The Copse

I’ve been along to the Open Eye gallery to see the small exhibition of landscapes by E Chambre Hardman that’s currently showing there. Open Eye is the appropriate place for a display of Chambre Hardman’s work – after all,without the intervention of Peter Hagerty, Open Eye’s Director at the time, Hardman’s entire photographic output would have been lost.

In 1979, Peter Hagerty got a call from a social worker concerning the plight of the retired photographer, now in his eighties, increasingly frail and living alone in his large Rodney Street studio and home, had suffered a fall. In his introduction to E Chambré Hardman: Liverpool Through the Lens, Hagerty writes:

What a revelation awaited me, his home and studio were filled with early twentieth century photography, an entire collection of photographic prints, negatives, cameras, lights, darkroom equipment, letters and studio records.  Although much neglected, a number of ceilings had collapsed in the intervening years, every room was crammed with photographs and ephemera and complemented by the more domestic scenes in the two rooms and small kitchen where Hardman and Margaret had lived.

It was clear to Hagerty that Hardman’s work must be protected, and since Chambré had no living relatives to assist, friends and supporters came together to form the E.Chambré Hardman Trust. During the following years the trustees worked to secure funding and support from English Heritage and Liverpool City Council which allowed essential repairs and a conservation programme to begin, but it was not until 2003 when the National Trust took over the administration of the house and opened it to the public that Hardman’s legacy was secure.

More than twelve thousand of Hardman’s photographs have been catalogued as a result of the Trust’s work, and in the last 30 years the scale of his artistic achievement has gradually emerged.  It was at Open Eye that the first retrospective exhibition of Hardman’s work was shown in 1980, followed by a major exhibition E. Chambré Hardman Photographs 1921-72 organised by the Walker Art Gallery in 1994.

Chambré Hardman, who was born in 1898 and died in 1988, is still perhaps best known for his photograph The Birth of the Ark Royal (1950). For half a century from 1923 he and his wife Margaret ran a highly successful commercial portrait studio, first on Liverpool’s Bold Street and, from 1949, on Rodney Street in the premises now owned by the National Trust. While the  studio specialised in portraits, increasingly Hardman turned to photographing Liverpool’s great buildings, as well as scenes of shipping and the Mersey docks.

From the early 1930s Hardman began to develop his passion for picturing the varied British landscape, and some of these images are now displayed at Open Eye.  Taken together, these photos might be taken as an evocation of a lost era of hay ricks, country lanes and open countryside.

The Rick
The Rick, 1936

But Hardman wasn’t exclusively drawn to pastoral subjects: the first image that greets you in this exhibition is ‘Power Station Lister Drive’, taken in 1929.  In its own way, this is as much an image of a lost world as ‘The Rick’: an era of coal and of giant power stations in the heart of urban residential communities.

Power Sation Lister Drive, 1929
Power Station Lister Drive, 1929

‘The Quarry, Wales’ from 1937, also depicts an industrial landscape, but at the same time is a study in light and shade and patterns.  The tracks of wagon ways splay out towards the viewer like crow’s feet.

The Quarry
The Quarry, Wales, 1937

‘Suilven, Sutherland’ (1935) is a complete contrast, an image of a bleak and empty landscape taken in Suilven, south of Lochinver and Loch Assynt.  Another study in light and dark, it contrasts the shaft of light falling on a remote mountain tarn with the dark of the mountains brooding beyond.  Like several photos in the exhibition, it is also a study of the cloud formation which fills the sky and half the frame.

Upper Glen Affric
Suilven, Sutherland, 1935

Another rural image, taken much later in his career, is ‘Hill Farming Country’, from 1965.  The photograph was taken in Wales, and looks as if it could have been captured in the 1920s or 30s, with its scene of fields full of corn stooks. What I really like about this image is the way that Hardman has captured the evening light, with the trees that border the fields casting long shadows across fields etched into the landscape by the hedges that border them.

Hill Farming Country
Hill Farming Country, 1965
The Hardmans made their living primarily from portrait photography.  But, while landscapes were less financially rewarding than portraits, landscape photography dominated competitive exhibitions and professional galleries. From the 1920s onwards Hardman was a frequent exhibitor at annual exhibitions, including the Royal Photographic Society, and in 1927 won first prize in the American Annual of Photography Exhibition for his picture of the quiet French fishing village Martigues. This was one of the many photographs Hardman made in France during 1926 that included the popular ‘A Memory of Avignon’ which depicted in soft focus the sleepy ambience of a street cafe where his friends are relaxing after lunch.
The Copse
The Copse, 1935

My favourite photograph in this exhibition is ‘The Copse’ (1934) which shows a small copse on a hill surrounded by sweeping fields.  I thought it might be somewhere like Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, painted repeatedly by Paul Nash.  Surprisingly, however, this is a scene from Galloway, in Scotland. The image is another cloud study: the towering clouds dominate the upper two thirds of the composition.

Paul Nash, Wittenham Clumps
Paul Nash: Wittenham Clumps, 1913
During the 1930s,  Chambre and Margaret would take time off running their busy portrait studio and spend weekends and holidays exploring the British countryside. Using trains and bicycle they appear to have travelled the length and breadth of Britain in their search for new landscape photographs. The black and white photographs from this decade have a sharper focus, stronger contrast that emphasises the drama of mountain landscapes such as ‘Suilven, Sutherland’ (above) or the elegant description of trees and clouds in ‘The Copse’.
An Old Lancashire Lane
An Old Lancashire Lane, 1965
Close to home – and taken much later, in 1965, is ‘An Old Lancashire Lane’, taken in Parbold, near Ormskirk. The focus of the composition is the bend in the country lane bordered by stone walls, which draws the eye towards the farm building beyond.  The composition is reinforced by the strong parallel lines of the ploughed field on the right, edged by the curving line of tractor tracks.
Other photos in this excellent exhibition are: ‘Late Afternoon in Borrowdale’ (1936), ‘A Dusting of Snow, Kerry Hill’ (1955), Near Northrop, August’ (1950), and ‘The Roman Wall’ (1937).  The exhibition will move to the Hardman House on Rodney Street after the Open Eye run ends next month.

See also

6 thoughts on “E. Chambre Hardman: Landscapes at Open Eye

  1. Thanks for this! I always remember that picture he took of the building of one of the Arch Royals aat Lairds in 1950. It was taken from up in Birkenhead. Remarkable photographer

  2. Thanks for this article. The Hardman studio is on my list when I next visit the city. Like the comparison with Nash painting. I find your blogs very inspiring and full of interest. I hope to emulate with mine but am just starting.

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