Saturday, February 26, 2011

Last Week

The last few weeks have been rather challenging. First, we had to remove our oldest son from school and are now 'home educating' him - a last resort that I wouldn't have entertained unless I was convinced that every other option had been explored. Second, my mother has surprised us all by selling her house within ten days of putting it on the market. I now have to find somewhere for her to live, organise the move and help her get rid of any unwanted furniture.

Fortunately, we were able to get away to my mother-in-law's house for a few days and I took the opportunity to pay a visit to the wonderful Gainsborough Museum in Sudbury, Suffolk.

Sudbury is one of those pleasant market towns that, like Lewes, got left behind by the Industrial Revolution and went from being one of the most populous settlements to a relative backwater. Most of the buildings are pre-20th century and every street has a variety of quirky, eye-catching features:

This house is unusual enough, even without the figures in the top-right window:

I also liked the local church, St Gregory's, which is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area (if you aren't, this excellent website is a pretty good substitute).

But I don't just enjoy snooping around empty churches for their historical interest. I also enjoy the glimpse they give into the secret life of middle England:

There is something comforting about the parish noticeboard, with its posters advertising flower festivals, slide shows and amateur dramatics, run by people with names like Pam, Sheila and Malcolm. I may not want to see Brian's slide show about the Dutch tulip fields, but I feel strangely reassured by its existence.

The house where Gainsborough was born is tucked away in a quiet back street and looked disconcertingly small. Fortunately, it is deceptively spacious, with a number of rooms like this one:

Gainsborough's home became a museum in 1961 and over the last 50 years, the collection has steadily grown. I noticed that several paintings had been donated "in lieu of inheritance tax".

I used to regard Gainsborough as a bit of a lightweight, but a wonderful Tate exhibition in 2002 completely changed my mind and I've wanted to visit this museum ever since. As small museums go, this is one of the better ones, but I was hoping to see more of the well-known paintings, like Mr and Mrs Andrews.

Apart from the traffic the hurtling through the town centre, I liked Sudbury. It had managed to avoid the worst aspects of postwar town planning and still had a very distinct character, unlike most of Colchester, which I visited a day earlier:

Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain and some of the original Roman walls - nearly 2,000 years old - still remain around the fringes of the centre. You would imagine that they would occupy pride of place in the town, but intstead the local authorities have sandwiched them between a busy ring road and some bland, 1980s buildings. It's shameful.

On a more positive note, I found some superb things at work:

These illustrations are from an early 20s German children's novel called 'Frau Major's Daughters'. I was very surprised to find that the book wasn't even worth a fiver.

I wish I could look at illustrations like this without thinking of some dark, kinky subtext. Oh, to be innocent again!

I also liked the cover of 'The Crimson Rust' (also worth less than £5), which I'm sure Pam, Sheila and Malcolm would have enjoyed when they were children:

Finally, two photographs:

I quite like this group photograph of some Victorian tennis players, but my favourite by far has to be this:

Unusually, this photo actually has some information written on the back:

"Chief Civil Engineer's Office, KINGS CROSS (Great Northern Railway), Christmas Eve 1954"

I presume that the Chief Engineer is the very serious-looking man at the front, rather than the cad with the moustache or the 13-year-old boy at the back.

I apologise for the rambling, fragmented nature of this post. It has been that sort of week.

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Manchester Family

Today's collection of photos come from a huge haul - the largest I've seen - that appeared on my desk late on Friday afternoon. I've barely scratched the surface, but the following images are the ones that made an immediate impression.

It will take time to trawl through the contents. So far, all I know is that the family in these pictures lived in a council house in Manchester. They may also have had an Irish connection, as there are lots of photos of rugged scenery and priests:

This photo would be entirely unremarkable, if it wasn't for the fact that the man looks as he is emerging from a hole in the ground.

It's a novelty to see anyone on a scooter these days, particularly an older woman. But in my childhood, I remember several local mums and grannies beeping at me as they whizzed past, with several bags of shopping precariously balanced at the back.

An idyllic scene. Would a scooter holiday be feasible on today's congested roads, with juggernauts and 4x4s rushing past?

Is she really grabbing the seagull by the foot?

I'm fairly certain that the seagull-assaulting scooterist is an older incarnation of the girl of the middle.

I had no idea that flat caps were so big in the north - literally. In my family photos, even the poorest men usually wore hats, but caps were obviously de rigeur in this part of the world.

I rather like this woman's tea cosy-style hat (I shall refrain from passing comment about anyone else in the picture).

The caravan holiday: outdoor loos, gas lighting and a communal water pump. A far cry from today's caravans, with their en suite bedrooms, satellite televisions and electric ovens.

There are many photos of holidays in the British Isles, but also a few from more exotic locations like Gozo:

Out of the hundreds of black and white photos in the collection, this one stood out: a lovely portrait, beautifully lit and composed.

I also like the 'staged' pose in this photo.

I though that rowing was supposed to be a pleasurable activity, but the grim expressions on these people's faces suggests that they've just had a terrible row (as in rhymes with cow).

These photos could end up being the visual equivalent of Derek's diaries - there are several boxes worth, including a number of letters. As usual, they were almost thrown in the skip. Many of the pictures are quite commonplace, but as I hope this selection has shown, even the most ordinary lives have something remarkable about them.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Wind of Change

I've no idea why, but during the last couple of weeks I've been inundated with photographs. The Victorian albums can be sold, but the rest usually end up in the bin, so I like having the opportunity to give some of these images a new life on the internet.

The following photos all come from an album that begins in 1940 and covers a period of roughly 20 years. As you will see, it is possible to construct some sort of loose narrative from the images:

1940. Judging by the trees in the background, this picture was taken either around the time or after the "miracle" of Dunkirk. As you can see, the British Army has been reduced to a ramshackle unit of ten soldiers, using equipment from World War One. In spite of this, the morale appears to have been high.

1942 and the Army is in a much stronger position, with smart new uniforms and modern weapons. It is time for the Empire to strike back:

This is the French Algerian entry for the 'Boring Postcards' competition. By now, Allied troops have driven the Germans out of North Africa and are preparing to launch the first invasion of mainland Europe.

A group shot taken in Rome, with St Peter's looming in the background. I'm not sure who the dodgy-looking civilian in the centre of the front row is, but perhaps he had 'local connections'.

A postcard from Fascist Italy. There are quite a few cards in the album and I like the idea that in the midst of this great chaos and upheaval, soldiers could still pop into a giornalaio and buy a few scenic views to send to the folks back home.

Peacetime. This is the earliest colour image I've come across and it resisted all of my attempts in Photoshop to achieve a more natural hue.

1946 and we are now in India, during the final days of the Raj. It looks like a good life, for some at least:

"Himalayas 1946"

The last few pages of the album feature scenes from different parts of the British Empire, including several years in different parts of Africa.

"Picnic off Gold Coast road (note teddy bear drinking gin) 16 Nov 52"

"On Bukit Lambak near Kluanc 800 feet up near microwave station"

Looking at the evidence - postcards, letters and photographs of their homes in Britain - these people didn't come from a moneyed, well-educated background, but enjoyed a remarkable standard of living. During their days in Nigeria, Ghana and Malaysia, they enjoyed huge houses with servants, fine weather and exotic locations. In Britain, the best they could hope for was a cramped suburban semi.

When the "Wind of Change" bought a swift end to the British Empire, these people must have returned home with heavy hearts.

Friday, February 18, 2011

French Lessons

Found yesterday, this 1965 textbook is a masterpiece of graphic design:

Beaucoup mieux que l'architecture des années 1960!