The 9th East Norfolk Regiment taking the Sikh batteries and camp ‘at the point of the bayonet’ on the second day of the Battle of Ferozeshah, 21st – 22nd December 1845.  Diorama presented to the Ancient House Museum, Thetford, by the British Flat figure society.  Who knew there was a Battle of Ferozeshah?  Who knew there was a British Flat Figure Society?

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Don McCullin

I wasn’t far into the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain today before Brexit ennui and despair asserted themselves: in a world beset by state and personal violence it’s self-indulgence to flirt with nationalism and move away from cooperation.  At the end of hundreds of pictures across 18 theatres of suffering there was evidence enough of darkness as the continuing condition for too much of humankind.  A coda of still lifes and darkly romantic landscapes did little to lift my mood.

But for all its sombre tones McCullin’s retrospective was well attended by a mixed audience.  I couldn’t help but wonder why they were there; this is not an exhibition to drop into on a whim with the hope it will lift to the spirits.  Most probably a number were interested seriously in photography and the close attention given to the pictures by some proved the point.  Maybe there were other factors at play: McCullin might just qualify as a National Treasure (albeit one less cuddly than some); the recent engaging documentary on TV can’t have done any harm; and here was an opportunity to revisit with the benefit of (safe) hindsight several troubled decades.

If the latter, this poses questions about the purpose of the exhibition.  Is it about McCullin the photographer or McCullin the man who is angry with the evils and inequities in the world?  Admission to the exhibition comes with an A3+ leaflet.  The whole of one side is devoted to a timeline of conflict from 1939 to 2015, from World War II to IS and war in Syria.  The other side includes two photographs, miscellaneous information and a small block of text about the photographer – only 5% of the whole leaflet.  The exhibition is as much about conflict, poverty and loss as photography (and certainly the art of photography is relegated to the background).  McCullin never wears his profession lightly.

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U3AC Photo Forum 2018-19 17: Walkabout

Friday’s session was a practical: out and about taking photographs of ‘The Other Cambridge’.  My efforts will be revealed next week.  In the meantime, here’s a spectacular coat and umbrella spied (by me and another) on Trinity Street.  Photo: Trinity Street, Cambridge, 8th March 2019

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Chippenham Park

Walled Garden, Chippenham Park, Cambridgeshire, 6th March 2019: grass; a beech hedge with russet winter leaves; a needle-clad pine; and a naked deciduous tree.

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On Portobello Road

I found this picture when I was sorting through my files of old negatives and contact sheets the other day.  It was taken on Portobello Road, London, on 30th September 1966.  It is probably my first piece of street photography and I have no idea who the subject is.  I was quite pleased with it at the time and still think it’s not too bad, given my lack of experience.

But it’s not the photographic quality that drew me back to it and made me look at it afresh.  I had just finished reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island and by unhappy coincidence she had just died.  Looking at the boy now I wonder how he fitted into the story of the Windrush Generation.  I guess he would have been born around 1960, 12 years after the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury and likely the child of later arrivals.  How did his life unfold – did that pensive child grow into a happy and fulfilled adult?  Where is he now?

(My notes with the negative say that the photograph was taken with a Minolta Autocord on Kodak Verichrome Pan film rated 160 asa, 1/125 sec at f16, film developed in Acutol for 9 minutes at 68o.  How photography has changed!)

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Grass Tree

‘Xanthorrhoea glauca, known as the grass tree, is a large plant in the genus Xanthorrhoea, widespread in eastern Australia. The trunk can grow in excess of 5 metres tall, and may be many branched. It is occasionally seen in large communities in nutrient rich soils. The leaves are a grey or bluish glaucous green…. Aboriginal (Ngunnawal) uses: The flower spike soaked in water makes a sweet drink. The growing part of the leaf stem and the white leaf bases can be eaten. The dried flower stems form a base for fire drills when making a fire. The resin from the base of the leaves is a glue used when making weapons and axes.’  Wikipedia Photo: Botanic Garden, Cambridge, February 2019

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U3AC Photo Forum 2018-19 16: Managing a Legacy Photo Archive

On Friday Sue Fifer treated the Forum to the lively story of how she dealt with the 11,000 slides (mounted transparencies) left by her late husband.  Here are her rules.  1. Don’t put it off.  2. Do it alone.  3.  Do it a bit at a time, but over a limited period.  4. Keep the projector or whatever you are using set up.   5. Be ruthless.  6. Don’t keep multiple copies of the same thing.  7. Only keep unusual pictures of famous places.  8. Keep significant personal and family pictures.  9.  Throw out the rest.  And 11,000 became 460, a keep rate of 4%.  Ruthless indeed.

