Friday, 26 April 2013

Sepia Saturday 174: Village Meeting, 10 am, under the Horse Chestnut tree

Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett & Kat Mortensen

I'll admit right at the start that my photograph this week has little in common with the Sepia Saturday prompt, except that it shows a number of figures seated in a line, from top left to bottom right of the image, ostensibly facing towards the left of the camera. I hope you'll excuse this ill-disciplined straying from topic, but I'd like to attempt a deconstruction of a somewhat unusual image which has no obvious clues as to who the subjects are, or what event is illustrated.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified group photograph
Postcard format photograph by unidentified photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Another recent eBay find, this unused standard postcard format photograph came without any documentation as to location or provenance. The almost vertical, slightly curved black line in the middle of the photograph slightly displaces vertically the two halves of the image. This suggests that it was printed from a cracked glass plate negative, the printer not having been very careful about aligning the two pieces of glass.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Reverse of postcard format photograph by unidentified photographer
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The back of the postcard has no photographer's imprint, and the stamp box is of an unusual stylised design that I can't recall coming across before. It's not listed on Ron Playle's Real Photo Stamp Boxes pages either. The use of glass plate camera of this format/size suggests that the event was important enough to warrant having a photographer on hand to make a record, but the fact that he didn't use postcard stock with his name printed on it suggests that he may not have had en established studio.

Image © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett PayneImage © and collection of Brett Payne

The figures are seated on chairs arranged on a well clipped lawn in front of a large tree shading some shrubbery to the right. The shape of the leaves and texture of the bark are very suggestive of the horse chestnut tree, as shown below, according to Wikipedia "widely cultivated in streets and parks throughout the temperate world," presumably as a feature and for the deep shade it produces. Of course it was also the friend of many a schoolboy, at least in my father's time, as the producer of conkers.

Image courtesy of Alvegaspar/Wikipedia
Horse chestnut tree Aesculus hippocastanum
Image courtesy of Alvesgaspar/Wikipedia

Nigel Aspdin, who also had a look over this photograph, thinks the leaves look fairly fresh; in the English Midlands, by September they tend to become rather tatty, so this was probably taken in mid-summer.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Behind and to the right of the tree trunk is a pillar or plinth of some kind. It may be for a sundial, although it seems a little high for that, and I can't make out any sign of the characteristic shape of a gnomon. There is also a T-shaped item set at a roughly 45 degree angle in the middle ground, but I've not been able to come up with any ideas as to what that might be.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

To the left of the tree trunk, and roughly at the same distance from the camera as the pillar, is a multiple strand wire fence, with two Union Jacks on poles affixed to it, say about 5 paces apart. Although it cannot be seen in the photograph, there is probably a road or country lane on the other side of the fence. The flags appear to have been placed there to mark the venue.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

To the far left, and apparently reversed right up to the fence, is a commercial van, possibly a Morris 1929 light van or similar make/model, as shown in in the slightly inappropriately named Austin7nut's Flickr photostream here and here. Seated in the open back of the van is a man in more casual attire - waistcoat and shirt sleeves - seated on a stool, with his elbows on his knees and his face in his hands. I think he's waiting for the talking to be over, and have speculated that he may be a caterer. When the talk is over perhaps he will, with the aid of others on the near side of the fence, off-load the food and transport it onto tables somewhere behind or to the left of the camera.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

There are six men and three women, all fairly well-dressed, and probably well-heeled. The men have hats off, the women leave theirs on, as convention dictates for an outdoors gathering. The women's clothing and bar-strap shoes are distinctively late 1920s, with the high-crowned cloche (right) giving way to the deeper brimmed coal scuttle hat (centre). The older woman's brimless hat (left) may be a modified cloche, also typical of the 1920s.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The group seated on the chairs appear to be facing an unseen group of people off to the left of the postcard view, the toe of one man's shoe just visible in the extreme lower left corner of the image.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The woman standing in the centre of the seated group appears to be either addressing the gathering or answering questions. The man seated at far left, whose jacket and trousers are not quite as well-fitting as those of the others, also faces the crowd. It's perhaps also worth noting that few of the chairs match.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The remaining subjects are studiously avoiding eye contact with the gathering in front of them. Both of the men at the right, one with a nicely waxed moustache and a hat on the ground next to his chair, the other adjusting his pince nez, avert their gazes to their left. The latter, however, has considered the occasion important enough to wear a rose in his buttonhole. The rest either look down to the ground or pointedly off into the distance, perhaps towards where tables are being set up for lunch. Five of the men - all except the more relaxed gent on the far left - have their legs crossed, which may or may not have any significance.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Are they feeling uncomfortable with what the older of the three women is saying? Alternatively, perhaps she is answering some awkward questions from members of the audience. Perhaps they are just bored, and looking forward to lunch.

