Friday, June 22, 2012

Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Woman

Ahoy Shipmates!
This week yer Cap'n has mostly been eating radishes, and I was sorry to see that's another half-year gone in. Those decks need sorting before the Winter storms are upon us again.
That time of year can be difficult round these parts and we's not getting any younger.
It'd be nice to think that at some point we can lash the Shippe to a nice dock in sunnier climes and sit all day drinking hot rum.


***


Florence Jane Hawley, or just plain Aunty Jane to me, was a remarkable woman.
She was a friend of my parents, having met them during that great melding of social classes and mores, the Second World War.
Jane (and I am sure the reason she dropped the Florence was because of the wartime cartoon Jane) was a Warwickshire lass, from farming stock. What she didn't know of country matters wasn't worth writing about. What she knew about the world was based upon wisdom and a quick sense of humour.
I believe she met my mother whilst doing quality control at Philips in London on vacuum tubes and light bulbs. This is stretching my memory a bit as neither her nor my Mum are alive, so I have no ready-reference. All I do know is that she was there when I was born, and I was there when she died. She was a constant in my life, even (and especially) when she lived in Scotland.
She left Ealing in London in the late 1960's, taking her cat Coco with her and never came back. There can be no denying it - she had gumption, for it was a brave move at the time. This was years before the English invasion of Scotland, but she was totally accepted in the communities she lived in (Moffat/Beattock and Leadhills) simply by dint of the fact that she was an incredibly personable person. It was something else to see scraggy wee kids who'd swear at anyone, humbly refer to her as 'Miss Hawley'. She had them in the palm of her hand simply by treating them with respect and letting them have the occasional treat from her magical workshop - her kitchen.
I remember us visiting her in her flat in Ealing quite often when I was very small; her kitchen there was literally a cupboard with a small worktop Belling (which had two rings and an oven/grill) on one side and a sink on the other. There was room in that kitchen for one person at a time and even then, you couldn't swing a cat. Yet from this place she fed the four of us, and to say the food was incredible would be an understatement. This never changed with Jane. Meals could take her hours to prepare and yet were always astonishing and made from the simplest of ingredients and in the smallest of places.
I have distinct memories of food from all of her kitchens. But perhaps the greatest for me were the sweets and cakes from her miner's cottage in Leadhills. It was a tiny terraced place, squat (because of the inclement weather - usually misty and wet) and prone to having sheep jumping over from the hillside that rose hard and steep at the rear of the cottage, onto the roof and clattering off again with a 'Bahhh' and a thud! 
The kitchen there was blessed with God's own cooker - a solid fuel Raeburn. 
This heated her water, cooked her food and generally imparted a benevolent ambience to the whole house. It was a warm salve to a chilly soul on a Winter's day. It wasn't only the centre of the house though, for it could be coaxed into producing a selection of cakes that wouldn't have embarassed today's 'celebrity' chefs. In a word they were remarkable, and there were always plenty of them. I have fond memories of my friend and I walking the hillsides and mine workings at Leadhills and returning to a Sunday teatime sitting with no less than seven different cakes!
But I am going to take us back further now, to a holiday I spent with her in what I think must have been around 1969. I have no idea why Mum and Dad weren't around, but they weren't. Jane had recently moved to Scotland and was house-sitting for friends of Mum and Dads (Trevor and Olive Mainwaring) whilst she was looking for somewhere to live. The cottage was Lochwood Toll which is just down at the crossroads from Lochwood Tower. It was springtime, but still cold. Regular FB readers will know that I was tempted to start a lifetime of countryside walking by the bribe of a Penguin biscuit, and this holiday was when that happened. 
My one abiding memory of this holiday is a trip we made to Dumfries. To get there we had to take the bus, and as Jane never drove, that meant a rather long walk up through the Lochwood Oaks (a SSSI, if anyone is interested http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-6UEHPF). 
It was bitterly cold, but we made it, did what we had to do in Dumfries and then came back. 
The bus dropped us at the road end on the Dumfries to Moffat road and we started walking. Snow had been threatening and as we started heading it came on thick and fast. 
This presents no problem if you are young and fit, but to a 9 year old serial non-ambulent and a woman in her late 60's laden with shopping, and no proper cold weather protection, it was something else. Such was the directionality of the snow that we were literally one half snow covered and one half clear. I have never seen snow land on me the way it did that day. It also draped itself around the already weird figures of the oak trees and all we heard was the whistling wind and the crunch of our feet, the oaks creaked and bent and threw shapes down over our heads like the looming figures of twiggy giants. It was hard, especially for someone as unused to walking long distances as I was, however we made it back to Lochwood Toll Cottage, and got changed and dry. She had laid the fire in (it was an enclosed early multi-fuel stove) and it was quick to take up, and we sat and had a delicious bowl of bob-a-nob soup to take away the extreme chill. Bob-a-nob was her own invention. A thick vegetable broth with bready-sausagemeat meatballs in the bottom. Just the thing to get one feeling normal again.
Something changed in me that holiday: I believe I grew a little.
I stayed with her again a year later - this time along the road in the wee cottage she had bought - Rose Cottage. This season was inclement, warm and sunny, and I now relished our walks to get anywhere.
The mobile library, grocer's van and fish van were all great novelties.
She was good enough to let me be my own man and me all of 10 years old. I wandered up through the Moss and Forestry Commission land; took to the quiet lanes and explored; watched Coco hunt; helped liberate shrews from behind the refrigerator; watched the slow decay of hung pheasants that the local game keeper brought over; looked longingly at the .410 shotgun stored in the long casing of a Grandmother clock; learned how to tickle trout. You name the countryside pursuit and I was probably either doing it, being told about it, or was thinking about it. Most importantly I learned how to be independent.
It was a formative holiday.



