The Isles of Scilly are well known for punching above their weight, partly because everything that happens in the archipelago occurs in miniature and so gleans a scope of interest which is more far-reaching than could be inspired by any mainland area ten times the size, and partly because the place is so jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Photography is no exception to the spume-sprayed Lilliputian rule. Ever since the art of capturing images through a glass lens was first invented, the islands have been snapped, rendered to bromide and generally portrayed more intensively than any other place in Britain with the exception, perhaps, of London.
The late Victorians would have been as used to seeing images of the Scillies as we, for example, are accustomed to viewing images of Earth taken from a satellite in space.
For them the Scillies was that wild place where sailors perished and where scented flowers grew in winter – far across the wave-tossed horizon.
And the early photographers were quick to realise the appeal of those wondrous isles 28 miles west of Land’s End. Which is why the archipelago has the most amazing archive of photographic images – and why, in turn, the curator of the Isles of Scilly Museum has seen fit to write a booklet about the happy history of a Scillonia that has been captured down numerous lenses.
Viewing the Past: The Photographic Heritage of the Isles Scilly is both the name of the booklet and of a project which aims to preserve thousands of images for the present and the future.
“Our project seeks to conserve, protect and make accessible to a wider public the tremendously significant Scillonian photographic legacy,” writes curator Amanda Martin.
What happened on Scilly back in the mid-1800s when photography was in its infancy was that a few wealthy snappers or professional photographers started turing up in the archipelago – partly at the behest of the wealthy self-styled Lord Proprietor of the Islands, Augustus John Smith. He was a great innovator and his enthusiasm for modern invention led him to invite several camera-wielding aristocrats and professionals across to the islands.
But it wasn’t long before others, seeing the drama of the isles through the resultant images, began venturing west to see what they could capture – and profit from. The Scillonians, being a wily lot, quickly decided that if anyone was going to make money out of creating images of their isles, it should be them. And so Scilly’s long photographic legacy was born…
Amanda writes: “The age of Scillonian photography dawned when John Gibson (1827-1920) acquired his first camera. He had come to Scilly aged 12 on the death of his father, a St Martin’s man. His widowed mother ran a shop and John went to sea, a typical way for boys from Scilly to help bolster the family finances. His camera, an exotic luxury in Victorian times, became his passport to financial security. By his mid-thirties John Gibson owned a photography studio in Penzance.
“In the mid-1860s the family returned to the islands. John and his sons, Alexander Gendall Gibson (1857-1944) and Herbert John Gibson (1861-1937), founded the Lyonnesse photography studio at their home on St Mary’s. An advertisement invited visitors to see the Gibsons’ private museum of local discoveries at the Church Street house.”
The Gibson family has perhaps gone down in history as the archipelago’s best known photography family, but a surprising number of other very determined and talented snappers were sailing and marching around the islands – often at great risk to themselves – in a bid to capture the amazing maritime scenery.
Scenery which, by the way, was both easier and more difficult to capture using the very limited technology of the time. The intense light enjoyed by the islands is legendary – and it allowed early photographers to capture much clearer and more startling images than their primitive wooden cameras and glass plates could have done up on the darker land-bound mainland.
On the other hand, many who first set out to photograph the rocks and isles failed to do so simply because the light was too bright and their images were over exposed.
Amanda states how the Scillonian photo pioneers used unwieldy and heavy equipment in often challenging conditions to record special events and daily life: “Common to all photographers were the difficulties of working to professional standards: juggling remote locations, heavy equipment, mobile dark rooms, and above all unpredictable weather and intractable tides. Ingenuity, courage and stubbornness were prerequisites for photographers working in these islands.”
Two men who overcame such problems were contemporaries of Alexander and Herbert Gibson.
“Charles J. King (c.1858-1939), a native of Southend-on-Sea, came to Scilly to open a chemist’s shop, the first St. Mary’s Pharmacy, in 1890,” writes Amanda. “He became interested in photography and made the first picture postcards sold in the islands. His early photographic studies were exhibited all over England and the continent.”
She adds: “‘Fudgy’ King was a keen all-round sportsman, which stood him in good stead as he became increasingly passionate about wildlife photography. He stalked and photographed wild seabirds and seals, climbing the most perilous of slopes and rocks to get shots from every conceivable angle, building temporary hides and setting trip-wires – anything to get the best possible picture.”
“Francis J. Mortimer (1874-1944) was brought up in Portsmouth but was related to a St Agnes family. He became an internationally acclaimed photographer. With his home-made waterproof camera, F.J. would clamber over rocky headlands and set sail during rough seas to photograph wild storms and vessels in distress, greatly admiring the lifeboat crews who navigated Scilly’s treacherous waters and deeply conscious of his Scillonian roots.”
Amanda concludes: “These photographers stimulated a huge interest in Scilly in photography. Islanders posed for their photo portraits and a few acquired their own cameras.
“The Isles of Scilly Museum has gained funding to embark on a major project to scan and record the islands’ photographs,” she adds, sating that the Isles of Scilly Museum is always interested in seeing photos and albums belonging to members of the public.
“If you are willing to let us scan your images, then we can supply you with a digital copy. This is an ideal way to conserve your photographs for the future and will help the Museum safeguard the photographic legacy of the islands,” she says.
Find out more at www.iosmuseum.org