Sudbury Hall NT

Sudbury Hall NT

The Photography Collection – Is a picture worth a thousand words?

As we work through the online catalogue, the objects are ordered alphabetically by the original number they were each given.  These past few weeks we have reached records that have a number beginning with a ‘P’ and that means; photographs! As we edit each record, and try to fill in as much information as we can it gets a person thinking; how much can an unidentified photograph tell us? And is a picture indeed worth a thousand words?

Photography as the process we would recognise today, really stems from the 1820’s when images began to be captured and fixed in various ways to make them last. In the 1840’s William Fox Talbot had refined the ‘calotype’ process which fixed an image as a negative.  In fact his 1835 print of the Oriel window at fellow National Trust property Lacock Abbey is the oldest known negative in existence. Photographs during this period were all monochrome, or black and white, and it continued to dominate even once colour film became available, most likely due to its lower cost.

So what about the photographs in the Museum of Childhood’s collection? Much of what we have fits into the ‘portraiture’ category. Where families and individuals were keen to have an image made of themselves taken in a studio setting, Most of them have been part of the collection since before the National Trust took over their care, and very few give any clues as to who their subjects are. Or even explain the composition for the photographs. Why for example was this little boy posing with a violin? Is it even his own, or just a handy photographers prop?

Child holding Violin

Photograph of a child holding a violin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Was it hoped that this little boy was going to show some sporting prowess, could this have been the young Fred Perry!?

 

Boy with tennis rachet

Boy with tennis rachet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/663773

Some photographs give just a glimpse that allows us to understand them a little better and can open up a door to a whole world we didn’t know existed. These perfectly typical images of school children at the turn of the 20th century are revealed, thanks to some very faint writing at the bottom of one, to be of the ‘Railway Servants Orphanage,Derby’

 

 http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/663791

 

Gym class at the Railway Servants Orphanage

Gym class at the Railway Servants Orphanage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little further research reveals that the orphanage was founded in 1875 to care for the children of railway men killed on duty. Who could have imagined that such a place existed, or needed to in an era when we think only of railways as the finest form of transport?

 

Railway Servants Orphanage

Railway Servants Orphanage

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perhaps photographs do offer us a thousand words, but those words are up to us the viewer to interpret. It can be frustrating not to know the names of the people, and what their story was, but that is part of what is also wonderful about working with collections. We can gain just as much enjoyment from guessing at the answers to the questions these pictures raise, as knowing them outright. The photograph is just the title of the story; the rest of it is up to us.

Laura

 

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