Cyanotyping the Family Snaps

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Jayne Knight, doctoral candidate in the history of photography, offers inspirational tips on how to keep researching while staying at home.

As a PhD student researching popular photography at the National Science and Media Museum, I have been finding ways to stay connected to my research from home while the collections I am researching are closed. Seeking the silver lining during the enforced lockdown, I have been making the most of the glorious sunshine in the garden by cyanotyping. This has involved digging out the family snaps to give them a new lease of life.

Fig.1. Members of my famiy in indigo blue. Photograph by Jayne Knight, images taken from family negatives.

Cyanotyping has always been a hobby of mine. As a process discovered by scientist and astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1842, I have been continually inspired by the beautifully detailed indigo blue prints of Anna Atkins. Using light to impress botanical specimens and negatives on chemically treated paper retains its charm, time after time. Inspired by my current research into the history of the snapshot photograph, I decided to dig out the cyanotype chemicals and do something with a box of negatives.

Some time ago I gasped in horror at the prospect of a precious box of old photographic negatives being disposed of. My Grandad claimed they had “no further use.” While he has done a wonderful job preserving the family snaps – aged 96 he can still recall the story behind many of them – as a photo historian, I wanted to breathe new life into the negatives.

Fig.2. The box of negatives. Photograph by Jayne Knight.

Assorted in age, size and condition, the negatives are indiscriminately kept in their original processing envelopes, still revealing many details of their material history (Fig.2). Some negatives were printed and ended up in the family photo albums but others seem never to have been printed at all despite being designed for reproduction. One box, containing thousands of negatives, presents bountiful opportunities for cyanotype printing.

Many of the negatives were from the interwar period, when industry giants such as Kodak successfully put cameras in the hands of many. Typical Kodak customers, my Nan’s family took their ‘Brownie’ camera to the seaside, on family holidays, and captured weddings, fun in the garden and wartime farewells. It was a selection of these interwar negatives that I chose to print.

Fig.3. The negatives exposing on chemically sensitised paper. Photograph by Jayne Knight.

Assembling my negatives on chemically-prepared paper, I secured them in a frame. Placing them out in the sun, I watched them expose (Fig.3). Rinsing off the prints in a tray, the emergence of the positive image filled me with joy. Hanging them to dry, the image strengthens in colour, becoming fixed for permanence (Fig.4).

Fig.4. Just exposed and hung to dry. A selection of snaps of my Nan, Grandad, Aunt and my Dad as a child. Photography by Jayne Knight, images taken from family negatives.

In many cases it is the first time that the images have been seen as a positive print. Details unnoticed in the negative come to light. Tonal qualities, in shades of indigo, give the print depth . Printing the positive image brings me closer to the moment captured by the photographer. Fashions, seaside locations and long lost relatives come to life. This will not be the last of the negatives’ revival. When lockdown is lifted, I will take the cyanotype prints to my Grandad to find out the stories behind them and to remind him that an old negative will always have a use.

I am fortunate that my area of research, popular photography, is embedded into everyday life. Photography exists in the home, from family photo albums and shoe boxes of prints and negatives to thousands of digital files and social media inputs. Inspiration is plentiful.

The Importance of Being Serious?* A Stevengraph of William Ewart Gladstone

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Maria Paganopoulou, MA History of Design and Material Culture, shares her research on a Victorian textile political portrait.

As a part of the MA module, Exploring Objects, students are required to select an item from the Dress and Textile History Teaching Collection at the University of Brighton. The task is to uncover its original history and to provide further interpretation. Since my knowledge of dress theory was still scarce at the point I undertook the module, I went for an object for which my background studies in the history of arts and crafts had already prepared me. This object was a framed silk image, a Stevengraph, depicting the British Prime Minister from 1868-1994, William Ewart Gladstone (fig.1)

1. The front of the Stevengraph (left) and its reverse (right). Stevens Company, Right Hn. W. E. Gladstone, Silk Picture, The Dress and Textile History Teaching Collection, University of Brighton, Photograph by Maria Paganopoulou, October 2019.

For the uninitiated, Stevengraphs were popular mid-nineteenth-century silk images, produced on a Jacquard loom which enabled multiple reproduction. Their name derives from their inventor, Thomas Stevens. Due to their mass production, I was able to locate a sibling to the Dress Collection example in Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry.

The Stevengraph was extremely visually interesting to me as it seemed to combine contradictory elements of seriousness and playfulness. Gladstone’s sombre expression, woven in black and white, was combined with sparkling threads and colourful flowers. These seemed incongruous, even comic.

My mystery object became less mysterious when I explored existing scholarship, such as that of Geoffrey Godden, who has comprehensively investigated the original contexts for Stevengraphs as a specific Victorian category of decorative objects. Stevengraphs were also used as a case study by anthropologist Michael Thompson in his 1979 book, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Thompson amusingly thanks Godden for relieving him ‘of the tedious task of having to collect most of the historical data before analyzing them’.