Who are they? Nigel suggests they might be engineers, professionals, management, etc. However with the women present, and given the pre-Second World War time frame, I'm inclined to think it far less likely to be a commercial occasion than a meeting of a village committee or the Board of Governors of a local school, perhaps comprising several landowners.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

I feel they key to who they are probably lies in the rather odd-looking apparatus under the tree, behind the line of people. It appears to be a sloping board made from rather thick planks, on which several blocks of varying sizes and shapes are arranged. I think I can see some drawing pins, and possibly something like a tap handle. One of the shapes seems very irregular, and is perhaps a mineralogical specimen. What are they, samples, models, prizes? No means of support for the platform is visible, which is a pity, as this might have helped in its identification. If it had been held up by a centrally placed post, for example, I might have suggested something like a rudimentary lectern.

It's position at the time the photograph was taken suggests it may have been used or displayed earlier during the event, but had subsequently been moved out of the way during subsequent discussions.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

There are also the remnants of what may be a negative number or title. Such an inscription would have been inscribed on the glass plate negative with black indian ink, thus appearing white on a print, and may have been partly removed prior to the making of this particular print.

Where are they? Is it a private garden or public park? Bearing in mind the fence bordering the lawn, I'm leaning towards the former. Perhaps illustrious Photo-Sleuth readers, including our regular Sepians, will be able to offer further ideas and suggestions. They'll be most welcome. For the moment I'm stumped, and the occasion must remain something of a mystery.

Post Script (4 May 2013)

Image courtesy of Paul Godfrey

Thanks to Paul Godfrey, the postcard printer's logo has been identified.
The logo seems to be a stylised W and W, used by the UK paper manufacturer Wellington and Ward of Elstree. I have a few walkies by Barker's Studio of Lowestoft that have this logo. W and W became part of the Ilford Group. I believe the Elstree site was later occupied by Dufay.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Sepia Saturday 173: Tauranga's waterfront a century ago

Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

Sepia Saturday invites us this week to post those odd photographs in our collections which we've found difficult to identify, categorize or even understand. While not denying that I have several oddities in my own collection worthy of inclusion in my What were they thinking? category, I've chosen to use an image from the Tauranga Heritage Collection, where I've spent much of the last three weeks helping to photograph, research and document a large but jumbled collection of old cameras.

Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection
Dogs at The Strand, Tauranga, Undated
Loose print by unidentified photographer
Image © and courtesy of the Tauranga Heritage Collection

The pile of logs seemingly jettisoned on The Strand, more or less in the middle of town, had probably been offloaded from a boat at the wharf, just off to the left the photograph. Devonport Road is to the right, disappearing behind the double storey building which houses Cart & Co's clothing and footwear store. The dogs are doing what dogs always do, but quite why the photographer saw fit to save this snapshot from the dustbin, I can't really understand.

View Larger Map

Google's Streetview (above) shows a landscape superficially different, although it's worth noting that general layout, at least in this view, is still much the same. None of the original stores are there. Telegraph poles have been replaced by nautically flavoured lamp posts (although I don't think many have swung from these yardarms in the recent past) and the roads and pavements have been sealed, concreted or bricked over. That particular palm tree is long gone, but there are many more in the vicinity, as panning to the left in the Streetview image above will reveal.

A short post from me this week, as I've been a little busy on other projects, but if you're hankering after more sepian oddballs, I'm sure the other participants will happily oblige.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Sepia Saturday 172: Sunny Snaps walking pictures

Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

Between the two World Wars photographers took to the streets in search of customers and produced a genre now commonly referred to as walkies (short for walking pictures) or street/pavement photography. I have displayed examples of these in two previous Photo-Sleuth articles, Spotlight Photos Ltd. of Derby and in Bournemouth and Great Yarmouth.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified family (Minns Collection)
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), Bognor Regis, 1934
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This week I feature several postcard-format walking pictures from the firm Sunny Snaps, which operated for just over a decade between 1927 and 1940 in London and on the coast of Sussex. A single view has been found ostensibly taken in Hunstanton, on the Norfolk coast.