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Fen Oaks

Cambridgeshire is one of the most tree poor counties in England (apparently Surrey is the richest) and the further north one goes into the Fens so woods and hedgerows become rarer.  A few do exist and are all the more noticeable, striking even, and valuable in the flatness of the reclaimed landscape.  But it would be wrong to couch this in the language of lament and loss: historically the Fens were a land of water, marsh and carr that never quite completed the transition to forests.  ‘Bog oak’ (a mixture of largely oak, pine, yew and other species), still ploughed occasionally from the peat, is evidence of substantial trees in the past, not unlike the fine oaks around Rampton Woods.

Photo: Rampton, Cambridgeshire, February 2019

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Discus Thrower

The Greek gods were a vengeful and devious lot: Prometheus was chained to a rock while a vulture pecked out his liver; Tantalus was condemned to stand in water, food and drink forever out of reach; Zeus disguised himself a white bull to seduce Europa and as a swan to do the same to Leda; and Salmacis got the gods to ensure that she and Hermaphroditus would never be parted by fusing their bodies as one.  In happier piece of magic, Aphrodite gave Pygmalion a wife by bringing to life his statue of a beautiful woman.  A student, distracted by both her mobile and a Lapith woman about to be abducted by a Centaur, seems oblivious of the approaching discus thrower.

Photo: University of Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, February 2019

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Ludovisi Throne

Of the many fascinating, strange and dramatic objects in the Museum of Classical Archaeology I think the most beautiful is the relief on the Ludovisi Throne.  Probably originally part of an altar, its subject is thought to be the birth of Aphrodite. According to the myth, the goddess was born from sea foam on the beaches of Cyprus – Aphrodite’s attendants are shown standing on pebbles. However, according to the Museum’s catalogue: ‘the depiction of the birth of Aphrodite is a rare, if not unique subject in Classical art, so we cannot be sure. To show female figures semi-nude was then also unprecedented in large-scale Greek sculpture.’  The Throne was carved from Parian marble around 460 BCE; it was found in 1887 at the Villa Ludovisi, Rome. Photo: Ludovisi Throne, University of Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, February 2019

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U3AC Photo Forum 2018-19 15: Photography – Image and Identity

This topic for the Forum came out of the discovery of Foster Huntington’s The Burning House.  This posed on-line the question, ‘If your house were on fire, what would you take with you?’  Ninety one per cent of those replying included photographs in the bundle of what they would rush to gather up.  A survey by the Association of British Insurers found that photographs formed the second most important category, after money and credit cards.  These results led us to ask:  ‘How did people see themselves before photography?’ and ‘How does photography shape image and identity?’

Before photography the earliest sense of identity of self and past generations was shaped by legends, stories, rituals, inscriptions and records.  These would be complemented and reinforced by keepsakes, souvenirs, autographs and cards.  If you were wealthy enough you might have a mirror; and for the select few there were drawings and painted portraits.

Photography changed that forever.  Daguerre captured a figure on a plate in 1838-39; Robert Cornelius took the first photographic self-portrait in 1839; and by 1840 portrait studios were springing up in Europe and America. The first portraits were formal, rigid and unsmiling, due to both the long exposures required and the subject’s apprehensions about the novel process.  People dressed for the occasion, projecting an image of respectability, of how they wanted to be seen. The carte de visite, an albumen print pasted on a pre-printed card, was invented by Louis Dodero in 1851; and ‘Cardomania’ followed its use by Napoleon III 1859.  With improvements to the speed and convenience of photography, and changing social attitudes, portraiture became much more informal and moved out of the studio.

For the purposes of government, employers and many other organisations photographs now define who we are.  Alphonse Bertillon invented the modern mug shot in 1888; and photo passports were first introduced in Germany in 1915.  Many of us carry driving licenses and bus passes bearing photographs.

Photographs tell our stories: birth, school, birthdays, family gatherings, graduation, marriage and so on.  In doing so they can become records of fashions and social change – trips to the studio and dressing for Confirmation and first communion are rarities today.  They record our holidays – days when the sun always shone and we were happy – and encapsulate generations of social, economic and technological change.  In this country we don’t use photography to tell the story of death; it is much more common in continental Europe and other Catholic countries.  However, funeral photography is increasingly being offered.  Photography is used to record and to tell our stories regardless of race and class.

We probably all have photographs of ourselves that we like and, consciously or not, they reflect how we see ourselves in terms of gender, age, race, class, character and environment.  Increasingly, if we don’t like what we see we can be younger, slimmer ideals through the wonders of Photoshop.  Unfortunately we are not always in control of our image.  Even formal photographs can be unflattering, or we may be caught unawares or we may be the victims of embarrassing moments – all the sort of pictures that delight the media and satisfy our sense of schadenfreude.  The inability to control our image might be related to the suggested belief that photography steals souls, but this may be more a case of scopophobia, an anxiety disorder, the fear of being seen or stared at by others

The use of photography on social media takes the idea of self-image and identity to the extreme, exemplified in the selfie.  Pictures that people post on-line of themselves presumably reflect how they are happy to be seen – or maybe they act for the camera in a momentary lapse in self-awareness.  We can see their individual and group identities.  Pictures of other subjects they post – hobbies, interests and places visited – also reveal much about them.

