Southport and Scarborough were for the gentry, who could afford the hotels and who followed fads such as water cures and sulphur baths. By the 1850s and the expansion of railways some progressive factory owners were sending workers off to the seaside for long weekends and in 1871 the Bank Holidays Act granted a generous four days to workers. Even then, resorts were for adults not children. That began to change towards the late nineteenth century and by the time this lad stood at the water’s edge it was not just common, it was expected that parents would bring their children and spend most of the holiday with them. Before long the motor car gave families the freedom to spread out from the resorts and find their own spaces.   

 Our subjects are getting older. During the late nineteenth century both girls and boys wore dresses up to the age of five (and up to the 1920s pink signified boys, blue for girls). Both genders also wore sailor suits, in fashion for boys since the 1840s when the future Edward VII put one on but by the 1910s every five year old girl had to have one too. Taxidermist and photographer Theo Upton Barber, AKA “Tubs”, was born in Wisconsin but moved to England around the turn of the century and opened his studio at 84 Preston Road in Faversham, Kent in 1911. 

 In an era when it’s not unusual for men to extend their childhoods into their thirties, photos like this are a sharp reminder that a century ago children began their move into adulthood as soon as they handed down their child uniforms to their younger brothers and sisters, around five years old. This boy isn’t even ten yet already he dresses like a pocket version of his father, right down to the watch chain. Even his pose is adult-like. The photographer was Frederick Southwell, who operated studios in Battersea, Hammersmith and Wandsworth and apparently was no relation to his namesake of the better known Southwell Brothers.

 “Do you know who is sitting on the other side of Lucy Henson?” Written in a child’s uncertain handwriting, posted from Batley, near Leeds and addressed to a Mrs Rolandson of Grewelthorpse, near Ripon in Yorkshire, we can assume that’s Lucy on the stile and by ‘the other side’ the writer means of the camera. Again we get that notion that will increasingly cease to have relevance as the twentieth century progresses, that the child is just a pocket version of the adult.

 The photographer is not identified but from the quality of the print and the evidence of studio lighting we can say he or she was a professional. The performers are strictly amateur, which is not to say they are bad (‘ham’ seems a useful word here). There are hundreds of thousands of photographs of children in fancy dress from the Edwardian period; not so many of them performing for the camera as here. The wall at the back and the parquetrie on the floor are sufficiently indeterminate to make it understand whether this was taken in a private home or a school. I suspect the latter.

 More role playing, There was a moment, roughly between 1895 and 1910, when people could believe that the upcoming century would put technology to good and with our extended life spans, better education and concordant freedoms most problems would disappear. By the time this photo was taken that dream was in ruins. These lads are too young to have flown in a proper warplane but just the right age to catch the experience the next time it came around just over twenty years later.

This photo was likely taken in 1907, the year twelve year old Frances Bradley Storr baptised babies but also adults into her Primitive Methodist sect before congregations of several thousand. Primitive Methodism sounds much what it was: passionate revival meetings, and hellfire and damnation sermons by the likes of Miss Storr, who had feeling to compensate for her lack of education or straitened background. Like the Peculiar People of Plumstead and the New Forest Shakers from a few years earlier, she espoused a religious empowerment of the working class that was socialistic in everything but its politics. She was hardly the only child preacher working in England at the time: Lonnie Dennis, Florrie Elkins , Gertie Brackenbury and Jack Cooke being others, but stateside there were reputedly dozens, working a kind of sideshow circuit. In the 1920s Frances and her mother moved to Canada where she continued to preach. The photographer is unidentified but Doncaster photographer Luke Bagshaw took a lot of her promotional shots.

Saturday 17 September 2016


Fourteen photographs of the English Landscape
“The ordinary can be absolutely miraculous.”
Simon Armitage

The fourteen photos here, each measuring twelve by eight centimetres, were found at Spitalfields Market. Some of them look like they are of the moorlands in Derbyshire at the edge of the Pennines. Others look like they come from the east coast of Yorkshire, near Scarborough or Whitby.

 They lay among small stacks of old hardbacks and ephemera spread across the table. The dealer couldn’t say much about them except he had had them for some time, they’d be cheaper the more I bought and they had come with ‘a lot of stuff to do with the Festival of Britain’. 

That made sense. The photos looked to be from around that time – 1951 – and they look to be the work of a professional; someone sent out to take a set of photos for a magazine article on the splendours of the north. Certainly we can see why someone thought there was a landscape worth promoting.

