George Bernard Shaw Man and Camerman – Lacock Abbey

15th October 2011

Thanks ton Armano Samarpan, he, I and seven others met at the National Trust tea-rooms on Saturday 15th October for a visit to Lacock Abbey, home of William Henry Fox-Talbot the father of negatives for photography.  We weren’t really there to celebrate Fox-Talbot but George Bernard Shaw, Irish author and playwright, some say the most recognisable man in the world during his lifetime.  This was due to Shaw’s love affair with the camera which he courted all his professional life, both as a subject promoting himself and his work, and less well know as a very competent, if not great, photographer.

Shaw was a big believer in socialism and was a great contributor to the Fabian Society with many pamphlets and speeches and was a founder member of the London School of Economics.

Some of his first works were critical essays and articles of the photographic societies of the period when he railed against their concentration on technical quality and not artistic merit and was passionate about photography being recognised as an art form in and of itself.

George Bernard Shaw

Upon his death in 1950, the photographic collection of Shaw was left to the National Trust along with all his other belongings and house.  The collection amounts to 20,000 photographs and negatives and 14 albums, from which the Man and Cameraman exhibition at Lacock Abbey was built.

The first images in the gallery are of the great man himself and are in the main studio portraits and some self-portraits.  There are a fir number of nude images, taken of himself and by himself, which aren’t pornographic but failed to establish within me what he was trying to achieve.  I have read, somewhere, that it’s believed that Shaw was experimenting with light, tone and shadow in these nudes, but I can’t see much difference between them.

Shaw seemed to enjoy a profile pose for both himself and his myriad subjects using natural light and soft focus wherever possible, of which, to my mind, he became a master.

I found the most satisfying images in this collection to be under ‘Art Photo’s’ where the following impressions were made of the pictures.

Lilah McCarthy, Charlotte Shaw and Harley Granville-Barker at Moulsford-on-Thames.  Two images clearly taken on the same day but with very different results.  The first shows the three lazing and sitting on the grass with a beautiful soft-focus background.  The second shows all three laying on the grass but the subjects and the background are in clearly defined sharp-focus.  I mentioned before that I think Shaw was a master of soft-focus and this example has the softness at just the right point in the depth-of-field.

Unveiling Rodins’ Thinker consists of three images; two are just of the crowd and one of the crowd with the statue in the mid-ground.  Of the two crowd scenes, the one with individuals hanging on to the railings and poking their arms and legs through is the most enjoyable, with just a hint of his soft-focus technique in evidence.  The image of the statue is a great journalistic shot and just shows the differences in society then and now.  The, the crowds came out to see the unveiling of a new work of art, I don’t think any artist receives that sort of attention today.

Detail of a Bridge, left me without any thought and explanations from colleagues led me to think it was more of a post-modernist style, well before it’s time, however it left me quite unmoved.

Line of Trees.  A great work and a thoroughly well thought out viewpoint.  The image is well-balanced and the curve and line of the trees leads the viewer’s eye through and out of the picture, as if it was a passing scene from a train window.

Lilah McCarthy Sculling at Moulsford-on-Thames

Lilah McCarthy Sculling at Moulsford-on-Thames is a series of 4 photographs showing the different positions a rower achieves.  The first of the series, in my opinion, was taken too soon in the cycle and makes the hands the dominant item with the ladies arms outstretched in a most unladylike manner by comparison to the other 3.  The image shown alongside this text, is in my opinion, the best of those three and captures that easy, gentle lifestyle of the upper middle-class in Edwardian times.

River Thames From Adelphi Terrace has a captured the cloud-base on that day quite wonderfully, although as an image amongst these other ‘Art Photo’s’ it really doesn’t stand out for any other reason to my mind.

Boat at Sunset

Whereas, Boat at Sunset is truly one of THE masterpieces shown.  The use of soft-focus, the choice of light and the ripple effect of the water could lead one to believe that this was a painting rather than a photograph.  The reproduction of this photograph loses the real distinguishing features from copy to print to scan, but enough of the sail reflection can be seen to provide an idea of what the original is like, although with nowhere near the detail.

A Long Moment

A Long Moment doesn’t quite have the magic.  The setting is great, the subject is great, but the lighting is too dark and the soft-focus is overdone, which spoils what would otherwise be one of the Shaw greats.

Sovereign Tower

Sovereign Tower gives me a feeling of deja vu.  Either I’ve seen this photograph/image before or someone has copied Shaws’ work or Shaw copied someone elses’ work, but it has too much of a memory for me to say it’s entirely unknown.  Having said that, I think this another one of THE greats of this show.  I don’t think you could take an image like this today, there’s no smog and the river traffic doesn’t provide the barges in such profusion; in fact where these barges are moored the London Eye advertising barge is now stationed with its garish hoarding.  One of my favourites for sure.

Lots of other photographs to see there and well worth the trip.  Be prepared for the very small size of the prints though as they weren’t meant for public gallery viewing and as such make you peer closely to examine them.  Shame they can’t be made bigger from any existing negatives, but perhaps that would destroy the ambience.

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