Friday, September 21, 2018

Mary The Beekeeper And The Flight Of Fancy Simulator


The thing about playing around with old, lost and forgotten photographs is that it provides a vigorous workout for the imagination. It is like a well equipped gym of thoughtfulness set inside a state of the art flight of fancy simulator. You can look at a picture that stopped time a century or more ago and let your mind sketch in whatever detail it desires. The person is happy, the person is sad; the person is rich, the person is poor; the person goes on to lead a full and happy life, the person gets run over by a tram as they leave the photographers' studio: any narrative is potentially possible. And occasionally, just occasionally, through some combination of luck and "big data", you get to check out your imagined narrative against reality.

This is a small Victorian Carte de Visite of a young girl which was taken in the Carnarvon studios of the photographer Hugh Humphreys. It shows a sad looking young girl aged about ten years old and a first guess would suggest that it must have been taken in the 1880s. However, look carefully on the reverse of the CdV and you find that some kind soul has written a name - Mary Dagmar Sillar. And what a name: if it had been Jane Smith or Mary White, you might have had difficulty; but Mary Dagmar Sillar - there's something to get your data-hungry teeth into.


Mary Dagmar Sillar was born in Lewisham, London in 1873, the second daughter of John Charles Sillar and his wife, Jane Ellen Jones. Her father was a tea broker and worked in the City of London buying and selling tea on the international markets: a job which no doubt allowed a comfortable lifestyle for himself and his family. Tragedy arrived in young Mary's life when she was just two years old and her mother died aged just 26. The response of most Victorian fathers to such events - which were not uncommon in an age when childbirth was a perilous activity - was to find another wife and stepmother double quick: but John Charles Sillar did not follow that particular route, he moved his small family to North Wales to live with their maternal grandmother.

It is in this period that Mary had her photograph taken, and the sadness in her eyes reflects the sadness of her short life. A second tragedy struck in 1895 when she was just 22 years old and her father died. By the turn of the century Mary and her sister Gwen were living in a boarding house in Colwyn Bay in North Wales. No occupation is listed in the census returns and therefore we can assume they had what at the time were called "independent means".

Both sisters disappear from the records by the time we get to the 1911 census, but by 1914 they are back again, and Gwen is getting married to, presumably, a cousin Ernest Gemmil Sillar who is a tea planter. Mary - by now in her early 40s and still unmarried - is one of the witnesses at the wedding. We catch a final glimpse of Mary in 1939 - at the time of the pre-war 1939 Register - when she is living in retirement with her sister and brother-in-law in Hailsham, Sussex. Finally we get a clue as to what she has been doing all her life because her occupation is listed as a retired "poultry and bee expert"! The final record available is that of her death in 1963 at the age of 90.

However good your flight of fancy simulator was - you would never have made that story up.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Great Chips Of The World : Series III, No. 5 - Saphire


Variety : Saphire (new variety of the classic Marfona potato)
Appearance : Early main crop, smooth skin, white potato
Chipability : Produce well-defined chips with crispy skin and fluffy white interiors

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

86 Years On The Prom


This is Fred and Hazel walking along the promenade in August 1932 (there are people out there who will recognise which promenade it is, and - in the great traditions of the internet - will tell me). George V has just opened Lambeth Bridge and Forrest Mars has just produced the first Mars Bar. Aldous Huxley has just published Brave New World and Hunger Marches are heading for the capital to protest about poverty and unemployment. Fred and Hazel, however, walk down the promenade and have their photographs taken. They will send the little print to Aunt Agg and Uncle Jack, who will stick it in the family album. There it stayed, forgotten, for eighty-six years .... until this morning.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Perspire And Archive


Everybody these days seems to have a motto: some cheery little maxim that manages to condense the ethos of their organisations into a few meaningless words. On my way to the park the other day to walk the dog, I noticed that the local school was dedicated to "Aspire And Achieve" - which is a comforting declaration as otherwise I might have thought it was all about nose-diving into failure. 

Finding myself driven indoors today by the remnants of some trans-Atlantic hurricane, I can't decide whether it is summer or winter: it looks cold but I feel all hot and sweaty. I spend my time sorting through piles of old photographs and negatives, attempting to index them, file them, catalogue them. 

I need a large wooden display board to erect outside the front gate with my motto on: - "Perspire And Archive"

Monday, September 17, 2018

Your Old Friend George Grayham


How this particular photograph found its way into my collection, I have no idea. I do, however, know who it is a photograph of, and that is George Grayham. We also know that George was an "old friend", as written on the back of the postcard sized print is "from an old friend, George Grayham". I still don't know where the photograph came from - but any friend of George is a friend of mine.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Talking Up A Good Photograph




There is a kind of Mona Lisa-ish enigmatic smile about this girl featured in a nineteenth century studio portrait by the Dover based photographer, Frederick Artis. Like so many of these mid-Victorian pioneer studio photographers, Artis had a fascinating background. He was the son of the noted elocutionist and lecturer, George Latham Artis, and he spent his youth touring the country with his father giving lectures and demonstrations of his art. By 1881, Frederick had left the elocution business, married, settled in Dover, and set up a photographic studio. Within ten years he had quit the channel port and moved north into Essex. By the turn of the century he had established photographic studios in both Witham and Braintree. Artis died in March 1917 in Lexden, Essex, aged 75.


