This week the Special Collections division held a Roadshow in the University of Manchester Library. For me, it was an opportunity to speak to colleagues about what they can now discover about some of our Victorian British photography as a result of the ‘Out of the Ether’ project, supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.
My previous post explained that the first album to be made fully accessible from the visual collections is Intérieurs anglais, a portfolio of cyanotypes from Bedford Lemere & Co., the leading English firm of architectural photographers between 1870 and 1930. A turning the pages style bookreader object of the entire portfolio, as well as a record detailing each individual print is now available via our online image collection in LUNA.
The photographs within the album document the interiors of some of the grandest houses in England, Scotland, and Wales, as well as notable public buildings, c1900. These images are now discoverable, but what was also fascinating to me as a cataloguer, were the things that I discovered about the places shown that were not always directly relevant to the description, but interesting nonetheless!
The above image is the impressive and beautiful staircase at Sheffield Town Hall. The ornate carved friezes above the arches incorporate scrollwork and putti (cherubic figures) into the design and depict the industries of Sheffield. But rather charmingly, also portrayed is the slaying of the ‘Dragon of Wantley’; the local legend of a dragon-slaying by a knight on Wharncliffe Crags in South Yorkshire, who is protected by a bespoke suit of Sheffield armour. The depiction has been somewhat edited, in that the legend has the knight slaying the dragon by a fatal kick to the backside, delicately termed, the ‘arse-gut’. I was slightly disappointed to find that an altogether more traditional knight with a sword is shown in the frieze!
Overtoun House in Dumbartonshire, Scotland, has a couple more sinister stories attached to it, the first going all the way back to the creation of the mansion. The first story relates to Madelaine Smith, the daughter of the Glasgow-based architect of Overtoun, James White. Madeline was suspected, but never convicted, (despite standing trial) of the murder of her former lover Pierre Emile L’Angelier. L’Angelier was found dead from arsenic poisoning on the 23rd of March 1857. Although the circumstantial evidence pointed towards Madeline’s likely guilt (she had made purchases of arsenic in the weeks leading up to L’Angelier’s death, and had a motive to silence Pierre about their affair, as she had become engaged to marry another man) the jury returned a verdict of “not proven”, i.e. the jury was unconvinced that Smith was innocent, but the prosecution had produced insufficient evidence to the contrary.
The second story is more contemporary, which is the peculiar fact of an inexplicably high number of dogs that have leapt to their deaths from the bridge into the Overtoun estate that runs over the Overtoun Burn. This strange phenomenon has been recorded as far back as the 1950s with no concrete explanation of why it happens. Some dogs have survived leaping from the bridge, but promptly try to leap again, leading to locals terming them ‘second-timers’. Despite the suggestion that Overtoun may be a ‘thin place’ which disturbs the animals, another plausible suggestion is that it is the smell of nesting Mink which is attracting the dogs, who in a state of sensory overload, run over the edge. Whatever the cause, clear signs now warn dog-owners to keep their beloved pets firmly on a lead.
The details of a further two photographic albums are to be made available shortly. An album of English architecture and landscapes, which features prints by Francis Bedford, George Washington Wilson and 12 wonderful prints by the renowned pioneer of early photography, Roger Fenton. The second is an album of prints from 1901 of The West Riding Asylum, Menston, Yorkshire, which was later High Royds Hospital. The set are by an unknown photographer and they show the extent of the Hospital facilities and its grounds, which were so vast that the asylum even had its own railway.
Additional blog posts will announce when the material is available, but meanwhile, follow Library Tammy on IG for updates on what goes on in the Visual Collections office here are The John Rylands Library.
All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Heritage Imaging team.