2. J. Russell & Sons, The Right Hon. William Ewart Gladstone, c. 1880, albumen cabinet card, National Portrait Gallery: Photographs Collection Database, April 2020 © National Portrait Gallery

My first step in Stevengraph data gathering and analysis was to locate my object in space and time. Stevens’ company was based in Coventry and according to Godden’s rigorous dating method, based on fonts and frames, the birth of my object took place in that town between 1889-1891. As the image prepared for the loom was most likely not drawn from life, my next step was to search for its visual source.

After lengthy research in the digitised collections of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), I was able to locate the original image, a nineteenth-century photographic cabinet card (fig.2). The striking similarity between the photograph and the Stevengraph did not leave much room for doubt and the interplay between the two nineteenth-century technologies, photography and mechanical loom, prompted me to find out more connections between them.

3. William Thomas Brande, Antoine Claudet and Michael Faraday, half plate daguerreotype, c. 1846, National Portrait Gallery: Photographs Collection Database, April 2020 © National Portrait Gallery

After examining previous types of photography in the online catalogue of the NPG and various books dedicated to the subject, I discovered many similarities in the way that photographs and silk images were framed. The bell shape of the frame can be found supporting various kinds of early photographs, including Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes (fig. 3) and also later cabinet cards.

Furthermore, the way that Stevengraphs were framed has affinities to cabinet cards kept in albums (fig. 4), suggesting a similar use and display. It is evident then, that although made in silk, a luxurious material often associated with fashions to be worn on the body, Stevengraphs were produced and framed to be visually consumed, as with parallel display patterns in photography.

4. Framed Cabinet Cards, Four Reproduction in Asa Briggs, A Victorian Portrait: Victorian Life and Values as seen through the Eyes of the Work of Studio Photographers, London, Cassell, 1989, pp. 18-19 (upper), 82-83 (down). Print

The time had come to investigate my initial excitement about the Stevengraph’s apparent contradictions. I learned that seriousness in the sitter was not surprising in the period. Indeed, it is not usual to find smiles in Victorian photographs. Smiling in photographs is a cultural convention established in the twentieth century due to the popularisation of informal photography by Kodak.

In addition, although politicians today brand themselves as approachable and even light-hearted, in nineteenth-century England seriousness was expected in the political arena. Nevertheless, humour had a distinct place in Victorian politics, with a special class-specific aspect especially reserved for mocking those of a non-aristocratic descent. Gladstone, having mercantile origins, was frequently lampooned by fellow politicians and cartoonists (fig. 5). It has been argued that his political persona was based on being consistent and serious as a way of refuting such attacks. This seriousness was also reflected to the way he styled himself when being photographed.

5. Harry Furniss, William Ewart Gladstone, pen and ink, 1880s-1900s, National Portrait Gallery: Primary Collection Database, April 2020 © National Portrait Gallery

As far as the other side of my seeming paradox is concerned, namely the colorful flowers of the image, they lost some of their playfulness when I learned that they are the official symbols of England (rose) and Scotland (thistle) respectively. Gladstone was half Scottish and had run a successful campaign in the Scottish province of Midlothian. It may even have been that this campaign gave rise to the production of objects depicting Gladstone in the first place.

This brought me to the matter of the object’s consumption. Stevens’ marketing strategy for his silk pictures promoted technological innovation as their main selling point. No explicit reference was made in advertisements to their visual subject matter. As a result, I had to turn to other sources. What emerged from further research was Gladstone’s carefully cultivated popularity, especially in the context of the Midlothian campaign which is considered to be one of the first modern political campaigns.

Popular admiration for Gladstone resulted in the production of an abundance of objects carrying his likeness, from figurines to printed plates (fig. 6). His popularity has been described as equivalent to a cult. This provides a framework for understanding why the Stevengraph might have been purchased and how it might have been used. It may have been bought to express admiration, and may have been placed in a photographic or souvenir album amidst other beloved political and public figures, whose likenesses were also issued.

6. Gladstone Plate, porcelain, in Asa Briggs, “Victorian Images of Gladstone”, in Peter J. Jagger (ed.), Gladstone London, Hambledon Press, 1998, pp. 3. Print

To conclude, the range of research directions that a single object can open up was far more than I had first anticipated. The variety is what made the research fascinating. Stevengraphs existed in a wide network of objects and people, the study of which opened new windows for me into Victorian visual culture, design and politics.

*My title refers to the article by Joseph S. Meisel (1999), ‘The importance of being serious: The unexplored connection between Gladstone and humour’, History 84:274, pp.278-300.

For more information about Stevengraphs, see Herbert  Art Gallery and Museum: https://www.theherbert.org/collections/social_and_industrial_history/18/stevengraphs

Website featuring ‘all known silk bookmarks, silk pictures and silk postcards manufactured since 1862’: http://www.stevengraph-silks.com/

The Stranger Within: Challenging Roma stereotypes in the museum

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Lisa Hinkins, MA Curating Collection and Heritage student, Brighton Museum and Gallery Explainer and artist, describes her input into a recent inclusive museum project.

The British Gypsy could be viewed as the stranger within, or as German sociologist Georg Simmel has put it, a ‘stranger in society from elsewhere’.[1] As a people who settled among other inhabitants, they have frequently been treated with suspicion and ignorance as they have been represented an exotic other that was difficult for many to understand.