The Pennines and the Derbyshire moors, which is where we are now decided we are, can invoke many associations, from Pride and Prejudice to Myra Hindley and everything in between, but these days Simon Armitage, in particular his translation or interpretation of Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl. Although the identity original author is unknown, scholars agree that he wrote both poems in the late 14th century and linguistic clues indicate he came from this area.

 A brief synopsis of the first: One New Year’s Day the Green Knight turns up at King Arthur’s court and asks to have his head cut off. Sir Gawain obliges but must fulfil a promise to meet the beheaded one at the Green Chapel in a year’s time. Gawain sets out and somewhere in the damp landscape he finds a castle. The master welcomes him then heads off the next morning on a hunt while Gawain keeps his beautiful wife company, and you just have to read it yourself. The landscape, as Armitage describes it anyway, is more rugged than these images of moorland suggest, more like parts of Staffordshire to the west.

 Pearl however takes place on open land, where a man grieving for his young daughter Pearl, follows a river and meets a woman walking on the other side. They talk across the water and she reveals she is his daughter, now grown up and a Queen of Christ. They debate various issues this raises until, desperate to reach out to her, the man jumps into the river and tries to cross it. 

Not that either Gawain or Pearl are dependent upon the landscape to tell their story although in Gawain there is the sense that up here it is wild and rugged, especially compared to the more gentle lands in the south where Arthur has his court. Also, in both there is an idea that the landscape is mutable, which is important in moorland where the weather can shift by the hour.


Even though they are found across Britain, the dry stone wall is something of an icon on the Yorkshire dales, the way black windmills belong to Norfolk. What gives walls like this one their timelessness isn’t the stonework so much as the feeling this was built with some purpose in mind but that has been forgotten for centuries. It meanders across the land.

 Speaking of Norfolk, this looks so much like the coast around Cromer and Happisburgh that we could put all doubt aside. That exposed reef can be thought of as the edge of Doggerland, the now submerged plain that once linked Britain to Europe and was home to mammoths, lions, rhinos and Neanderthals. Our photographer wouldn’t have known that, or that the oldest relic of any human in Europe would be found near here. But then, in 1951 a lot of people thought anything from the time before the war was old.

Even if I had bought these in another country, we’d still know it was England. The patchwork fields and hedgerows tell us it can’t be anywhere else. This was no doubt our photographer’s intention: to get an impression of the land that wasn’t just idealized but emblematic and one that visitors as well as citizens would recognize.


Thursday 30 June 2016


Dated Snapshots
“We would like to live as we once lived, but history will not permit it.”
John F. Kennedy 

The act of writing the date on snapshots has the effect of preserving the image not just in its immediate surroundings but globally. Knowing what we do about the past we can wonder (pointlessly) how people can appear so blasé with what’s unfolding in other parts of the world. We don’t know the exact day this photo was taken but in Saskatchewan at the very beginning of June 1936 the snow had melted from the prairies, the sun was out and this young foal born weeks earlier was still finding its feet. The boy, not a great deal older than the foal, certainly with more time to learn life’s valuable lessons, had a long summer vacation to look forward to. In Iraq, Princess Azza, sister of the King, was not so relaxed. She had recently married a hotel porter from Rhodes so was stripped of her royal privileges. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government in Nanking was pushing for an immediate declaration of war against Japan. Rumours were circulating that a British officer had killed a Japanese soldier. The British delegation denied reports and ascribed them to Chinese paranoia. In eighteen months time an estimated 40 000 Chinese civilians would be killed in the Nanking Massacre.

 The earliest photo in this collection comes from Quebec and was taken on April 18, 1927. Over in Europe the weather was mostly fine with reports that air traffic over the English Channel was exceptionally busy. In Bath, Thomas Hampshire, a 48 year old chauffeur, was so terrified of an upcoming operation than he jumped out the hospital window, so saving the surgeon from another messy job but upsetting his wife greatly. In Antrim, Northern Ireland, Mr R. J. Anderson, president of the National Association of Headmasters let it be known what he thought of feminists and their male supporters. “No woman can train a boy in the habits of manliness. (Such a woman) might be an admirable proprietress of a Wild West saloon but we have no room for her in our boys’ schools.” 

 On April 27 1931 the prospect of war troubled Reverend James as he spoke at the Fellowship of Reconciliation at Bury St Edmunds. “If Christianity does not destroy war,” he warned, “then war will destroy Christianity”. Meanwhile in Belfast Edward Cullen’s murder trial opened. He had arrived in England four months earlier in the company of Ahmet Musa and Zara Agha, reputedly the World’s oldest man. A manhunt began when Musa’s naked body was discovered in a field outside of Carrickfergus. Across the water the World’s largest airship, the Akron, began her maiden voyage from Akron, Ohio.

