Monday, October 29, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 9: Liverpool, continued (Edward Hardman)

[Originally posted on]

Before we get out to the suburbs I have to mention an unheralded attraction in Liverpool. The home and studio of Liverpool photographer Edward Chambre Hardman has been opened by the National Trust, and it is absolutely fascinating.

Liverpool has the best, and best-preserved, Georgian terraces outside of London. The most famous of these streets is Rodney Street, which was laid out in the 1780s and built up between then and 1820. There are over 60 listed buildings in the street, which is known as Liverpool's Harley Street, for the number of doctors who practiced here.

Most of the fine three-story brick buildings have beautiful doors set in columns, with fan lights overhead, reminiscent of the famous Georgian squares of Dublin.

A few doors from the house William Gladstone, Liberal Prime Minister in the latter part of the 19th century, was the house where Edward Hardman and his wife, Margaret, lived for forty years, until his death in 1988. The house is now owned by the National Trust, and is open to guided tours, starting every few hours from the back garden office.

What makes the Hardman house interesting not just to photographers but to anyone interested in British life in this century is the level of preservation. The Hardmans lived and worked here, and they quite literally never threw anything out.

After Margaret died in 1970, Edward declined over a number of years, and social services was on the point of putting him into a home and throwing everything away when another photographer and friend of the Hardmans, who recognized how special the collection was, successfully intervened and saved the contents.

When I say they never threw anything out, I mean NOT ANYTHING. When the house was restored, they were able to exactly match the paint and wall coverings because all of the correspondence and samples from the painters were there. In the kitchen cupboards were wartime-era cans of vegetables and fruits -- one exploded in a conservationist's hands as he removed it! Everything was there -- sauce bottles from before WWII, unopened fifty-year-old beer and liquor bottles, hundreds of empty egg cartons, thousands of magazines, millions of receipts and notes and scraps of junk mail. All of Margaret's clothes and hats and perfumes were there, untouched. The living quarters were filled to the ceiling with the detritus of forty years of living.

The Hardmans lived very simply, despite his position as Liverpool's top society photographer, and their very modest furniture and kitchen fittings today look exactly as they did in 1948 when they moved in. There are almost no concessions to modernity.

When the National Trust came in, every item in the house was photographed, cataloged, and removed so that the house could be cleaned, repaired, repainted and restored, and then it was all put back in, laid out as if the Hardmans had just stepped out. Their bicycles are in the hall, and his glasses are on the sideboard. As a museum of life and its artifacts from the 1950s, it is fantastic to see, even if you don't care about the pictures.

But the pictures are fantastic as well. There are a HUNDRED AND FORTY THOUSAND of them! The cataloging job, which has been going on since his death, is not yet complete, but it is one of the finest archives ever discovered. And to think it was all barely rescued from the landfill!

In addition to his portrait photography, which paid the bills, Hardman and his wife both were outstanding and prolific landscape photographers. Seeing them cycling around Lancashire with a large-format Graflex was a common occurrence, and they also went further afield in their car, to all parts of England, Scotland and Wales. His most famous pictures, though, are of Liverpool: the docks, the harbor, the city streets, showing the power and devastation of war, and then the long, slow decline of his once-great city. Perhaps his most famous image is "The Birth of the Ark Royal", showing a stark white navy ship being built at Cammell Laird shipyards in Birkenhead in the background, as a small boy trundles down the steep hillside of Holt Hill in front. You can see the picture here:, and a wider selection of his work at -- the site is difficult to navigate, but click on "Hardman's Work" on the left, and then dig down under "Find out More" on the right. Another famous picture, "Museum Steps" is at .

His entire business and personal operation was contained within the house. The portrait studio is still laid out with his cameras and his lighting setup, mostly homemade and rather dangerous-looking. The work darkroom, where an assistant developed the glass plates in a room next to, dare I say it, the bathtub under the coal scuttle -- yes, they kept their coal in the bath! Another darkroom upstairs was where the developed plates where made into prints, and where Hardman and his wife did their own personal work after hours. They appear to have spent almost their entire waking life pursuing this mixed career and hobby. This latter darkroom is still laid out with Mr. H's personal effects. Another room is the office, still filled to the brim with order books, wrapping paper, cartons of photographic paper and chemicals, and the usual detritus of the not-very-modern office. Anyone who has worked in an office before the computers took over the desks will no doubt gasp hundreds of time in recognition.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the house is the large and devoted staff. There's a separate person for each room, eight of them in total I think, and they are all (I think) volunteers, and most wear the blue badge of the Guild of Registered Tourist Guides, and on the day of our visit they were without exception impeccably knowledgable and pleasant.

I honestly can't think of any tourist site I've ever enjoyed more, and if you find yourself in Liverpool with a couple of hours to spare, go. Booking ahead is recommended, though we were able to get on a tour -- the only ones -- simply by turning up and booking for the next one starting in 20 minutes. The place is not crowded, but it should be.

Next: Waterloo and New Brighton (this time I promise)

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