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Heading North To A Christmas Stocking Near You


Over the last few months I have featured a number of scans from an old photograph album I bought earlier this year which tells the story of a cruise to the Northern Capitals of Europe in 1925. I found this album by chance on an antique stall, and when I bought it for a few pounds the stall-holder asked me what I intended to do with it? For want of a sensible response to his question, I said "I will research it, rescan it and republish it", and then I left rather quickly before he tried to get me to purchase a 1950s beer bottle and convert it into a gastropub. Just in case that stall-holder is reading this - which, to be frank, is about as likely as me opening a gastropub - I am happy to announce that the finished book is now available from Amazon.


Published just in time for the lucrative Christmas market, this little volume is a perfect stocking-filler for the person who has everything other than a 1925 reproduction photo album. It is available from Amazon stores worldwide for just about the same price I bought the original album for!


Friday, September 07, 2018

Sepia Saturday 435 : Mimi And Frank Went


Ever since Louis Daguerre first dabbled with a daguerreotype and Henry Fox Talbot first tinkered with a calotype, photography has been just as an important part of weddings as confetti and cake. Our Sepia Saturday theme this week features a wedding party posed on some steps; a pose almost exactly matched by a wedding party I went to last weekend. My contribution is not from that wedding however - it won't qualify as a sepia image until the happy couple celebrate their golden wedding - but from one that took place 76 years ago: the wedding of Frank Fieldhouse and Miriam Burnett.


My two photographs featured in one of Frank Fieldhouse's inimitable albums and are captioned in his equally inimitable way: "A Wedding On April 4th 1942 .... Mimi and Frank went ..... so did others"


Compared to the photographs taken at the wedding I attended last weekend, these two snaps are faded, dull and of dubious quality. Perhaps it is right, however, that photographs fade in pace with memories. The smile of the bride, the pride of the groom, the pleasure of the guests, the nerves of the little bridesmaids are all elements that transcend both time and photographic technology.


Tuesday, September 04, 2018

A Genius Too Great For Slaithwaite

Unknown Man In A Check Suit : J J E Mayall

I have a large box of Victorian studio photographs at home, and I am slowly working my way through them: looking at them, scanning them, and seeing where they take me. Today they took me on a fascinating trans-continental journey in the company of John Jabez Edwin Mayall, pioneer photographer, trans-Atlantic entrepreneur, and friend of the rich and famous. If that wasn't enough he was brought up in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield and for a short time he was landlord of the local Star Inn!

He was born in 1813 in Oldham, just over the border in Lancashire, but the family moved to the Linthwaite and Slaithwaite area of Huddersfield when John was still a young child. His father was a manufacturing chemist who specialised in producing dyes for the textile industry, and young John moved into the business and built up a degree of expertise in chemistry. It is said that by his mid 20s he had made a fortune, and by his early thirties he had lost it. He fell in love with the daughter of the local innkeeper and married her, and eventually took over the running of the inn, but this turned out to be an unsuccessful enterprise as he seems to have directed his energies primarily to teaching his customers mathematics and latin rather than selling pints of ale.

It appears that neither the role of a manufacturing chemist nor that of a publican in the Colne Valley was for him, and writing in his memoirs some years later, the local vicar, Cannon Charles Hulbert, commented: "Slaithwaite was scarcely a sufficient sphere for his genius and he emigrated to the United States, where he took up the then infant Art of Photography; which he much improved by his experiments and discoveries".

Mayall first went to America in 1842 and for the next few years he seems to have split his time between Britain and America, establishing photographic studios in both Manchester and Philadelphia, and being in the forefront of technological development in the infant science of photography. He lectured, he wrote articles, and he saw himself as both an artist and a photographer, exploring the boundaries between traditional art and the new daguerreotype process. By the end of 1846 he was back in Britain establishing a daguerreotype studio and institute on the Strand in London. 

Mayall became a friend of the famous painter, J M W Turner, and they shared an interest in the artistic potential of photography and, in particular, its ability to portray light variations. During the 1850s,  he embarked on a series of daguerreotype portraits of the rich and famous (including Charles Dickens) and also began to experiment with the new Carte de Visite format. In 1860 he was invited to photograph the Royal Family, and he was able to publish the first ever series of Carte de Visites featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children.

In 1864, Mayall moved from London to Brighton - leaving the London Studios under the direction of his son - and established a new photographic studio in King's Road. It is from this period that the small Carte de Visite of an unknown man in a check suit dates. Mayall spent the rest of his life on the South Coast before dying early in 1901 - within a few weeks of the Queen he had famously photographed forty years earlier.


My thanks to the unknown man in the check suit for taking me on such a fascinating journey.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Guided Only By Whim And Passing Fancy

Alesund, Norway (More photographs from my Norwegian holiday can be found on my Picture Post Blog)

It's been a bit of a long time! The last couple of months have been a little hectic and I seem to have been neglecting my blogging activities. These blog posts have been a regular and established part of my life for over twelve years now, and therefore any interruption is only ever going to be a temporary one. The big birthday is now behind me, as is the holiday; whereas the other big event of the summer - the birth of my first grandson - will, I am delighted to say, be with me and ahead of me for a long time to come.

Part of me wants to say that I return to regular blogging with a renewed determination to be ordered, relevant, and meaningful in this time of political change and social and economic decay. The rest of me, however, is determined to ensure that my outpourings are just as disorganised, irrelevant and meaningless as always. I have often felt that pointlessness is an important part of my more mature years, following, as they do, years of having to have a reason or an end-product for all that I have done. News From Nowhere will continue to proudly embrace pointlessness in the months that lie ahead.

I will reawaken my Picture Post blog as a vehicle for my own photographs old and new, whilst News From Nowhere will go where it goes guided only by whim and passing fancy.