It is romantic to think of a photograph as a snapshot of a world that would otherwise be lost to us. However the Gibson family’s enormous collection of photographs of Cornwall is so much more than a romanticised version of the past.
They document the everyday. Capture the world of working-class Cornish people.
Set against the backdrop of the arresting landscape they called home, and which we can still recognise today, these are the extraordinary images of ordinary lives.
John Gibson acquired his first camera sometime in the 1850s when photography as a science was in its infancy and photography as an art was almost unthought-of. John was a sailor and it is thought that he perhaps bought a camera while working away at sea. He was at first self-taught but later took a professional portrait photography course in Plymouth and set up his own studio on St Mary’s on the Scilly Isles in 1870.
This is the first exhibition of Gibson photographs since Penlee House managed to acquire the collection in June 2016 and it is the first time that the majority of the images have been seen by the public. Lining the walls of the upstairs gallery are 37 black and white pictures, the work of John and his son’s Alexander and Herbert.
The complete archive, which includes thousands of pictures taken by four generations of the same family, spans 150 years and was put up for auction in London last year. Unfortunately due to financial constraints Penlee was only able to secure a small part of it. The extraordinary ‘Gibson Shipwreck Archive’ sold at Sotheby’s to the National Maritime Museum for £122,000.
Although this exhibition doesn’t include any of the iconic wreck pictures which the Gibson family was famous for, the sea is the backdrop to almost all of the photographs. The charming beauty of the images is made all the more impressive once you consider the basic, unwieldy equipment that was used. Photography was an expensive and cumbersome activity. Very often the photographer only had one opportunity to take the picture they wanted and could never be sure of the results. The temperamental alchemy of chemicals seems as magical now as it did then.
Penlee’s Gibson Collection is made up of 1200 original photographic prints and 290 glass slides all showing evocative images of Cornwall taken between 1870 and 1910. The photographs were sold as a single lot in the Sotheby’s sale for just over £31,000 and were initially bought by an anonymous private vendor who then offered the collection to Penlee House.
Since then a team of volunteers, the Penlee Photographic Research Group, have been cleaning and cataloguing the pictures. Something that the Gibson family never did. Local legend has it that Alexander Gibson, famously eccentric and unpredictable, threw a large number of the family’s glass slides down a mine shaft after he retired. Alexander was a keen amateur archaeologist and much of his work features the antiquities of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The majority of this exhibition however focuses on Penzance, the home of the family’s second studio, and the neighbouring harbours of Newlyn and Mousehole.
Each photograph is accompanied by a detailed description produced by the research group. These labels serve to not only place the image in time but also provide fascinating snippets of social history and wherever possible the names of the people featured.
Gibson & Sons Archive/ Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance
A photograph labelled ‘Mousehole Harbour, 1880s’ is particularly striking. Its composition is almost perfect. Boats bob in the harbour, nets slung to dry between their masts. The water is a calm reflective pond. Fishwives stand dressed in ankle length aprons on the steps of a weather-worn cottage while the men drag the catch ashore. It is a scene worthy of a Newlyn School oil painting and in the foreground the photographer, Alexander Gibson, has managed to include himself, standing gazing out to sea.
Another later photograph taken on Penzance promenade in 1910 is also particularly arresting. Although the image is black and white of course you are still able to make out the sharp light of a bright summer’s day, perhaps early morning. Three stylishly dressed ladies in white cotton blouses, tiny waists pinched in by wide belts, stride towards the camera. Two are wearing wide brimmed hats and the one closest to the sea reaches up to adjust her hair. Behind them a young boy in a flat cap kicks his heels across the paving slabs, hands jammed in his trouser pockets, his face is turned towards the lens. It is a perfectly composed moment and reminiscent of a famous painting of a similar scene, The Rain it Raineth Everyday by Norman Garstin, produced 10 years earlier (minus the umbrellas).
Although the Gibson family made their living from studio portraits and selling postcards of quintessential Cornish views, their legacy is far more diverse and valuable. They recorded industries now lost and buildings now demolished. They recorded the back alleys and the quiet moments. In this exhibition faces of long forgotten folk look out. Ordinary people, many desperately poor, posing to have their picture taken. The group of small boys in a picture entitled ‘Penzance Urchins’ are mostly bare foot and dirty but they smile at one another, arms about each other’s shoulders. John Gibson wanted to take their picture and more than 100 years later we still are able to look at those hopeful faces.
Penlee House intends to continue their research into the newly acquired collections and plans further exhibitions in the coming months.
25th November – 6th January 201
Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Morrab Road, Penzance TR18 4HE
Open Monday to Saturday, 10.00am to 4.30pm.
Images by permission of Penlee House Gallery