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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
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.
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.
- E Chambre Hardman prints: gallery of images at National Trust
- The Hardman House: National Trust
- The Continuity of Landscape Representation: The Photography of E.Chambré Hardman: PhD thesis by Peter Hagerty