Although sunny snaps was sometimes used in a more general - and perhaps generic - sense to refer to walking pictures, and there were other firms incorporating the word snaps, postcards produced by this particular firm are immediately recognisable by their distinctive format. The cards are usually, but not always, produced in portrait orientation and have a panel at the base of the card. This panel is embellished with a pen-and-ink drawing - usually a scene or image representative of the location, but sometimes a royal or patriotic picture/logo - the name of the firm, the year and usually the location. There is almost always a negative number as well.

Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon
Unidentified woman pushing a pram
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), London, 1934
Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon and Flickr

Walking pictures differ from other portraits taken by itinerant or street photographers because they are taken "on spec." The photographer takes snapshots of a succession of passers-by while they are walking towards the camera, irrespective of whether or not the subjects have requested one, and presumably without their permission. The subject is handed a numbered ticket (corresponding to the negative number) and informed where he or she may collect and pay for a postcard print in due course. Simon Robinson has determined from his research into this firm, including an analysis of atreet scenes, that they usually made arrangements with a handy shop premises nearby, and erected a temporary advertising banner to assist in directing customers.

As a result, the subjects are often captured regarding the camera with a vague degree of suspicion - as in the first snapshot from Bognor Regis - or are oblivious to the photographer's presence, as the woman with a pram (above) appears to be, more interested in the contents of a London shop window display.

Image © and courtesy of trevira
Unidentified women out shopping
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), Worthing, 1934
Image © and courtesy of lisabee73 and Flickr

As a result they often have a candid feel to them mostly absent from more formal photographs from the era. This characteristic is generally missing from vernacular snapshots where the subjects are often conscious that their images are being captured, and may even ham it up for the camera. The fact that Sunny Snaps portraits are usually of a very good technical standard means that there are fewer of the distractions normally present in walking pictures, giving us a unusual glimpse into the subjects' everyday lives and personalities.

Image © and courtesy of lisabee73
Unidentified schoolboys, August 1935, unknown location
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), Silver Jubilee, 1935
Image © and courtesy of trevira and Flickr

These schoolboys, possibly caught on film on their way home from school, are enjoying their freedom and have a casual look about them (at least the two on the left do). Had their parents been present their faces would most likely have been far more guarded. I wonder which one of the three spent a good portion of his weekly pocket money on the postcard.

The trick, if the photographer could manage it, was to single out his subject and take his "candid" portrait in such a manner that he or she stood out from both the surroundings and the other pedestrians, and of course in a favourable light, rather than being caught with a scowl or merely being lost in the crowd. They were not always entirely successful - in this example the subjects almost disppear into the background. Many of the people on the streets of these coastal towns would be holidaymakers, and therefore far more likely to part with a few coins for a souvenir of their visit, but it was still necessary to entice them with a good quality product.

Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon
Unidentified family on the beach, Littlehampton
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), G VI R, 1937
Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon and Flickr

In this slightly more unusual posed Sunny Snap, a family is posed relaxing in canvas folding chairs in front of wooden changing sheds on the Littlehampton beach in 1937. A similar shot with a beach setting from a decade earlier shows a family in the midst of constructing a sandcastle, so it appears that when trade was not particularly brisk on the street, the photographer would venture onto the sands in search of customers. However, there were others specialising in scouring the beaches, and a seaside photographer guarded his turf aggressively. Unauthorised interlopers were referred to as Spivs or Smudge Grafters.

Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon
Unidentified man strolling with newspaper, Hunstanton
Postcard by Sunny Snaps (street photographer), 1938
Image © and courtesy of lovedaylemon and Flickr

This neatly dressed and combed young man appears deep in thought while he strolls down the quay, a newspaper folded and firmly tucked under his arm, and presumably shortly before being accosted by a man waving a ticket under his nose, and badgering him to return and buy a print later that day. Judging by the survival of this postcard it seems that he did so.

Although it is tempting to assume that a large proportion of the photographs printed in this speculative trade ended up being discarded, judging from contemporary reports perhaps we would be underestimating the marketing skills of the teams who worked the pavements and beachfronts. Alan Purvis was employed by Walkie Snaps at Blackpool's Central Pier in 1958, and describes these skills in some detail:

The best time for taking pictures was on a Sunday morning as the new set of holidaymakers, who had arrived on the previous day, were in a good mood and still had money to spend. Friday afternoon was the worst as they were going home the next day and were stoney broke! Some people would refuse a ticket, others would say that they had been snapped the day before and regular walkers might raise a hand to indicate that they weren’t interested in having their picture taken. Occasionally clients actually requested one snap or more to include all the family.
The photographer had to make a quick decision as to the composition of the picture. Snaps of a single person were less likely to be bought than those of a couple; pictures of three or more people could easily include total strangers; even in 1958 a couple may not have wanted to be seen together!
Terence Baggett worked as a beach photographer in Weymouth in the 1960s and reports:

Volume, then and later, was important. My best score was 1,200 in one day with a Leica. Sales was more important as pay was calculated on 3d/sale and less than 60% sales won a threat of sacking.
Searching through your own family photo collections will almost certainly bring one or two walking pictures to light. You may even find a couple among the other Sepia Saturday contributions this week.


