Saturday, April 09, 2011


Two days ago, hidden in a box of spore-infested reprints of Dickens novels, we found a small album of photographs from the Edwardian era. The photos were in poor condition: badly faded, scratched and covered in marks, but I hoped that I might be able to retrieve some of the ghost-like images from oblivion with the help of Photoshop.

I'm quite please with the result. Here is the original image:

And here's the restored version:

It's not bad. I wish I that had the time to spend hours lovingly restoring each photo, but this is the best I can do at the moment.

As usual, none of the photos are accompanied by any names, places or dates, but I'm pretty sure that I can place them within the Edwardian era rather than the Victorian.

Here's the evidence :

It's not conclusive, but from the brief amount of research I've put into this post (i.e. 10 minutes), the vehicles make it unlikely that these pictures were taken before 1901.

The following photos have a beguiling innocence about them that belie the dark social and political uncurrents of the times. As has been mentioned before, there's something terribly poignant about the image of a smiling Edwardian boy, unaware of what's in store for his generation in a few years time.

(Note the telephone line and gasworks in the background)

(The original image was so badly faded, I almost threw it away. I'm glad that I didn't)

I love this image, with the bare trees and the woman's reflection in the water. Here is a close-up:

It's incredibly satisfying to be able to rescue these images and give them a whole new lease of life on the internet. They may just be family snapshots, but they give a tantalising glimpse into a world that, superficially, seemed at ease with itself, but was actually about to change beyond all recognition.

Within a mere 20 years, the smiling young boy in the fourth photo would be living (if he survived the trenches) in the age of Freud, Vorticism, Webern, Freud, Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses and jazz.


Martin H. said...

The world needs more people like your good self, Steerforth. Restoring, preserving, and placing a value on times before our own, isn't silly sentimentalism. It's crucial in helping us to understand where we come from and, ultimately, who we are.

Ryan MCFC said...

Thank you for putting the time and energy into these kinds of things. You do the world and history a favor by preserving even "family snapshots." That last photo is absolutely beautiful (in the best of melancholy ways) and I imagine someone will want to scoop that up for a book jacket someday.

Yamara said...

See, now I want my beanfeast catered.

MikeP said...

Another marvellous treasure trove!

I'm wondering if that's Southend Pier in the background of the beach scene. Certainly looks long enough - I don't recognise the structure at the end, but it's changed a lot over the years. The pebbly, sloping beach looks right, too.

Roger said...

The fact that motor cars were probably sufficiently rare tobe worth photographing suggests early rather than late Edwardian times- there might even be a site where you could identify the vehicles somewhere.

"As has been mentioned before, there's something terribly poignant about the image of a smiling Edwardian boy, unaware of what's in store for his generation in a few years time."

It also has an effect on edwardian novels- it's hard to be moved by the deaths of the heroes of The Unbearable Bassington or The Good Soldier when they were probably going to die pretty soon anyway.


Your posts have helped me to notice something; the youngest child in a family snapshot always looks the happiest. This is something which hasn't changed from the dawn of photography to the present day. I love to imagine how the people lived in the photographs you share. It feels like you are giving them a voice, or maybe 'voices'.

Anonymous said...

Your patience and knowledge are amazing!

The family photos are fascinating. I'm guessing the family was probably upper middle class, or higher -- from what little I know about the times, there would have been little extra money for luxuries like cars and cameras. We have a box of similar photos of my grandmother's family -- cars, fur coats, winter picnics. The family did have money then -- but by the time I arrived on the scene, it was long gone!
C'est la vie! Canadian Chickadee

The Poet Laura-eate said...

That is amazing how much you were able to clean up the first image, but entirely understandable you don't have the time to do each one. Loved the lady and her dog as well.

Brett said...

I enjoyed these photographs very much. I am glad that they came into your hands. I love the girl in the bonnet with the hoop.

christinelaennec said...

