On the importance of overhead cables in a photograph

From the National Library of New Zealand‘s Flickr account, a rather striking shot of a building in Wellington, taken in 1940:

Photographer: Gordon Burt, Alexander Turnbull Library, Reference: 1/2-036769-G

Here is the brand new MLC building at the corner of Lambton Quay and Hunter Street, photographed in 1940. It is from the negatives and prints of Gordon Burt, one of Wellington’s best-known commercial photographers. He was determined to show the building in all its art deco glory. In the real world overhead wires and cables criss-crossed in front of the camera, but on this print Burt has painstakingly retouched them out of existence.

I was interested to read that the ubiquitous overhead tram cables that run throughout downtown Wellington had been edited out of this image – if you click through to the Flickr page and view it larger, you can easily see where this has been done. And while I agree that it does make it easier to focus on the building’s proud frontage, I can’t help but feel slightly queasy about the removal of something so obvious.

But that’s just me; I love lines and silhouettes in photographs – and overhead cables bring a lot of that to an image. Often when I’m out and about, an image can be framed, or divided up, by some previously unnoticed cables. Other times, the unique arrangement of cables against a solid coloured sky can make the image itself. Even the latticed windows of my bedroom make for a beautiful composition against the right cloudscape.

I remember at least one example where I’d taken a photograph of a particularly nice sunset out of the back of my home in Manchester. Criss-crossing the image are the collection of telegraph cables that proliferate in such a densely populated residential area as this. For me, it made an image where the primary feature was swathes of colour a little more dynamic and interesting – the thick black lines against the bright colours of a fiery sunset made for a wonderful contrast.

Or so I thought.

The image ended up on my Manchester Daily Photo blog, and although I can’t remember it exactly, one of the comments left by a site visitor said words to the effect of “Lovely sunset, shame about the wires ruining it though.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. One man’s defining feature in a photograph can be another man’s distraction. And I quite like that.

Oddly enough, my mother was quick to jump in to the comments and defend the presence of the wires, saying she felt that they made the image. That must be where I get it from…

Incidentally, I’d show you the image I mean, but my Flickr account is currently in a somewhat dormant state as my subscription fees have expired for the first time in six years. This means my 12,000-odd photographs are ‘hidden’, with only the latest 200 showing. I will get around to renewing it when I can though, of course.

Donations welcome…!

A tour of Chetham’s library

The other day, I and some folks from CILIP North West were treated to a tour of Chetham’s library, situated between Urbis and Manchester Cathedral. I must admit I didn’t know a great deal about Chetham’s beforehand, other than that it is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world, and some other little titbits that can be summarised as it being a very old, very beautiful library.

Being a fan of such things, I jumped at the chance, even leaving a riveting lecture on organisational culture early. My lecturer decided to spend five minutes telling an anecdote about a previous job and I just happened to have to leave part way through her story. Satisfying.

The stroll I took through the city to get to the library was very enjoyable in its own right; Manchester was cold and crisp, with the late afternoon sun casting long shadows and throwing a golden hue onto whichever surfaces were tall enough to catch it. The Christmas Markets had opened that day in and around Albert Square, and it was lovely to have a quick look as I went past.

 

It reminded me that Manchester is a wonderful city at this time of year. Sure, it gets as busy and suffocating as any shopping city in the run-up to Christmas, but everything else is just very enjoyable.

I got to the library just in time to say hello, and to confirm if I could take photographs inside.

 

The tour was very entertaining and enjoyable. Our guide struck a nice balance between being informative and amusing, and never veered into boring territory. He seemed proud of the collections, and had many quips and stories pertaining to old traditions, the library’s place alongside the School of Music, and Manchester in general – as well as his mild obsession with books dealing with death.

The place oozes history. You can’t walk down a hallway or glance at shelving or sit on a chair without feeling its many centuries of age. So many of the fixtures and fittings are either original or merely very old. Indeed, very little of the library is ‘modern’, and the whole place has a very satisfying consistency in terms of decor and style. We were told, in fact, that a lot of the furniture spans many hundreds of years in styles, but it still all looks appropriate.

 

We were told many interesting things about the ‘mechanics’ of the place: for example that the books are mostly sorted in size order for reasons of practicality. One librarian attempted to get the collections sorted in Dewey order, but for a library of this kind, such an effort is futile.

 

The library is very dark inside. Old lead-lighted and stained glass windows offer an eery, pleasing light – but at levels far below that necessary for reading and writing. Indeed, even with the aid of electric light, it wasn’t hard to imagine visiting the library a century or more ago – nor to understand how in the winter months all those years ago, the library would usually close around 2pm.

