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.

32 comments:

  1. I will take a guess and say they are at a reading of a will....has to be a gathering of some kind, why not this????

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    1. I would have though the reading of a will normally takes place in a solicitor's rooms, but I suppose if it were the will of a gentleman with a large estate, with bequests to the servants of the house, perhaps it's quite possible.

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  2. The T shaped item could well be the handle of a trolley lying on its side. Interesting deconstruction of the picture on the card; you have shown us that there is more to it than you see at first.

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    1. Yes I think a handle is quite possible.

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  3. I can't guess what's going on, but it sure seems like the woman is either boring the others to tears or else is making them upset. Both the man in the van and the one seated, head in hand look as if they might jump out of their skin if she doesn't stop talking.
    Nancy

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    1. It's definitely an awkward situation, I agree.

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  4. Could this be a burial in a cemetery? It does not explain the odd tray of items however.

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    1. Good suggestion, viridian, but the clothes don't look sober enough for a funeral or burial ceremony, and as Mike says in a later comment, would the men wear flowers in their buttonholes at a funeral? Probably not.

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  5. I LOVE how our Sepia Saturday prompts are just that - they encourage our thoughts in many directions. I am amazed at the creativity of participants. Your post shows how we can and should use a variety of lens to interpret a prompt - thank you!

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    1. I think that is the attraction of Sepia Saturday - a wide variety of participants, all of who are happy to look outside the usual parameters for inspiration.

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  6. It's always fun to follow detecting from details...even if it's just all whimsey.

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    1. Yes, whimsey it may be, but if we do not have the real oil, then whimsey it must be.

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  7. Not only are their legs crossed, including the woman next to the speaker, they are all crossed away from her.

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    1. Well spotted Kristin. I feel there is a strong need by them to dissociate themselves either from what she is saying, or from the questions she is being asked by someone in the audience.

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  8. It's a wedding. No one is talking to each other because they are from opposite sides of the family and have only just met. It was a long wedding and the bride is taking even longer to get dressed and go on her honeymoon. They are all patiently waiting for her to depart. Someone has thoughtfully put out chairs while they wait to say goodbye. Someone also put out a gameboard with battleships on it for them to play while they waited but one of them got so frustrated he chucked his walking stick into the tree. Someone had to go and get a ladder to fetch it down. They are all a bit embarrassed about the performance and are lost for words.

    Either that or it's a naturalization ceremony and they are waiting in line for their certificate.

    Or it's a very posh bus stop....where the bus service isn't reliable.

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    1. Well, what can I say? Wedding, naturalization ceremony or bus queue, it's not a group I would feel comfortable joining.

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  9. It is definitely a curious group. I like Bob's idea on the t-shape object, it resembles a handle on a garden hand cart. I don't think it's a gathering for a funeral, as their clothing isn't really dark and somber. Who wears a boutonniere to a funeral? It could be a portion of a wedding party, but as you have already explained in a previous post on the subject, there is a hierarchy to a wedding's theatrical set that is missing here. The group more resembles the professors I saw recently at my son's college graduation. Could they be assembled for a university event? The best clues are the flags and the odd tilted table thing. What is that? It looks like an architect's presentation, but why is it off balance? Perhaps Miss Marple will explain who done it.

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    1. Mike - That's what Nigel suggested, a gathering of engineers or similar professionals. I don't think the bulk of the men are there in a professional capacity, but from their position as landowners or privileged members of the upper class. I suspect the one at the far end is a schoolmaster or headmaster. Perhaps the model or table is his?

      I'm still waiting for Miss Marple to arrive.

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  10. I do enjoy your deconstruction of the pictures but I can't offer any ideas I'm afraid. They look pretty serious though don't they?

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  11. Great dissection of an old photo, Brettt. Wouldn't it be grand to find another postcard like or similar to this, except used -- with a note home explaining the situation? Maybe one will turn up!

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    1. I hadn't thought of that - yes, it would certainly be a fantastic find.

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  12. I can only speculate on body language. Both the man and woman seated beside the standing woman are uncomfortable having attention drawn in their direction. They do not wish to be acknowledged as being associated with/in agreement with the standing woman, so the only thing left to them is to look down and avoid all gazes in their direction. The man on the far left is open and approachable - the most comfortable of the lot. The man with his hand to his mouth has assumed the position of appearing deep in thought as being best for the occasion. He may be thinking about what is being said - or he may be off on an island vacation, but no one can accuse him of not thinking seriously. The woman in the dark clothing is well-mannered and polite. She is far enough away from the speaker so that she can appear interested and maintain a sense of decorum. The man adjusting his eyewear reads similarly to the "thinking" man. And the man on the far right thinks he must look as though something out of sight may need his immediate attention and once he finds it, will make his exit.

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    1. Just my thoughts, Kathy - the body language gives away the tenseness of the situation.

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  13. Wow. I love how you broke down all the parts of the picture and tried to figure it out. I don't have any answers, but I really enjoyed the questions that you brought up.

    Kathy M.

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    1. Thanks Kathy - appreciate your comment.

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  14. Could this be that this was an impromptu shot before taking the official one, taking everyone by surprise as no one is looking at the camera?!?...
    :D~
    HUGZ

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    1. The facial expressions could fit that, Bruno, but I think as Kathy said earlier, the body language says something quite different.

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  15. Yes,Its Strange.A Very Formal Occasion, Yet Informally Shot!Whatever the event ,the photographer seems to have gained the Confidence & Trust of the subjects.I wonder the nature of his/her commission ? Why the need of photographic evidence?

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    1. That's an interesting question, Tony. I like to think about the relationship between photographer and subject(s) - unravelling that story can often tell you so much more about the situation surrounding the taking of the portrait or snapshot.

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  16. I have no ideas, but...

    I love the shape of those leaves. They look like wings. They're gorgeous.

    and...

    I'm hoping they were served nice sandwiches and tea after this because some of them look as if they'd be happy to bolt as soon as possible...or fall asleep. I'm guessing the speaker was not a great orator.

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    1. I could do with a nice sandwich and a cup of tea right now. Thanks for visiting, T+L.

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