Sunny Snaps and Littlehampton Sunny Snap, by Simon Robinson on Go Home on a Postcard.

Walking Pictures by Simon Robinson, with a comment by Alan Purvis (9 Sep 2011).

A Seaside Photographer, George Raymond Meadows (1914-2000), by Paul and Gail Godfrey.

Walking Pictures by Paul Godfrey on Our Great Yarmouth

List of Seaside Photographers in the United Kingdom by Paul Godfrey

Seaside Photographers by Paul Godfrey on British Photographic History, with comments by Terrence Baggett and others, May-July 2012.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Sepia Saturday 171: Before the humble postcard

Sepia Saturday by Alan Burnett and Kat Mortensen

Although the picture postcard is almost as old as the postage stamp, it wasn't until the 1890s that postcards with pictures of scenic views and landmarks were published in large numbers. After the United Kingdom and United States postal services gave a green light to the use of divided backs, in 1902 and 1907 respectively - message on one half, address on the other, thus freeing the entire one side of the card for the picture - the craze reached fever peak in the decade up to the Great War. Due to two world wars and the introduction of the telephone in most private households, postcards were never again produced in quite the number and variety as during the pre-war heyday, but they remained enormously popular for most of the remainder of the century.

The widespread availability of email, text, skype and smartphone services has understandably been followed by a decline in the use of postal services, and postcards have likewise diminished in popularity. A study last year claimed that the proportion of British tourists sending postcards home had declined from a third in the 1970s to an astonishing 3% (although another survey gives a more believable figure of 16%). Similar trends have been reported elsewhere, such as in India, and I can report that I struggled to find any postcards, let alone decent ones, in Honiara last year.

Image © and courtesy of Library of Congress
Conway (Conwy) Castle, Wales, c.1890-1900
Photomechanical print by the Detroit Photographic Company, 1905
Image courtesy of Library of Congress

I think it's still a little early to assume the complete extinction of the postcard - viz. Alan and his Twitter for Gentlefolk campaign, and the huge Postcrossing project, responsible for almost half a million postcards a month - but I'll sadly admit the chances of a major revival are slim. On a more positive note, and prompted by this week's Sepia Saturday Photochrom image of Conway Castle in Wales, I thought we'd take a look at what people kept as mementos from their vacations before the advent of postcards.

Image courtesy of National Gallery of Canada
The Great Pillars, Baalbek, Lebanon, c. 1857-1860
Albumen silver print, 203 x 153mm, by Francis Frith
Image courtesy of National Gallery of Canada

Albumen-based cartes the visite were the first popular and affordable medium for portraits in the early 1860s, which tends to overshadow the fact that albumen prints were already well established in photography by then. Developed in 1850 by Blanquart-Evrard the albumen print quickly superseded the calotypes or salt print. Paired with the wet plate collodion process, many print copies could be made of a single photographic glass plate negative. One of the first to take advantage of this was Francis Frith, who established a huge business selling both mounted and unmounted prints of views produced from three trips to the Middle East between 1856 and 1860.

Image © and courtesy of John Bradley
Dovedale, Derbyshire, c. 1850s
Stereoview by the London Stereoscopic Company, 54 Cheapside
Image © and courtesy of John Bradley

The sale of paper prints was boosted considerably by displays of the stereoscopic photograph at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, and the subsequent production of views in enormous numbers by firms such as Francis Frith and the London Stereoscopic Company. The stereoview - also referred to as a stereogram or stereocard - used two images of the same scene, taken from slightly different view points, mounted side-by-side on card which, when viewed with a special device with lenses, gave the appearance of a three-dimensional picture.

