in an attic, the high and mighty reveal a new face
Spotlight: on the chance discovery of 80,000 portraits
that enrich Britain's photographic archive.
Article from: The Sunday Times, 24 July 1988, p A9, by Geordie
workmen wore thick overalls and gloves to clear the jumble of
glass and cardboard boxes piled high in a London attic.
Their instructions were to throw away everything and redecorate.
However, Terry Thurston, the foreman, took a second look at
the ‘rubbish’ buried beneath a thick layer of dust,
cobwebs and broken glass, and knew he couldn't throw out the
thousands of glass negatives scattered everywhere.
But for his alertness, history would have ended up in a skip.
Although he did not know it, Thurston had saved for the nation
one of the largest and most important collections of 19th and
early 20th century
wiped one or two faces and there were Queen Victoria and Lloyd
George looking up at me. I just couldn't throw them out’,
he said last week.
filthy and disordered mess turned out to the archive of the
Lafayette studio, a photographic firm to which Queen Victoria
gave a royal warrant on March 5, 1887. The most prominent people
at court, in society, politics and the services sat for the
studio in New Bond Street.
archive is an extraordinary and priceless image bank of the
people who owned and ran the Britain of the day.
packed the 80,000 glass and celluloid negatives, weighing more
than six tons, into cardboard boxes and 90 orange plastic packing
cases and took them to Pinewood studios, where he worked. He
had been merely ‘lent out’ by the studio at a quiet
time to do a clearance job at the Fleet Street premises where
he found the negatives. Nobody knows when or why the hoard was
made his discovery in 1968. But once again the pictures were
overlooked. For another 20 years those cases - containing unique
portraits of Queen Victoria at her jubilee celebrations, Edward
VII at his coronation, Indian maharajahs in their finery - lay
gathering more dust behind a faded fawn curtain in the film
studio's props store at Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire.
six weeks ago, Malcolm Stone, an art director, came across Thurston's
neglected treasure. He saw the scuffed boxes arranged in 5ft
piles but, unlike Thurston, immediately recognised the portraits
as the work of a great 19th century studio.
contacted Cyril Howard, Pinewood's managing director, who offered
them to the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Portrait
Gallery, which were delighted to have them. Already the V&A
has collected 30,000 of the negatives, and the rest, which are
mostly post-1925, will go to the portrait gallery.
week the first batch is being cleaned and filed at the V&A.
Every 10in x 15in glass negative, weighing 3 oz. is being individually
washed and catalogued. They are all captioned with a name and
date, but the full list of sitters will not be known for months.
Victoria, Edward VII, Edward VIII, Earl Spencer (the Princess
of Wales's great grandfather), Lady Randolph Churchill and various
Rothschilds have been discovered. ‘It is going to take
years to go through all the negatives. Some are cracked. They
are all dirty but anything might turn up,’ said Peter
MacDonald, who is in charge of the museum's photographic studio.
experts are amazed at the quality and the minute detail on the
large negatives. ‘We can even see the individual threads
on Queen Victoria's dresses and the wrinkles on her rather podgy
hands,’ said Madeleine Ginsburg, keeper of textiles at
Lafayette studio was in New Bond Street from 1880, with branches
in Manchester, Dublin, Belfast and Paris [sic]. It took every
effort to make its clients looks glamorous.
jubilee photograph of Victoria, in a bead-embroidered tulle
overskirt with a bodice and train of silk damask, has been heavily
retouched. She has lost two inches off her waist, a few wrinkles
from her face, and her hair has been slightly streaked and lightened.
Her arms have been trimmed to make them look less podgy.
unflattering pictures were kept locked up and were marked with
the stamp, ‘Not to be published’.
extraordinary deference bestowed by the Lafayette studio is
seen in its advertising brochure describing the relationship
between photographer and royal sitter: ‘Every effort seems
to be made by the exalted personages to place the artist at
his ease - causing him for the moment for forget the immeasurable
distance in rank that exists between him and his sitters.’
experts are delighted that the Lafayette archive has not been
badly damaged, lost or sold abroad like so many other important
the second world war Norman Parkinson, the Queen Mother's favourite
photographer, lost 10,000 negatives during a German bombing
raid. ‘I went to see them in their store and all I found
was a twisted building,’ he said.
MacBean, the celebrity photographer of post-war years smashed
38,000 glass negatives weighing four-and-a-half tons because
he could not find anywhere to house them. ‘Harvard University
took another four-and-a-half tons but the rest I just smashed.
It seems a tragedy now but I offered them to the any British
museum and they all turned them down.’
every picture in the National Portrait Gallery another thousand
has gone for ever,’ said Valerie Lloyd, former curator
of the Royal Photographic Society.
of the greatest losses to Britain was the Helmut Gernsheim collection.
It was the largest private collection in the world and included
300,000 pieces of camera equipment, 150,000 prints and 12,000
books and periodicals on photography. It was collected by Gernsheim,
a naturalised Briton, who sold it in 1963 to the Harry Ransome
humanities research centre at the University of Texas.
Taylor, curator of the National Museum of Photography, Film
and Television in Bradford, is thrilled by the rescue of the
Lafayette collection. ‘Very little is known about the
19th century studios, how they were run and exactly who was
photographed. This will illuminate the people and their time.
The negatives are national treasures and it is only right they
should end up in our finest museums.’