Fig. 1. ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’, Royal Pavilion & Museums Collection.
Queer the Pier exhibition, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

To address such ignorance the Queer the Pier (QTP) curatorial team wanted to utilise Brighton Museum & Art Gallery’s ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ in their 2020 exhibition in the Museum’s Spotlight Gallery. As the Community Curator leading research and content for queer Roma inclusion, I collaborated with internationally-acclaimed Roma artist Delaine Le Bas, academic Dr Lucie Fremlova, LGBTIQ+ artists and workshop participants. Applying the theoretical framework of intersectionality  –  an understanding of the interrelationships between queer, Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities  –  the participants created responses that challenge stereotypes and discrimination across these interconnected social categories.

I had the privilege to work on this project due to my own Romany heritage. My great-grandmother, Rhoda Wells [1897-1982], was a Romany Gypsy living in the New Forest, Hampshire. She met and eventually married my great-grandfather, Ralph Cuttriss Hinkins [1882-1952], when he and his father, my great-great-grandfather, Francis Robert ‘Frank’ Hinkins [1852-1934] befriended the Gypsy families. They spent many years periodically travelling with the Gypsies across the South of England. Many of the Hinkins clan were appalled by Frank and Ralph. It resulted in a distancing within family circles. Frank was a photographer and illustrator. In 1915, father and son published the book Romany Life: experienced and observed during many years of friendly intercourse with the Gypsies under the nom de plume Frank Cuttris. This book is still available, published by Echo Library. The Keep, Sussex’s historical repository, holds three lantern slides attributed to Frank, all c.1915, of portraits of travelling people.

Decolonisation of objects in museums is imperative to inclusion. The LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsy and Traveller workshop collaboration sought to re-interpret the museum’s problematic Victorian ‘Gipsy Fortune Telling Machine’ (Fig.1). The object perpetuated a stereotype of Roma culture through the style of the human figure and through the misspelling of ‘Gipsy’ with an ‘i’ not a ‘y’. Reaching out to a continually-persecuted community, participants were welcomed into a safe space within the museum to produce drawn and written responses to the machine. A theme emerged with colourful images reflecting the Romani flag, the Rainbow flag and the use of positive language. Romani, the Roma language, has filtered through Cockney English and the queer subcultural language of Polari. Familiar words clobber (clothes), minge (vagina) and chavi (child/friend, now used as a derogatory term) originate from Romani, Cant or Argot languages.

Fig. 2. Fortune Telling Card by Delaine Le Bas. Queer the Pier exhibition. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.
Photograph by Lisa Hinkins.

Developing ideas from the workshop, Delaine Le Bas (Fig. 2) created beautiful contemporary fortune cards with positive messages (£1 in the slot, a card is yours). In her words, ‘Fortune Telling is an intimate form of communication between people; it requires close contact physically and mentally in its true form.’ She continues, ‘for me in particular coming from such a demonised community I refuse to respond in a negative way.’

I edited the accompanying free zine that addresses stereotypes. It includes the following statement: “Gypsiness” is a term to describe the phenomenon of dissociation where over time Gypsy identity becomes abstracted and separated from the people themselves. Through images and literature, the dominant culture dictates the representation of a marginal group, in this case Gypsies. Stereotypes of Gypsy women have been perpetuated by figures such as Vita Sackville-West, who invented Romany ancestry for herself on her Spanish side of her family to explain her ‘bohemian behaviour’ (lesbian lovers).

Dr Lucie Fremlova’s postdoctoral collaboration with LGBTIQ+ Roma Artists has produced powerful images that break down and challenge the dominant representation of queer Roma people. Photographs created during a one-week workshop in Brighton were printed in the zine. An image of one of the Roma artists by the Palace Pier’s current ‘Zoltar Fortune Telling Machine’ accompanies the text for the Victorian machine. It is a powerful reminder that stereotypes are still interlaced with contemporary arcade amusements.

Delaine Le Bas pays tribute in the zine to her Uncle Eddie who moved to Brighton in the mid-1960s with his partner Peter. She acknowledges that their lives had not been easy being Romani and gay, but Delaine states that Eddie and Peter taught her the importance of being yourself and that love should be unconditional.

City-based organisation Friends, Families and Travellers is a leading national charity that works on behalf of all Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. They provided support and contacts for this project. This led to contact with Roma poet Lois Brookes-Jones who beautifully weaved Romani and English words into a poem expressing lesbian desire especially for the zine.

It is my sincere hope that this project engagement with LGBTIQ+ Roma, Gypsies and Travellers will help counter suspicion and ignorance towards ‘strangers within’. Brighton museum staff were fantastically supportive in encouraging an ignored community through its doors. A final thought: is it not ironic that a people so rich in its own creative arts, music and culture has never been fully appreciated within the institutions that claim to be custodians of our material culture? Perhaps we have an opportunity now to address that.

[1] Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers, Insiders, Outsiders and Others: Gypsies and Identity (Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2008).