After a revival in the 1890s, stereoviews remained popular well into the twentieth century, but seem to have fallen from favour after the Great War.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Buxton Crescent from The Slopes, Derbyshire, c.1860s
Carte de visite by Francis Frith (Frith's Carte Series)
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, c.mid- to late 1870s
Carte de visite by William Potter of Matlock Bath
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

For the duration of the carte de visite's heyday, in the 1860s and 1870s, many countrywide firms like Friths, as well as local photographers such as William Potter of Matlock Bath produced views of the countryside in great numbers. These two Derbyshire views showing the popular Victorian tourist destinations of Buxton and Chatsworth are typical examples.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
View of unidentified building, possibly in Derbyshire, c. mid-1880s
Cabinet card by Alfred Seaman of Chesterfield
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The larger format of the cabinet card, first introduced in the late 1860s, but which did not really catch on until a decade or so later, lent itself to scenic views, so it is perhaps a little surprising that they are not more common. This example from Chesterfield photographer Alfred Seaman depicts an unidentified building, possibly a hotel or a hyrdopathic establishment and presumably somewhere in northern Derbyshire; it is from the mid-1880s.

Image © and courtesy of Nino Manci
Wallis' Furnishing Ironmongers shop, Bakewell, Derbyshire, c.late 1880s
Collodion positive (ambrotype) by unidentified photographer
Image © and courtesy of Nino Manci

It is clear from Seaman & Sons' display of mounted scenic photographic views in the shop window of Wallis' Furnishing Ironmongers shop (click image above for a more detailed view of the display) in Bakewell, where they did not have a branch studio, that they did offer scenic views.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Ashby Castle, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, c.late 1860s-early 1870s
Albumen print by J.W. Price of Derby & Ashby-de-la-Zouch
(mounted on card, later roughly trimmed)
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Seaman and many others published loose and mounted prints of landscapes and other views in a large variety of formats. This example of a mounted print (roughly trimmed) depicts the ruined Ashby Castle and has the backstamp of photographer J.W. Price. At 138 x 98mm, it is slightly larger than the size of a postcard. A scene in Sir Walter Scott's popular historical novel Ivanhoe is set in Ashby Castle, and this attracted visitors to the town of Ashby throughout the 19th Century. Harrod & Co.'s 1870 directory states,
Ashby is highly celebrated on account of its baths and springs, and its ancient castle ... Tradition states that Mary Queen of Scots was confined within one of the upper chambers.
Price no doubt sold this print and others from his studio on Ivanhoe road.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
All Saints Church and St Mary's Gate, Derby, 1884
Albumen print (126 x 171mm), attributed to Richard Keene of Derby
(mounted on album page)
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Loose prints, such as this 1884 view of All Saints church - now Derby's cathedral - were sold by Derby photographer, printer, publisher and stationer Richard Keene from his premises just around the corner at number 22 Irongate, still within full view of the church. A visitor could then paste the print into a large format album together with others from his trip. This particular print sits alongside two other Derby views on an album page, with photographs of Bournemouth on the reverse.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne Image © and collection of Brett Payne

(Left) Unidentified view of ruined building on cigarette box, by Davis & Sons, Barrow-in-Furness (Right) View of The Promenade, Matlock Bath on glass, mounted on velvet frame, by William Potter of Matlock Bath
Images © and collection of Brett Payne

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Cover of Buxton and Derbyshire booklet of views, publ. F. Wright, Buxton

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Matlock Dale and High Tor, Derbyshire, c.1892, published mid-1890s
Photomechanical print by Valentine and Sons of Dundee
Images © and collection of Brett Payne

It was also possible to buy sets of photographs, either loose or in booklet form, such as this collection of 24 Derbyshire views published by Francis Wright, stationer and bookseller of Buxton. The photographs were taken and printed by the Dundee firm of Valentine and Sons, and sold by Wright from his premises at 1 Spring gardens and Devonshire colonnade.

High Tor and Dale, Matlock, c.1892
Colourised postcard by Valentine & Sons, Dundee
View #17206, registered 1892, published c.1905-1906

A decade or so later this exact view was republished a number of times by Valentine and Sons in postcard format, a colourised example from c.1905-1906 being displayed above. Although other print formats would continue to be sold, nothing would rival the postcard for many decades.

Next time you're on holiday and send a postcard to someone back home - and I hope you do (a few each year can't be too bad for your carbon footprint) - spare a thought for its forerunners. If you head over to Sepia Saturday, you may well find a few more ancestors to the postcard on display amongst this week's contributions.


Spiro, Lisa (2006) A Brief History of Stereographs and Stereoscopes, on Connexions

J.G. Harrod & Co.'s Postal and Commercial Directory of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Staffordshire, 2nd Edition, 1870, from the University of Leicester's Historical Directories

Kelly's Directory of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire & Rutland, 1895, Kelly & Co. Ltd., from the University of Leicester's Historical Directories
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