Thank you so much for saving these and making them available to us. I think you're creating a kind of online museum, and you're a wonderful curator of it. I'm always surprised at how natural people look in some of these early 20th century photographs. Perhaps the middle-class subjects of these photos were used to being photographed. My favourite is the group where the little girl with the tennis racquet is scratching under her chin.

catalpa said...

Thanks so much for working on, and sharing, these photos - very beautiful and, as you say, very poignant.

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

Wonderful images! I'm always left wondering why the person holding the camera chose to photograph those particular scenes, as film was very expensive back then.

pinkyandnobrain said...

And a thank you from me for preserving, restoring and posting snapshots of another time and other lives. I am really interested in the concept of snapshots, not just as images, but more generally as bounded fragments of stories/experiences and I really like encountering the little slivers of lives you post and the bits and bobs of context or opinion you give. I love the idea of not getting some kind of overarching, completely sewn up and coherent narrative and being acutely conscious of creating a context for these fragments ourselves to make sense of them.

I shared your blog with a friend and colleague who is self confessedly not very good with reading blogs and using social media and she really loves it too. Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the comments. It's a real chore Photoshopping (is that a verb?) the images, but it makes it well worth the effort when I realise that people have enjoyed seeing them. I feel very privileged to be in a postion where I can restore and share these photographs.

Like MikeP, I also wondered if the beach photo was taken in front of Southend Pier. It's a lovely image and I'd like to spend a little more time cleaning up the various scratches and specks of dust, but that will take time.

Lucewoman makes a very interesting point - the youngest children are always the happiest. When I compare my five-year-old son, who skips, giggles, sings and radiates happiness with his older brother, it's hard not to wonder what goes wrong. But on the other hand, the older brother doesn't curl up into a ball and sob when I say I can't play 'Mr Boloboly' (Monopoly), so it's swings and roundabouts.

Perhaps we sacrifice happiness in order to protect ourselves from pain.

Roger also raises an interesting point - how can we get our knickers in a twist about X's dilemma when we know that his generation are about to endure a far worse ordeal at the Front?

I had to look up 'beanfeast' on Wikipedia. Apparently, "a bean-feast is primarily an annual dinner given by an employer to his workmen. By extension, colloquially, it describes any jollification. The word, and its shorter form "beano," are fairly common in Britain, less known in the United States."

Here's the link:

Steerforth said...

While I was writing the above, Gabriela and Pinky both posted comments, so thank you both.

Gabriela - You're right. Film was expensive and every photograph seems to be capturing a meaningful moment in their lives.

Pinky - I'm delighted that your colleague likes the blog and I agree that we have to impose our own narrative on these fragments of forgotten lives. I wonder what people in the future would make of our lives if they only had our photo albums as evidence?

Little Nell said...

May I add my thanks to those already expressed? I am fascinated by old photographs and find it difficult to part with the ones which have been passed to me through the family (even if I've no idea who the subjects are!) I too have spent many happy hours restoring them and I appreciate the time and effort you have put into these. I am a newcomer to blogging but I have already found my own store of photographs to be a great source of inspiration. Keep up the good work.

sue said...

Thank you for these photographs. They may be " just family photographs" as you say, but that is their charm - artless and unstudied and so evocative.

DJK said...

Thanks for publishing these fascinating shots.

Re. Edwardians. I've always regarded The Railway Children as one of the great tragic books. It was published in 1905 and we are told that Peter is 10. But we modern readers know what's in store for Peter about ten years later. He will be killed in the first few minutes of his first action on the Western Front as a second Lieutenant, Webley pistol in hand, still fresh faced from his public school.

Sam Jordison said...

These are wonderful. Has the dog in the sixth picture caught a cat? No wonder he looks pleased with himself.

Mark and Marianne Egan said...

I learn so much from reading your blogs. And now I simply must have a beanfest.

Anonymous said...

Love these photos and the others you post. They remind that time is fleeting and to enjoy my family while I can. Thank you.