Virtual reality and Archives? Maybe not so far away – indeed, maybe right here in Brum in the Waterhall of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery!
An intriguing exhibition, Thresholds, curated by Pete James and Matt Collishaw enables you to experience the exhibition of William Fox Talbot’s photogenic drawings at the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Birmingham at King Edward’s School, New Street in August 1839.
Charles Barry’s drawings of Birmingham Free Grammar School on New Street, Birmingham, 1833.
[MS 575 Acc 2012/013]
Put on the headset and backpack and you’re standing in the school hall, can view the drawings in display cases – and even lift them to look closer, feel the fire, hear and see the Chartist protestors outside the window – amazing. Chartist riots had taken place in the Bull Ring just a few weeks before and Fox Talbot requested that the Birmingham Literary and Philosophical Society acquire the display cases in order to protect his drawings from possible protestors.
Until last year, I worked with the Photographic Collections in the archives at the Library of Birmingham. I left promising to write a blog post at some point in the future. Over a year later, while meeting with former colleagues, I was reminded of this promise. It was suggested I could perhaps write about my favourite item as part of the ‘Explore your Archives’ week activities. My head was instantly full of potential candidates. You’ll have to be patient with me here, because I cannot help but mention a few of them, at least in passing, so you have some idea of the staggering wealth of choices I faced. For instance, perhaps I would write something about John Blakemore’s beautiful handmade books on the Zone System (MS 2372/C/1-23 and MS 2372 Acc. 2015/088), a system devised by Ansel Adams and used by Blakemore in his photography for many years. Or maybe a post showcasing a little-known collection of cyanotypes (MS 2652) – a stunning example of a very early photographic process.
Then again, perhaps I could write about a collection of 37 photographs taken randomly by a BCC employee, which when arranged in sequence connects up to form a panoramic view from the top of the old (and now vanished) Birmingham Central Library. When last shown, this series of prints prompted a reminiscence from a retiring librarian, of how it used to snow upwards in the well of Paradise Forum, before the glass roof was put on.
Or indeed I could certainly write about the photograph of a Pickford’s heavy haulage vehicle with its crew standing proudly beside it (MS 2726 ). This photograph appeared in so many talks – each time as evidence of something different, each time an integral part of a different narrative – sometimes telling the story of the man who took it, at other times illustrating a wider history of heavy haulage and the vehicles used, now a part of the history of the development of transport systems, and then also part of the social narrative of that particular time.
How was I to choose between them?
This photograph of the Countess of Warwick
Promotional brochure for Harold Baker, photographer [MS 2938]
has pride of place in the brochure announcing the relocation of Harold Baker’s photographic studio. The Countess is just one of Harold’s many illustrious clients and I have wondered why in a deferential age, he does not lead with Prince Edward, Princess Victoria or one of the other members of royalty gracing the client list.
My assessment is that Baker made a very shrewd choice, given the colourful reputation of the Countess as a socialite. It seems that then as now, a mixture of celebrity and notoriety can be a successful marketing device. Frances Evelyn Greville, Countess of Warwick was popularly known as ‘Daisy’ and her personal life did not command privacy. She was associated through high profile affairs with amongst others, the Prince of Wales. ‘Daisy’ also had a reputation as ‘the Socialist Countess’, being a supporter of the Pen Workers’ Union, formed in Birmingham in 1897 and concerned with protecting a largely female workforce. In 1904 she joined the Social Democratic Federation, at about the time that this brochure was published.
Harold Baker appears to be very comfortable in linking his business with such a well known and (perhaps for some) notorious person. Alongside her image, he highlights the advantages of his new studio at the corner of Cherry Street and Cannon Street, Birmingham. These include a lift to carry clients to the studio and dressing rooms, strategically placed on the fourth floor to catch the most natural light for effective photography. A powerful electric lamp permits night photography.