Our roots are important to our image and identity.  A photograph of an ancestor helps us to get a feeling for that person and where we have come from; when we don’t have a picture that link is lost and the history become hazy.  But photographs can trick us.  When we see pictures from our early years do we remember the events or only think we do because the photograph has made it appear real to us.  And does the photograph become a kind of talisman, which seems to show a sort of truth, but only asks, ‘Who was I?  Who am I?’  We are faced with the partiality of photography.

Partial of not it’s the best thing we have.  To go back to the beginning – it may not be just your house that’s on fire when you grab those fragments of your identity and history. (Photos of refugees and migrants are scattered on a beach at the island of Lesbos on 22 October 2015, John Liakos.  From ‘The Itinerary’ project at the Alison Richard Building, 2018)

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Galanthus ‘Magnet’,

Galanthus peshmenii,

Galanthus ‘Merlin’.


Galanthus ‘James Back-

house, Galanthus nivalis

‘Anglesey Abbey’.

Photo: Botanic Garden, Cambridge, February 2019

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An old copy of Amateur Photographer advertises equipment described variously as ‘used’, ‘as new’ and ‘second-hand’.  ‘Second–hand’ once appeared widely in small ads, on motor traders’ signs and above shops that sat somewhere between those selling antiques and those getting rid of junk, precursors of today’s charity shops.  Buying second-hand was an accepted way for people on low incomes to get the things they needed or wanted. But it had always a slightly pejorative tone: ‘used’ and ‘as new’ were handy alternatives that at some point morphed into ‘pre-owned’.  In an age of euphemisms and environmental sensitivity goods are now ‘recycled’ and ‘pre-loved’.  Sometimes they have been loved a bit too much.  Who did the pre-loving here? Photo: Parker’s Piece, Cambridge, June 2012

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Karl Parsons

Search on-line for ‘My bath has two silver taps’ and you will learn more that you will ever, ever need to know about silver taps, but you won’t be led to the poet who used it as a first line.

The Stained Glass Museum in Ely Cathedral has several windows by Karl Parsons for example, St Columba and Christ the Good Shepherd from the church of St Michael, Sulhamstead (1913). Parsons (1884 – 1934) worked in an Arts and Crafts style and is noted for his draughtsmanship and fine derailing, the richness of his colours and his ability to render on glass fabrics that look velvety to touch.  His art is little-known outside the stained class world and he is probably even less well-known anywhere as a poet.  In 1929 the Medici Society published a collection of his whimsical childrens’ poems under the title Ann’s Book, illustrated by his daughter Jacynth.

My Bath

My bath has two silver taps,

And a hole, and a silver chain,

And a toast-rack, for the soap and sponge

When you put them back again.

And a Gurgling Noise in the drain.

If you tread on the Gurgling Noise, your toe

Sticks so tight that you can’t let go.

Hammer and Tongs

O hark to the haut-boys, give ear to the gongs,

That sound for the Tourney of Hammer and Tongs

The clang-tankerous sound to which everyone throngs…

(From a comic poem by Parsons, possibly a parody of ‘I hear along our street’ (Dunster Carol))

A Pity

The birds are not friendly with Cat –

And it isn’t much wonder they aren’t!

I wish I could alter just that

Of the thousands of things that I can’t.

The birds are such darlings and Cat is so sweet,

But everything seems sort of made on a slant –

What about me liking chicken to eat?

Photos: 1. Ann’s Book; 2. Christ the Good Shepherd; 3. Hammer and Tongs; 4. St Columba

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Carre Arms, Sleaford

Lunch at the Carre Arms on Saturday – cheese soufflé, salad and a glass of wine.  Wikipedia gives a potted history of the Carres

‘During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Hussey family owned the manor of Old Sleaford. John Hussey, 1st Baron Hussey of Sleaford was executed for treason for his part in the Lincolnshire Rising. The manor and his residence at Old Place reverted to the Crown and were later sold to Robert Carre.  George Carre or Carr from Northumberland had settled in Sleaford by 1522 when he was described as a wool merchant.  His son Robert bought Hussey’s land and the castle and manor of New Sleaford from Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln.  His eldest surviving son Robert, founded Carre’s Grammar School in 1604, and his youngest son Edward was created a baronet; his son founded Sleaford Hospital in 1636. The last male descendent died in 1683 and the heiress, Isabella Carre, married John Hervey, Earl of Bristol, in whose family the estates remained until the 1970s. The Carres and Herveys had a strong influence: in addition to extracting dues from their tenants, they took leading tradesmen to the Exchequer Court to gain legal force behind their monopoly on charging tolls on market and cattle traders and for driving animals through the town.’

A grabbing lot the later Carres, it sound as if they followed neither the letter nor the spirit of the sign on the wall outside.

Carre Arms, Sleaford
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