 

Of interest to many was the staggering list of names of its users through the past. Karl Marx was a particular highlight, with his favourite location being easily identifiable, and that ever-present connection with the past making it so believable and alive.

A personal highlight was talk of the Leech collection, a vast archive of diaries, scrapbooks and photographs spanning a couple of hundred years of one family. There is a staggering amount of material held on this family, and it’s a wonderful resource. With my personal university project on how and why we keep diaries, I was especially fascinated to hear more about it.

It was a lovely tour and I’m glad I’ve finally been able to visit the place. It turns out you can just pop in any time, but it was especially good to be given a guided tour by someone so knowledgable and enthusiastic.

For more information on visiting Chetham’s library (and a lot more), head over to their website: http://www.chethams.org.uk/visiting.html

You can see some more of the photographs I took on my tour in this Flickr photoset.

In praise of Charles Paget Wade

I never properly rounded-up my time at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust, where I spent five weeks this summer. The last few weeks were very busy, and as soon as I had stopped there, I got stuck into another new project. In short, I guess I never fully rounded it up in my head either.
This is all part of a much wider feeling of placelag, a term I’ve come to use more often, and one which rather aptly encompasses how I’ve felt for most of this summer.

But what I want to tell you about today is a man named Charles Paget Wade.

As part of my work at the Trust this summer, I was collating research on some of Hampstead Garden Suburb’s more prolific architects. The plan is to produce some rather neat little monographs on a handful of them, complete with timelines and photographs and drawings of their work. Some preliminary research had been done by Trust staff, and it was my job to bring it all together, fill in any gaps, and write something rather more readable than mere bullet points and dates.

I was honoured to be given this task, and I think I gave it my best shot, completing draft monographs on the lives and work of architects Michael Frank Wharlton Bunney, Cecil George Butler and Courtenay Melville Crickmer.

But what I found really enjoyable was raking through all the gathered research on these men; delving into their world and finding contemporary resources to back up what they did.

My time on the reference desk at Chesham Study Centre (and my general in-built nerdiness) means I have a thirst for such information, and a small but useful repertoire of places to go looking for it. Along with online resources, I also had access to the Trust’s own archive of maps and books.

In one of these books, Raymond Unwin’s seminal Town Planning in Practice (read online at archive.org), I found a map of the Suburb. A fairly decorative map dating from 1909, it contained not just the roads and place names, but also little illustrations of buildings dotted around the area, and small doodles of historic events that took place nearby.

I was taken in by its combination of simplicity and complexity; its informative yet childish style. The doodles were silly and unnecessary, yet the map didn’t lack attention to detail.

I noticed, in the bottom corner, the artist’s mark:
The map can be viewed in full at the Trust website, here.

Something about his turn of phrase – “Charles Wade made me” – urged me to find out more about this Wade fellow, and fortunately I was in the right place. Not only was the rest of Town Planning in Practice illustrated by him, but I had access to plenty more books he had collaborated on, and I was able to ask David Davidson, the Trust’s architectural adviser about him too.

Before long, I had a figurative rough sketch of Charles Paget Wade – one he could have penned himself. “A very strange man,” David told me, who liked to dress up and who had a very childlike nature his whole life.

Another of Wade’s signatures on a different map ran, poetically: “On winter’s nights Charles Wade made me, in solitude in his upper room, in nineteen hundred and nine AD, at the Vale of Temple Fortune.”

(It’s worth mentioning here, too, that Wade’s peculiar turn of phrase helped inspire the name of my girlfriend’s craft enterprise: Lisa Made Me.)

The more I found out about Wade, the more I wanted to know. It turns out he was an architect as well as a book illustrator (and more), with a handful of works on the Suburb itself. I managed to combine some photographic surveys I was conducting with visiting some examples of his work, and I used any downtime I had to read more about him online.

It turns out that Wade was an architect for only a few years, instead concentrating on illustrating several books with his distinctive drawings, and building up a collection that would become his life’s work. Whilst at war in 1917, and having inherited his family’s fortune of a sugar plantation on St Kitts, Wade stumbled on an advert for a run-down manor house in the Cotswolds which he went on to buy.

The house was, Wade said, ” in the most deplorable state of ruin and neglect, but had not been spoilt with modern additions,” and he proceeded to fill it with items he had collected over the years.

