Photographic surveys of British history


Times Gone By: A Photographic Record of Great Britain 1856-1956, by John Gaisford (ed.)

Looking Back at Britain: Peace and Prosperity, 1860s, by Brian Moynahan


Times Gone By: A Photographic Record of Great Britain 1856-1956, by John Gaisford (ed.)

This large-format book, published in 1977, contains over 250 black and white photographs from the Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, with a short introduction and minimal captions.  Photographers are not credited.  The dates may seem arbitrary but the idea was to run from the height of Empire (not to mention a time that is convenient to a compiler because of the proliferation of photography in that decade) to the year of Suez, charting changes in Britain during the course of a busy century.

The contents are divided thematically, each section running chronologically so the reader is regularly moving from the 1950s back to the 1850s.  Despite the title, not all photographs were taken in Britain.  The first section is on ‘Royalty and Empire’, which includes scenes in Egypt, Australia, India and South Africa.  Further sections cover transport, industry, agriculture, leisure, home and family, politics, wartime, body and soul (a miscellaneous category covering such topics as education, medicine, marriage, death and religion) and entertainment.  As is typical in such compilations, there is a mix of the famous and ordinary people, showing the different classes at work and play in town and country.

As well as snapshots in time within the book, the volume itself represents a snapshot in time of the Radio Times Hulton Picture Library.  The Hulton Press Library was a spin-off from Picture Post, and when that publication folded in 1957 the archive was sold to the BBC.  It was combined with the BBC’s own photographic archive, to which the corporation added other acquisitions before selling the BBC Hulton Picture Library to Brian Deutsch in 1988.  The collection is now owned by Getty Images, who have digitised their holdings.  Thus the photographs in the book can be seen online, with many others.

That provides an opportunity to compare the reproductions in the book with those in the archive from which they were drawn.  For a start the book’s captions are less informative.  I was puzzled by one image Gaisford had captioned ‘An evacuee family from London settle in with a miner’s family in the Midlands in 1945’ (p. 139).  I couldn’t imagine too many fresh evacuees leaving London as late as 1945, and indeed the Getty caption is ‘Overcrowding – 30th November 1940: Evacuees staying with a family of seven in the Midlands. Original Publication: Picture Post – 331 – Is This Just? – pub. 1940 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)’.

Many of the photographs in the book have been cropped, some marginally but others substantially.  The Glaswegian walking his greyhounds in 1939 (p. 114) has lost a large chunk of the left-hand side, making the original landscape format square.  The original caption would have been worth adding: ‘Walking the dogs – 1st April 1939: A man walking his greyhounds down a Glasgow street. Eighty-six thousand of Glasgow’s 1,119,900 population are unemployed and this figure rises when the seasonal employment at the shipyards declines. Original Publication: Picture Post – 91 – Glasgow – pub. 1939 (Photo by Humphrey Spender/Picture Post/Getty Images)’.

Further, the Getty website contains entire spreads, showing the photographs as originally presented on the page with accompanying text.  A pair of photographs on p. 115 of Times Gone By, of two women looking at a magazine at a street stall and men playing dominoes in a pub, are captioned ‘Quiet pastimes in the Elephant and Castle, South London, 1949’.  They were shot for a spread which appeared in Picture Post on 8 January 1949, titled ‘Life in the Elephant’, taken by Bert Hardy again (the Picture Post version of the magazine browsers was cropped, unlike than that reproduced in Times Gone By, though the uncropped version is also on the website ).

The Getty archivists have done a valuable job in scanning and adding comprehensive keywords to facilitate searches.  Together, the superior quality of reproduction, fuller captioning and lack of cropping of images readily available online means that Times Gone By is redundant as a source.

(28 March 2017)


Looking Back at Britain: Peace and Prosperity, 1860s, by Brian Moynahan

It is difficult to know whether to consider this 2009 volume a compilation of photographs with extensive commentary or lavishly illustrated history.  It follows the familiar Reader’s Digest approach, packaging text and images in an attractive middlebrow whole, and here they have gathered some fascinating photographs, arranged thematically, charting life in Britain in the 1860s (or thereabouts because some can only be roughly dated from internal evidence).  Brian Moynahan’s commentary and captions are clear and informative while not throwing up any surprises.  He emphasises that it was a time of solid national progress, albeit at different speeds regionally, free from the political and military convulsions that were gripping the Continent and North America and before substantial competition from abroad threatened Britain’s commercial supremacy.  He mentions more than once that it was a country willing to give sanctuary to Karl Marx while remaining impervious to his ideas.

Moynahan takes a standard approach, ranging widely: Britain’s place internationally as the Empire grew, with the British ‘at home all over the world’; industry and commerce; agriculture and food; health; class; poverty; the place of women; the hard lives children often experienced; death; social reform; travel; sport and leisure; politics and political unrest (Moynahan struggles to convey in a straightforward way the complexities of electoral reform during the decade and its implications for the two parties); education; science;  religion; philanthropy; crime; architecture; the use of domestic space; and more – not least the growth and increasing sophistication of photography itself.  Obviously there is much overlap in these categories.  One topic lightly dealt with is literature, addressed only in passing.

Perhaps the ubiquity of photography so soon after its invention is indicated by the preference shown by many to look away from the camera.  Some hold the lens’s gaze, but at this early stage in the technology’s history one might have expected photography to still be a general object of curiosity.  Instead a number gaze into the distance in an echo of classical portraiture, as if disdainful of the photographer’s presence and determined to show that already they are blasé about the process.  These were people who experienced a new marvel every week, and their poses indicate that they were not easily overawed.

So, copiously illustrated historical overview or commentary-rich photography book?  The quality of many of the images, drawn from the Getty Collection, is excellent and would stand better on their own than would the text, so probably the latter.  Either way, it is a worthwhile look at a key period in British history, one in which we can see our own world being constructed.  Moynahan in his conservative-leaning narrative is clearly an admirer of the Victorians, their entrepreneurial self-sufficient individualism and their sheer versatility, and while he does not hesitate to indicate the shortcomings of their society, overall he sees them as a positive force in the progress of civilisation.

(30 December 2015)


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