 On October 5, 1935 the Dundee Courier was full of praise for Montreal, a city with an abundance of sunshine to appeal to sports lovers. In Blackburn Lancashire Robert Cotton took a slug of whisky to cure his cold. It helped so he took another, which also helped. An hour and two bottles later he was arrested after assaulting a fellow passenger on a bus.  In Tokyo Colonel Yamada went home and committed ritual suicide after he shot dead General Negata of the War Office. In Melbourne Mr W. Smith showed off his giant marrow measuring over three feet long and swore beer was the best fertilizer he knew of.

 On February 15, 1936 newspapers reported that across Turkey twelve people had frozen to death during blizzards that also killed thousands of cattle and destroyed hundreds of ships and boats. Meanwhile, in response to accusations its oil was fuelling the Italian war machine The U.S was considering an oil embargo. Spanish elections scheduled for the 16th had the rest of Europe on edge. The contest was essentially between communist and fascist parties and whoever won the result was a warning of an insecure future for the continent. In South Africa a bill was before the Government that would effectively disenfranchise black voters.

 Members of the Twelfth Annual Congress for the International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship were welcomed by President Ataturk in Ankara today. In Glasgow meanwhile a group of men from Barra Island in the Outer Hebrides made their first ever visit to the mainland. They were reportedly terrified by the sight of a tram. Paul Wharton, dress designer to Hollywood stars, was shot dead while his bed-bound mother could do nothing. The killer also shot dead William Howard while law professor Henry Bolte remains in a critical condition.

 As war drags on the Allied press report that in the Jewish ghettoes across Axis controlled Europe starvation rations are in place. Other citizens have to accept 44 ounces or just over a kilo of bread a week while only children are given milk. At the Oswald Sat Zoo in Glasgow the performing lion walks a tightrope then plays a round of darts. Two million Japanese soldiers are reported to be occupying the islands just north of Australia. Chinese actor Kim Wong has been signed to play a Japanese soldier in a new MGM film.

 Twenty days after Germany signed the Instrument of Surrender, the Canadian Government has announced it will lift bans on Atlantic travel. In Birmingham meanwhile, Canadian soldier George C. Cummings had been caught breaking into a house and attempting to get away with over one thousand pounds worth of jewellery. Seventeen year old Robert Allsop has been charged with the attempted murder of an Italian prisoner of war. His boast that he killed Italians was not taken seriously by the magistrate, who did not think Allsop’s frustration that he had been too young to serve during the war was justification. 

 An American ship docked in Melbourne has a cargo of almost 500 000 bottles of beer. It had transported the bottles to the American base in Manila but arrived after peace had been signed and the Americans had moved out. No one knows what to do with the cargo. At Eaglesham in Scotland a fifteen year old boy has been charged with the murder of 29 year old Mrs Smith and her two children. Forty five women prisoners are on the third day of their strike at Portage la Prairie, west of Winnipeg. 

 On the first day of August 1948 China and Turkey play off against each other in football at the London Olympics. Meanwhile in Glasgow a golfer has been reported for playing a round with his shirt outside his trousers. In Australia the Country Party has submitted a plan to see Communism curbed, if not actually extinguished.

 No one is too sure how many were buried in the infirmary graveyard in Johnny Ball Lane in Bristol but there may be as many as two thousand in the relatively small plot of land. Demonstrations for independence by African nationalists have continued in Kampala. The International Committee will most likely decide that the time has come to readmit Japan to international sports federations.

 Turkey has welcomed the new Republic of Indonesia while in Malaya two British patrols opened fire on each other. In Greece Queen Frederika has made an international appeal for the 28 000 children taken during the recent civil war. Meanwhile, the coalition government in France looks set for defeat only two months since it was formed. Meanwhile, poison, fences and traps failed but the recent heatwave in Australia may have killed most of the rabbit population.


A recently published report indicates that the crime rate has dropped in Britain, which is news to chaplain G. H. Fawell, who says there is a noticeable lapse in morals and rejection of traditional religion. Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies has launched the Jindivik Mark 1 pilotless aircraft. The Australian cricket team has suffered another early collapse against an English team. Meanwhile President Eisenhower, or “Ike” to most Americans, is warning the USSR, or “the Reds” to most Americans, to leave Pakistan well alone, or else.