Explore the contrasting sides of this house: the neat, professional, spacious business rooms and the cluttered, cramped living quarters of the renowned portrait photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret. They lived and worked here for 40 years, keeping everything and changing nothing.Photography Or just as accurately in project terms, the local. The Hardmans' House at 59 Rodney Street is the most local of National Trust properties, within walking distance of home and unlike my previous attempt to visit art collections in North West England were I climaxed with the Walker Art Gallery, it seemed best to begin local for the most part and expand outwards. Plus this wasn't my first visit to the house, having spent an hour there as part of a flickr meet-up back in 2007 (which you can read about here).
The business focused on professional studio portraits but their real love was for vivid landscape images. Some of their huge collection of photographs is on display in the house, along with the equipment they used to take and develop the iconic images.
Chambre Hardman is perhaps best known for his photograph The Birth of the Ark Royal which shows the Air Craft Carrier, painted white for its launch by the Queen Mother almost hovering above some typically Northern rows of houses, a small boy on his paper round in the foreground (the house's blog as an essay about the photo). Although portraits were his business, landscape photography was his passion despite its unfashionability during his peak period. Now, it is through him that Liverpudlians often view their past and I've had this shot from the Liverpool Museum steps on William Brown Street on my wall for years.
The business was actually called Burrell and Hardman, having met his original business partner Kenneth Burrell during their service in the Indian Army. The initially set up on Bold Street but after their initial success and expansion into Chester (the appointment book listed six or more sitters a day, eight as Christmas), the war took its toll and so after the lease in the original offices ended they moved to the current position. By then, his wife Margaret was running the business, whom he met when she joined the staff years earlier. They had a staff of up to ten assistants, although as a volunteer noted their was a high turnover because of personality clashed with Margaret which usually led to firings.
Visits to the house are as timed tours bookable beforehand. The house is very small and so these are limited to just seven people at a time, and at 12:30, thanks to a couple of cancellations that was just myself and a couple from Sheffield (were we asked for our place of origin a few times by the volunteers perhaps so that they could gage our local knowledge and adjust their explanations accordingly). The volunteers stand in various sections of the house and we were passed in between, from waiting rooms through studio, dark rooms to living quarters and all with a minimum of fuss offering something of an impression of what it must have been like for clients.
Hardman retired in 1965. After a fall which left him unable to climb stairs in 1989, he was befriended by Peter Hagerty, who according to a volunteer was visiting the house one day and found social services "cleaning up the place" or bin bagging his negatives, photographs and various items little knowing of their historic value. Having reached the legacy in time, Hagerty helped set up a trust to safeguard Hardman's life's work but the house was a much larger undertaking and so it was gifted to the National Trust in 2002 and they went about cataloguing the contents and deciding how best to present them to the public.
Not much has changed since my original visit, the approach by the Trust for this property being to preserve how the house would have been during the peak of the photographer's career in the 40s and 50s. Each room still retains a particular smell from photographic paper, chemicals, dust or just age. The furniture and appliance are all from living memory, with a kitchen which looks like my Gran's house as late as the early 80s. Once again I made the observation to a guide that he didn't hang photographs in his own quarters, preferring the work of local painters like Henry Carr. Working in dark rooms until after midnight on touching up and developing photographs clearly meant he needed a break.
There's plenty of clutter. It's not clear how much of this is due to the Trust's intervention or Chambre Hardman's own lifestyle, but every surface in the areas which wouldn't be seen by the public are covered in boxes and tins and papers and cups, lots and lots of cups. He and his wife hoarded egg boxes, not the supermarket kind, but the rectangular boxes within which the eggs were delivered by post, the service being efficient enough for that to be best practice then. In the basement too are giant chests filled with photographic paper which originated during the second world war and still have request labels requiring for them to be returned should they be unused. The remains of the Anderson shelter are still outside. He didn't throw much away.
That means it's not really a place you want to linger in much and the tour period is probably ample. I was particularly fascinated by the photography process. Due to waiting times, a photography session usually too up to ninety minutes (although the assistants were encouraged to flat out lie to potential clients about the duration depending on who they were, high end businessmen entering expecting a half hour appointment) and just eight shots would be taken with five to ten second exposures (on the assumption that one would be salvageable if most of them were ruined by some kind of movement fro the sitter). Margaret was apparently never happy with the result, sometimes asking assistants to reprint shots on the days clients were due to picking them, often while they were in the building.
The whole visit took about two hours but didn't ever feel like it. If you are local I'd very much recommend it, even as a way of seeing a recent social history writ large not unlike the viewing Chambre Hardman's own photographs. Within one of the display cabinets there's a shot of the grounds outside St Luke's Church pointing towards the top of Bold Street on a sunny day taken during the mid-fifties. Having only ever thought of the building as a war memorial, I was surprised to see it being treated in this way, the grass filled with sunbathers and people having fun something you wouldn't necessarily expect to see in the grounds of a church. That's the power of this kind of photography, making the familiar, unfamiliar.