We are feeling festive at the Past on Glass HQ. We have much to celebrate. The first week of December marks just over one year since digitisation on the Knights-Whittome collection began in earnest. It has been a year in which we have learned a lot, in terms of both the glass plate digitisation process and of the subjects depicted in the collection.
When we first embarked on the digitisation of this material, we had no real idea what we would find. For the most part, the plates had been left untouched, hidden in their original envelopes for close to one hundred years. A handful of the images had been photographed by a local historian at the time the collection was first acquired, and a cursory audit of the plates had revealed that the plates were mainly portraits, with a handful of local and Royal images. But we could not have predicted the volume of World War One soldiers or striking female portraits we would find. Nor could we have foreseen the variety of portrait styles and the amount of retouching that we would come across – not to mention motor accidents, shop fronts, weddings, country houses and some animals only an owner could love. Uncovering these images, week on week has been incredibly exciting. None of our sitters so far has been particularly famous, or grand, but the details uncovered in these simple portraits of ordinary people seem to speak more to our volunteers and staff who clean and rehouse the negatives than any celebrity image could. It is not unusual to find a huddle of faces crowded around a plate or a computer screen, speculating about a particular person or group.
Sadly, our predictions about the condition of much of the collection have been proven. The collection was in a sorry state when it was first discovered in the basement of 18 Sutton High Street. Many of the shelves had collapsed, and a number of the plates had suffered water damage. We suspected that the largest of the plates may have suffered the worst damage, and so far it seems that this is indeed the case. Work has begun to digitise the largest of the plate formats (10×12″), but we are already finding that well over half these plates must be set aside for professional conservation. It is heartbreaking to see some of these plates, cracked or broken in pieces, with emulsion peeling off in swathes, and sometimes completely bonded with the paper envelopes in which they are housed. Addressing these issues, or at least the most pressing of them, will be among the priorities for the new year.
So what has been achieved in a year?
Of the c.5000 quarter plates in the collection, close to 4000 have now been cleaned, rehoused, scanned and catalogued. Most of these are available to view on Flickr, with the remaining number to be uploaded before Christmas. The remainder have conservation issues that need to be addressed before further digitisation can be undertaken. Among these plates we have discovered well over 1200 women and girls, surprisingly the largest represented group in the collection. There are close to another 700 World War One soldiers and nurses, some of whom were local, but the vast majority of which were based locally at the Epsom Woodcote Camp, home to the University and Public School Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers during 1914-1915.
Close to 300 of the plates have been researched, 200 with success. As we have previously addressed, the envelopes that house these negatives do not always offer us sufficient information to successfully track down the subjects therein. In other cases, the names are too common for us to be sure we have the right person, or the spelling of the names may even be wrong. Research is a very time consuming activity and one which requires a certain interest and aptitude. It is not something in which all of our volunteers are interested. Our hope is that by posting images to Flickr and increasing our public profile, we may be able to encourage public interaction with the collection and discover something about our sitters that we may never otherwise have been able to uncover.
Our dedicated team of over 15 volunteers has been with us from the start. This is an achievement of which we are incredibly proud. Between them, they have clocked up over 1300 hours in the last 12 months. Of course we have lost a few individuals along the way, but on the whole this has been to permanent employment or further education and so has been a positive break. Most of our volunteers come regularly, rain or shine for 3 or 4 hours a week, and we even have some who come in to do the odd shift between jobs, or in school holidays, or whenever they can find the time. The fact that we have retained so many volunteers over such a sustained period is testament to the collection itself. Much of the work the volunteers do for us is repetitive and detailed, and in the case of research it can be overwhelmingly disappointing, but something about these plates just seems to hook whoever comes into contact with them. Perhaps it is the thrill of uncovering a hidden past, more likely the very human nature of the collection. Either way, we are incredibly grateful. Without this team of dedicated and wonderful individuals, there is not way we could have achieved even a fraction of what has been done to date.
So what comes next? The project has much more work to do. Work has begun to clean and rehouse the largest format plates, and to document the damage, so the conservation work that needs to be done can be put out to tender.
We have almost the same number again of half plates. The content of these is largely portraiture, but there does appears to be a bit more variety in terms of subject. Presumably this size offered greater detail than a quarter plate but more portability than the 10×12″ format. So far we have uncovered motor accidents, more street scenes and a few wedding groups. We look forward to working our way through them in due course.
We have an exhibition planned for the summer and we also look forward to running some workshops around self-identity with local mental health groups in the coming months.
Overall work continues apace. Alongside all these tasks, we also need to re-apply for funding to continue our work. Our progress has been great, better than we expected, but we always knew it would be a very tall order to complete this work within two years. We still have over half the plates to work through and we have barely scratched the surface of the research which we would like to do.
Over the last week or two we have been celebrating our first anniversary with an open day to see the project in action, a visit from one of our local MPs Tom Brake, and we are looking forward to toasting our achievements with our volunteers at a festive drinks party later this week. What a year we’ve had.
Thank you to all our volunteers, followers and supporters – we couldn’t have done it without you.
Happy first anniversary ‘The Past on Glass’.