Jane in the garden of Rose Cottage before she got her green fingers on it.


I could write a lot about Aunty Jane. She and I were quite similar people in a lot of ways.
I wish I could bake like she did though, and I also wish I had some of her incredible ability to create gardens out of nothing.
She died, in a nursing home in Moffat at the age of 99. I was with her and it felt like a privilege for me to be there. 
In an old button box in her room, I found a packet of photographs of her transition from a young woman to an older woman, and the instruction manual to a Kodak Brownie No.2 **. And, amongst it all, one great and surprising photograph. 
It is incredibly flimsy - it has the same feel as cartridge paper and yet the image is there.
I am wondering whether it could be Printing-Out paper as it has held onto some old fingerprints which you wouldn't have got with a silver gelatine print.
Her hairstyle I would say dates it to roughly the mid to late 1920's or possibly early 1930's. 




The camera should be a Kodak Brownie 2. It appears to have a winding key as opposed to winding knob, which would date it to having been made anywhere between 1905 and 1931. They take 120 film and the negative size is 6x9cm.



I think you could agree that this is an incredibly artful self portrait.
I have had to up the ante a tad in the contrast stakes as the photograph is a bit faded.
I love the way the light from the window has washed out the detail of her face. I also love the way she is poised in that pose. I am also amazed that there is no real motion blur, as on a Brownie once that little silver lever you can see on top of the camera is pulled out, and you've pressed the release the shutter is open and remains open until the exposure lever is pressed again (just like T on a modern shutter). There appears to be no cable release as there was no socket on the camera anyway and judging by the instruction book, the exposure could have been anywhere between 12 seconds and a minute. How did she do it?
The other really surprising thing about this is that Jane is using a tripod - to me that states an intent to make more of using the camera other than just as a device for snapshots. There are artistic ambitions there. And though she maybe put  photography aside in her life, the artist in her came out in other ways: in cooking and in gardening and in helping a young man get a sense of his place in the world.
Jane's photograph brought to mind another photograph from roughly the same time, though this time made on the then new-fangled 'miniature' camera, the Leica.
It too is a self portrait and it too utilises mirrors, but it has been granted the status of high art and is in the Museum Of Modern Art Collection in New York. It is by a young woman called Ilse Bing and it is called 'Self Portrait With Mirrors'.






It is a fine photograph, though as you can see roughly one third of the frame on the right hand side has been removed from the print, because it is a large section of wall and someone at sometime has thought it better to be cropped.  I actually prefer it as a full-frame photograph.




One does wonder what Jane's self portrait would have looked like taken on a Leica and processed and printed with care and then turned into high art. The tilting we can see in Jane's picture, the result of a not properly levelled tripod is markedly different from the precision view which Ilse's photograph has, but then the viewfinder on a Brownie is a tiny squinty window and hard to compose with. 
I think its slightly off-kilterness adds to its charm. 
Jane's portrait surprised me, not just in its honesty and ambition but also in its physicality. For something so flimsy to have survived so well makes one wonder how many lost gems there are out there, made by amateurs. I will return to this at a later point as I have a box of stereoscopic photographs made at the turn of the 20th Century and one of them is fabulous. 
But in the meantime, if you get a chance or if you are fortunate enough to have been bequeathed a box of very old family photographs, take some time to look through them with an open mind and an eye for fine things - who knows what marvellous images your forbears might have made.
God bless and thanks for reading.



Florence Jane Hawley


** http://www.brownie-camera.com/53.shtml

2 comments:

  1. Truly beautiful mate and well worthy of this lovely lady! I too was a very fortunate person to have known her and she stands like a monolith in my early years memory also! Your words make my heart ache for those years!
    Very well done and the picture is a marvel!
    I can still see her smiling and waving the last time we parted in 1989!

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of the great pleasures I have each weekend is sitting down with my breakie and reading the stories and views of the world from Mr. Sheephouse. I am not a learned photographer, though I like art and taking pictures and your blog always gives me more to think about than just what is inside the frame. It is restful, fun and stimulating to be in this world and I hope you continue to treat all of us with your past and future adventures.

    ReplyDelete