Monday, June 14, 2010

Vintage Photo: Archie

People who love old photos very often love them because they like to imagine the life that they represent. Like that scene in The Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams has the boys take a good long look at the old black and white school photos in the hallway - just like you, he says, different haircuts but just like you. But they also inspire the desire to, in some way resurrect the subject, to breathe a little life into them again.

This is an old photographic postcard I picked up today and, with the wonders of technology - in particular digital scanning and the Internet - it is possible to breathe some life into this lad who is, of course, now long gone but whose grandchildren may still be alive with grandchildren of their own. So follow me, if you will, into the young life of Archibald Ward...

I can tell you his name because, a decent scanner allows for the image to be scanned at many times its original size and clearly, the guy is posed in his swimming gear and so we guess that swimming was an important part of his life and even with the naked eye it is possible to make out that framed certificate by his feet it illustrated with swimming scenes. Scanning it at 300% its actual size it was just possible to make out that this is a certificate for swimming 120 yards, presented to Archibald Ward of St Paul's School by the WHCSA. A little eye strain and it's possible to make out that the certificate is dated 1907. And then we turn to the Internet and we discover, through a rather obscure Google result, that this is presumably the West Ham Children's Swimming Association and that we are talking about an area in East London.

The cup at the top of the pile of goodies is a little more problematic and had to be scanned at 500% its actual size to get much off it, even then, the curve and reflective qualities of the highly polished trophy made for difficult reading. In the end it was possible to get that this is a "Challenge Cup" presented to "...College of St Paul's School, Stratford." by "Edward Cook & Co. Limited ... soap specialists". A little more Googling confirms that there was indeed a company of that name in the East End and it's founder, Edward Rider Cook, even has a short Wiki entry.

So far, so straightforward, a guy in his swimming gear displaying his trophy and certificate. But what are we to make of the books and the clock? At first I assumed they might be related somehow to the swimming but it turns out not. The larger book of the left was a little easier to read and is an atlas, Philips Atlas for Beginners, in fact. a search on Abebooks with 1907 as the latest date revealed a copy listed with a photo to confirm it's the right one. The other book was much more difficult to read. Even with heavy enlargement I could only get as far as "How.. Won His ..." which really isn't much to go on. However, we have a date at least to help us. Searching the British Library Catalogue for just those words in the title of a book published sometime between 1900 and 1907 comes back with just one result, once you know what the title might be, the title in the photo suddenly becomes clear: "How Jack Mackenzie Won His Epaulets". So, given that these aren't books on swimming, I wondered if they might be prize books and was the clock too, perhaps, part of his prize. But this seems a very rich prize even to go alongside a trophy. Another possibility is that these bits and pieces are a photographer's attempt, albeit a slight clumsy one, to create a 'portrait', to surround this young man with items which meant something to him and portrayed different aspects of his character and life. Is the clock showing 3.30pm significant?

For the time being I've done as much resurrecting from this photo as I can. There are three Archibald Wards of a sensible age to be our swimmer, on the 1901 census but that is six years before this photo and it would be impossible, sadly, to pin our Archie down to one of them

1 comment:

Alexandre Guerra said...

I think this is a death portrait, probably the 3:30 on the clock is the time of death, and there's a stand right behind the boy...

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