He was a real magpie of a chap, with an eye for the exotic; he picked up items from antique dealers all over the country, anything that exhibited great craftsmanship. He lived next to the manor house in a small cottage, giving the larger building over to house his eccentric, growing collection. He welcomed guests, clearly enjoying the items being seen and enjoyed by others – and using the strange collection to live a rather unusual, somewhat theatrical life. When Queen Mary visited in 1937, it is said she thought Wade himself ‘the most remarkable part of the collection’. (From Jonathan Howard’s essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available here.)

Wade gave Snowshill Manor over to the National Trust some years before his death in 1956, and it has been looked after by them ever since. A massive restoration project took place in 2004 on the house and its collections, taking care to reproduce the ambience and presentation Wade had painstakingly created.

I’m still in the early stages of my quest for more information about Wade. Luckily it seems that as well as illustrating for most of his life, he also kept scores of notebooks and diaries. I have ordered a copy of his memoirs, and a visit to Snowshill Manor is on the cards when I get the time. (National Trust website here.)

© National Trust

Whilst he remains something of an enigma to me, a handful of quotes about Wade (found here) only go to further cement my belief that he’s a fascinating chap, and one I want to know more and more about:

J B Priestley said of Wade:

“He was, in fact, one of the last of a famous company, the eccentric English country gentry, the odd and delightful fellows who have lived just as they pleased, who have built follies, held fantastic beliefs, and laid mad wagers…”

A visitor to Snowshill in the 1920s said:

“with his slightly sinister sense of humour… he would sit as still as a waxwork till one saw him, or to my terror as a child, he would leap out from the parted flames of the fire with his grey hair streaming…”

And finally, in Some Country Houses by James Lees-Milne

“With his old wax complexion, angular features and sharp nose, his presence was daunting. He admitted to Lutyens that he loved toys and had never grown up. He had a child’s insatiable wonder and curiosity. A tassel to him was an object deserving intense scrutiny and examination. How was it made, and of what, and by whom, and for what purpose?'”

It’s that kind of curiosity and nerdiness that I absolutely love. So here’s to the eccentric and obsessive Charles Paget Wade.

Drinking coffee in the girls’ school staffroom

On Wednesday this week, I and some of my colleagues at the Trust had the pleasure of visiting Henrietta Barnett School, the prestigious girls’ grammar school located on Hampstead Garden Suburb’s Central Square. Formerly The Institute, the school is in a beautiful 100-year-old building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which overlooks the Central Square’s two churches and a wonderful arrangement of flowerbeds and trees, all also originally designed by Lutyens.

The school has recently had a brand-new wing added, designed by Hopkins, and we were pleased to be given a brief tour by the school’s deputy head.

We were visiting the school for Lauren Geisler to deliver a lecture to the year 7s about the Suburb, with regards to its geography, architecture, and to its founder, Henrietta Barnett – the school’s namesake.

Lauren’s talk was well-received by the 90-odd girls aged 11-12, and if the enthusiastic question-and-answer session that followed was anything to go by, I’d say it was a great success. Questions after a talk are interesting and often quite revealing – about the nature of the audience, and the kinds of topics that were picked up on. Some of the girls were intrigued as to the Trust’s (and Barnet’s) powers to restrict building work deemed unsatisfactory, and about where the money for the Suburb came from in the first place.

But the best question had to be from the girl who queried: if Henrietta Barnett was “kind of… sort of… well, dead,” then why such care and attention was spent on keeping the Suburb as she had first devised it more than 100 years ago. An amusing way of putting it, but a salient point (one of many, in fact) which highlighted the need for such educational and informative outreach activities from the Trust, in and around the Suburb.

It was heartening to see the girls being so receptive of their school’s ‘architecture day’; when the deputy head flashed up a few examples of innovative school buildings recently erected around the capital, gasps of awe and delight could be heard. I hope it also helped them to further appreciate their own building – not just the original part, but the innovative new extension.

As a new extension to a beautiful old building in a protected conservation area, it was bound to attract controversy. But in my opinion, the work was done to such a high standard, and in a way which compliments Lutyens’ original, that the result is a harmonious union of new and old. The new build houses state-of-the-art drama and music equipment, including a music room that looked more like an IT suite, replete as it is with wall-to-wall iMacs, and several soundproofed practise and rehearsal spaces.

It all made me feel like I’d left school thousands of years ago; I remember us getting our first proper IT rooms in secondary school, which were to replace the handful of computers dotted around other classrooms. I can still remember using green-screen BBC computers in the middle of primary school, even.

