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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, September 24, 2004
    Preserving Hardman
    May be another sign of age, but I'm starting to think it may be a good idea to get membership of The National Trust. This is mainly because of the Trust's recent creative investment in Liverpool properties - John Lennon's childhood home, and now 59 Rodney Street, home and studios of the celebrated Liverpool photographer Edward Chambre Hardman.

    The Guardian's Martin Wainwright described Hardman as "the great photographer of hills, haystacks, the Ark Royal and the cream of Liverpool society," which I'd only qualify by suggesting that 'cream' doesn't mean 'best', it merely means 'most monied', because Hardman's studios was the most expensive in town. Even people like the actress Patricia Routledge said they felt "unworthy" to be photographed by the great man.

    Being guided around 59 Rodney Street today felt quite sad, in a way, hearing about how how Hardman and his wife, so devoted to their work, neglected their home, how one of the city's greatest 20th century artists died, in 1988, virtually penniless and in squalor. It was sobering seeing the stacks of work piled up in backroom cupboards and observing the shambles of their kitchen.

    But it was good to hear the story of how Hardman's collection has been saved for posterity, by the intervention of a creative social worker who put the director of the Open Eye Gallery, Peter Hagerty, in touch with the failing 81-year-old in 1979. Through the enthusiasm and collaboration of Hagerty and others the E. Chambre Hardman Trust was born.

    It was good to hear that the city's record library is holding most of Hardman's collection and its staff are assidiously cataloguing it - a work which will take years, because of the volume involved. Good to know that all this effort, and the National Trust's purchase of the Rodney Street home, means that the city will house the only known complete collection of a leading 20th century photographer.

    Seems that Hardman's pricey portrait work allowed him the financial freedom to pursue his greater photographic interests, his landscapes and his cityscapes. The house displays a small number of his better-known works, and is worth a visit if just to to see his most celebrated picture: The Birth of the Ark Royal, 1950.

    It is a breathtaking sight - the Mersey dockyards' last great ship shining above the huddled Birkenhead streets. The awesome power of war emerging from passive suburbia. The contrast between the small, lonesome schoolboy and the vast, dominant vessel. It's a wonderful example of Hardman's eye for composition, his use of light and subtle manipulation of shades in the darkroom, which he called 'control by patience'.

    The only shame in the 59 Rodney Street tour is that they keep you moving through the house, there's little time to linger over this and other classics. The joy is that eventually, through the patient work of the archivists, the city will be able to make Hardman's work accessible to all.