She drew a breath that held her still –
Looked past the brim and hid her will.
But glance confess the thoughts within,
A girl gleams through and brings us in.
Miss Guinlet, 23 October 1916. Quatrain
We are very excited this week to reveal the result of a wonderful collaboration between the Past on Glass project and a local community group, Sutton Writers. Over the course of the last year, we have worked with Sutton Writers to run a series of creative writing workshops and talks for local schools and women’s groups. The idea behind this collaboration, which was conceived over two years ago as part of our funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, was not only to make the Knights-Whittome photographic collection more relevant to the community in which we live, but also to offer new skills, opportunities for social engagement and to provide a fun, creative way into the local studies collections here at Sutton Archives.
The result of these workshops is a beautifully presented anthology of creative writing, – published by The Caper Press – of fictional prose, poetry, tweets and a play for radio. The anthology was launched on Sunday with a public reading at Honeywood Museum, during which the sunshine streamed through the leaded windows of the Edwardian drawing room against the backdrop of the Women in the Frame exhibition. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will feature excerpts from this anthology in our posts. The book has been made freely available to participants in the project; schools, writers, and community groups, but a limited number of copies are also available to the public, so do get in touch if you are interested in receiving a copy of your own.
Background to the collaboration: We have long been keen to try and develop some kind of creative response to the collection, which is so engaging on such a fundamentally human level, that it is crying out for just such a project. Those of you who have heard me talk about the collection in recent years, will know how passionate I am about the importance of this unique resource to our area and the wider community. As a primarily portrait-centric collection, it offers so much scope for engagement and rarely fails to capture the imagination of anyone who is lucky enough to stumble upon it.
Portrait photographers like Knights-Whittome were often situated near transport hubs to maximise passing trade from the local communities in which they were situated. Many of them were also patronised for short periods by the royal family: Knights-Whittome himself had a Royal Warrant for a number of years and advertised himself as ‘Photographer to the King’. As a result, their clientele spanned the gamut of society and the record they leave behind, largely dominated by portraits, is surprisingly democratic as a snapshot of a lost generation.
Portraits are, by their very nature, contrived records; staged to present a version of a sitter that tells a certain story or paint a certain picture. But it is worth considering, that despite this artifice, a portrait is also a very intimate record, capturing as it does, a minute exchange, a look between photographer and subject that contains in itself a whole other untold story. In some cases we have been extraordinarily lucky in identifying the subjects of these photographs. We have filled pages – many on this very blog – with the facts that we have discovered in official paper trails and newspaper articles. For others we have little or no information at all. About what is contained in that singular look between photographer and subject, in any of the images, we are in the dark. What are they thinking? Why are they having their portrait taken? Who is the person looking our at us, beyond a name, a list of dates and accomplishments? It is neither our business nor our right to go delving into the secrets and mysteries of these individuals. We must above all be respectful of their lives. But imagining just what those stories may have been is almost irresistable to anyone with a curious mind. This creative collaboration has provided outlet to this curiosity. Respectfully, with the disclaimer that all stories are imagined, are fictional, are fantasy, we have fleshed out these portraits, humanised them, made them relevant once more. And in doing so, we have added yet another page to the (hi)story of the collection as a whole, and added to it’s own unique journey one hundred years after the images were first committed to glass.
We hope you will enjoy reading some of the pieces from this anthology, as much as we have enjoyed producing it.
Abby Matthews, Project Officer