After a warm welcome, an engaging tour, and a very successful lecture, it was time to split the girls into groups for a Suburb walking tour. We wanted to point out some of the areas of interest that Lauren had brought up, and it became clear that although these girls go to school on the Suburb, few of them were aware of its significance.

The nature of the school’s selective intake policy means that many of the pupils (and staff) don’t live on the Suburb, being bussed and driven in from surrounding boroughs and counties. It was therefore a great opportunity to show them some of the architectural and geographical oddities and attractions quite literally on their doorstep.

Split up into more manageable-sized groups, the girls were led around a circular walk by various Trust staff and volunteers, along with some of their teachers. Luckily for me, I wasn’t in charge of a group and merely tagged along with one led by Ruth Ash. I was ready to jump in if I could, but fortunately my main tasks were ferrying the girls across the busier roads and just enjoying the tour myself.

The walk was good fun, and it was again interesting to hear what the girls had picked up on. Some were asking about a house featured in one of the Harry Potter films, while others were more impressed by the number and value of several sports cars in the driveway of a certain television personality. One girl was driven to ask about the Trust’s policy on dog mess removal – after finding a rather unholy amount on one section of pavement.

It was a short-ish walk, but a good length and enough to introduce some of the varied architecture and sights available. The girls returned to school for lunch and another talk, this time from a Hopkins architect (I rather wish I could’ve stayed for that one myself!), while the staff sloped back to the Trust office to see what lay in store for our Wednesday afternoon.

As an exercise in promoting not only the Suburb but also the invaluable work the Trust does to preserve it – along with it being a fun and informative morning – I’d say it was a huge success. Lessons were learnt, too, and it’s all useful experience for similar events in the future, such as Open House.

For me personally, it was yet another in a long line of interesting, unique opportunities that working with the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust has offered me; drinking coffee in a school staffroom is something I’d never done before – let alone in a girls’ school!

My Trusty summer job

As you may know, I’m working again this summer at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust. I was there last summer for four weeks, and they’ve kindly asked to have me back again this summer for another five.

After my second day back at the Trust, I thought I’d take a moment to write an update about my time there so far.

Well, the first couple of days have sadly been marred somewhat by me feeling under the weather with a bit of a cold. That can’t be helped though, and being ill rarely comes with good timing. Luckily I’ve been treated gently by the familiar faces who seem happy to have me back, and I’ve had some time to reacquaint myself with not just the Trust office, but with the history of Hampstead Garden Suburb itself. It’s a fascinating place, and everywhere you turn there are names, dates and documents to investigate. For someone like me, it’s a joy.

Touching on social history, cartography, town planning, design and much more, everything associated with the Suburb seems fascinating to me. Although the Trust obviously also deals with rather more mundane issues such as road re-surfacing and solving disputes with residents, it all forms a whole which stands for preserving the Suburb for future generations to enjoy it in the same way as it has been for the past century.

While those aforementioned more routine tasks take place around me, I’ve been left to explore photographs, documents and information pertaining to all aspects of the Suburb. As with daily life at the Trust office, already my primary tasks have changed, and I have spent most of my time poring over images for inclusion in a very important document – the Design Guidance.

Last updated in 1994, the Design Guidance document (available in its current, revised 2010 edition here) details, as much as possible, what sort of architectural work is allowed to take place on the Suburb. It lists adaptations that residents are likely to want to make (such as extensions or replacement windows and doors), and gives examples of how best to achieve these while keeping the building in sync with the rest of the area. With such a well-preserved collection of some 5,000 buildings, it’s vital to ensure that the right methods and materials are being used, and that the fabric and look of individual buildings doesn’t change too much. Only by doing so can the Suburb hope to remain as beautiful as it always has been.

As well as selecting images to illustrate the Design Guidance document, I’ve been finding out about a walking tour which will take place tomorrow, taking  a hundred Year 7 students on a walk around the centre of the Suburb. The students are from the girls’ grammar school on the Suburb’s Central Square, The Henrietta Barnett School, named after the amazing woman who first devised the Suburb a hundred years ago. Lauren Geisler will be delivering a lecture about the Suburb with regards to its geography and, along with various Trust staff and volunteers, I’ll be assisting in taking smaller groups on the walk itself.

I hope I can get rid of this blasted cold soon, but meanwhile I’m still getting used to the commute and life in a 9-5 job. It’s a bit of a change from the last few months of my life, I’ll tell you that.