History of Art and Design lecturer Dr Harriet Atkinson story of how a long lost photo album made its back to her was featured on R4.
The story started when Harriet received an email from a stranger who had found her via her university profile. She said she owned something that might be of interest. Twenty years ago, she had collected old photo albums and had one containing over 500 photos covering six decades from the 1920s to the 1980s – and she thought some of the most recent photos were of me.
“It was immediately clear from her description that this was an album created by my grandmother, which covered her whole adult life” Harriet says, “She was born in London in 1901 and went on to study at the Slade School of Fine Art before travelling the world as an artist, then settling in North Yorkshire.”
Harriet and the finder of the album – Bridget McKenzie – told their story on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live on 23 April, revealing some of the striking details that helped bring a poignant and inspiring collection of pictures back to the family featured in them.
The album’s return to Harriet and her family required impressive detective work by Bridget, who had bought the album two decades before on eBay to provide material for artistic projects – which, in one of a series of striking coincidences, is a key area in Harriet’s research on everyday material culture and photography at University of Brighton’s Centre for Design History.
Another coincidence was the fact that Bridget – founding Director of Climate Museum UK – had studied at the University of Brighton as a postgraduate.
Drawing on skills acquired during her career as artist, historian and cultural leader, Bridget did some digging and arrived at a hunch that one of the many children pictured in the album might be Harriet – who was also the only one of almost a dozen members of the family pictured with a publicly available email. The two women then discovered they lived quite close by – prompting Harriet to jump on a train to go to meet Bridget and pick up the album.
Speaking about her first dip into her long-lost family photographic history, Dr Atkinson – Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Brighton – said: “I started to look, and there was a trip to Quebec, Boston and New York in 1927, my grandmother’s first car, an early picture of my grandfather – then, one-by-one the arrival of four children including my mother in 1935. Plus trips to the seaside at Frinton and Bexhill, sledging in winter and swimming in the local river in summer.
“The great mystery is how my family ever let such a wonderful record go! But it’s back now, after over 20 years away, and looked after so carefully and thoughtfully by its custodian during that time. I couldn’t be happier.”
After barely a week with the album, it is already sparking new connections for Harriet. “Various interesting things have happened including a PhD student at University of Sussex sending me loads of new information about my grandmother’s art work and exhibitions, which I didn’t know anything about before,” she says. “I’m beginning to think I should write a book about her, as a way of exploring women artists emerging in the 1920s and 1930s in Britain, and weave in this serendipitous starting point….”