Monday, 24 July 2017

A visit to the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum


Returning from a trip to Devon recently we stopped off at the University of Exeter to visit the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (part of the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, as a sign inside pronounced).  Despite it being a Saturday in the holiday we were amazed that we were the only visitors during the entire two hours we spent there.  The research centre was shut on a weekend, so no curators were around, but the museum itself is open seven days a week, other than bank holidays and between Christmas and New Year.  Admission is free.  As it was a vacation weekend we were able to park near the front door of the building in which the centre is situated, but I got the impression parking can be a problem during term-time.

Based on the collection put together by filmmaker Bill Douglas and his friend Peter Jewell over a thirty-year period, the museum has on show a small selection, about 1,000, of the 75,000 objects held by the university devoted to the moving image.  They include equipment, posters, photographs, books, magazines, toys, publicity ephemera – in fact anything connected with going to the pictures.  As well as covering the history of cinema, there is a great deal on pre-cinema, including optical toys, shadow puppets and magic lanterns.  It’s not all British and American; there is an international, or at least European, element.

Split into two main galleries, with extra cases before you go in for temporary exhibitions, the smaller ground floor room one enters first is devoted to cinema post-1910, and the much larger downstairs room to pre- and early cinema.  Thus visitors will tend to look at the more modern material before the older, rather than follow it in chronological order.  That on pre- and early cinema is grouped into peep shows, optical illusions, the magic lantern, panoramas, ‘the beginnings of film’, and so on.  Eadweard Muybridge has a case to himself.  Post-1910 cases cover filmmakers, British cinema, cinemagoing, animation, Charlie Chaplin, stars, Hollywood and blockbusters.  One would not expect much in the way of television, but the temporary exhibition, ‘Space, Astronomy and the Moving Image’, included Dr Who and the Star Trek series.

In addition to the cases there were objects on tables for visitors to try, such as replica praxinoscopes, zoetropes, stereoscopes and cards, and flick books.  Artefacts were well presented, within the constraints imposed by limited space and the necessity for low lighting, though often descriptions, particularly dates, were scanty.  However, it was possible to borrow a copy of the Bill Douglas Centre Museum Guide (2010) from reception to learn more about the collection.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum opened in 1997 with the Douglas/Jewell donation, but there have been additions by others since (including Derek Jarman’s producer James Mackay, whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing), and we noticed something from the British Film Institute’s old Museum of the Moving Image collection.  It is a shame the BFI has dispersed objects from MOMI, which closed in 1999, but this is a good place for them to reside, though Exeter’s restricted space means they can only display a fraction of what could be seen at the BFI.  I visited MOMI several times and, while I loved it, I was always frustrated that the curators failed to rotate exhibits.  I wonder if the same might be true of the Bill Douglas Museum.  If so, as it is much smaller, it will repay repeated visits less.  Of course, all the items listed on the museum’s website can be examined in the centre’s reading room.

While researchers will see the museum as an adjunct to the research centre, it is a valuable destination for the general public interested in this important part of our cultural heritage.  Those concerned primarily with the cinema in the south-west will find that the region is not prioritised (the South West Film & Television Archive is based in Plymouth), rather it celebrates cinema, its precursors and its culture, in the round.  Thanks to Douglas, Jewell and the other donors, and not least to the University of Exeter, it is a tremendously enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Spirit photographs under the hammer


If anyone harboured a doubt that original spirit photographs are valuable objects, it would have been dispelled by the sale on 11 July of an album of prints at Sotheby’s.  The estimate was £2-3,000, and they went for £10,000, plus buyer’s premium of 25%, making a grand total of £12,500.  The lot was described as ‘Spirit Photographs--Hudson, Frederick (and others) ALBUM OF 29 PHOTOGRAPHS. [C.1872]’. 

Contained in a scrapbook, of the same vintage, were 29 albumen prints, 24 mounted on card, 2 unmounted and 3 cartes-de-visite, including one by Frederick Hudson, captioned and signed by Georgiana Houghton on the reverse:  "...I was seated in the place where the figure appears, but my face was in the opposite direction - I am invisible and the spirit is apparent...", with a date of 4 April 1872.  In addition there were three press cuttings.  The album was described as having ‘green roan-backed cloth boards, upper cover stamped in gilt 'Scrap Book', spine worn with loss, covers bowed, some wear.’

A note in the catalogue stated that ‘The majority of the photographs are evidently the work of a single photographer and are highly reminiscent of known photographs by F.M. Parkes.’  Parkes was working at the same time as Hudson but is far less well known today.  Georgiana Houghton was a spirit medium, artist and writer, and associate of Hudson’s.

A figure well over the estimate for spirit photographs is by no means unprecedented.  In 2013 an album of 27 photographs taken during Thomas Glendenning Hamilton’s séances at his home in Winnipeg in the 1920s, and copiously annotated, sold, with buyer’s premium, for the enormous sum of US$93,750 (estimate $4-6,000) – the kind of number that makes museum curators swallow nervously as they reassess the security of their collections.

Admittedly that was an unusually large amount.  The following year a series of lots comprising photographs by Richard Boursnell and J. Evans Sterling, and Craig and George Falconer, went for more realistic prices: $3,000 with premium (estimate $2,500-$3,500) for five Boursnell and Sterling images, and the same for eight Falconer brothers photographs (estimate $1,000-$1,500).  Surprisingly ten cartes-de-visite taken by Hudson and annotated by Houghton remained unsold (estimate $4-6,000).

The market for spirit photography is in good health, and as the Hamilton sale indicates, post-Victorian images can achieve high prices.  Such sales are not confined to high-end auctioneers like Sotheby’s either – single original images occasionally appear on eBay among the junk, though they often struggle to sell at the prices asked, perhaps because their authenticity (referring to the artefact rather than the content) is less certain than it would be if sold through a reputable auction house, with its access to experts.

One unfortunate by-product of these prices, however, is that it is likely, when good quality material turns up, it will go back to private collectors with deep pockets and not be available to researchers.  Such collections as those of the Society for Psychical Research and (especially) the College of Psychic Studies are rich sources for the serious study of spirit photography but these institutions do not have the funds to compete for fresh acquisitions.  Instead they rely on donations, and for the owner who can realise a significant sum by selling, the chances are that the auction house will be the preferred destination.

Monday, 3 July 2017

I love that dirty water


The theme of this week’s Cerys Matthews show (2 July) on BBC Radio 6 Music was rivers, to celebrate London Rivers Week.  In the words of London Rivers Week’s website it:

‘aims to inspire people like you to take pride in our waterways, understand the challenges they face and come together to create a healthy future for our rivers.’

I’m not sure about that ‘like you’, which sounds a tad patronising, but the sentiments are sound.  Naturally Cerys played an enjoyable selection of tracks, but one I was expecting which didn’t appear was Dirty Water.  Written by Ed Cobb and originally performed by the Standells in 1965, they sang about Boston, Mass., USA, referring to the ‘banks of the River Charles’ and including the line ‘Aw, Boston, you’re my home’.

That wasn’t though the version I thought I might hear.  A pub rock band I used to see regularly in the late 1970s/early 80s in London was the Inmates.  A vague link was a school friend, Jeff Mead, who organised these outings. He was friends with somebody called Mike Spenser (whose sister Maxine by coincidence I worked with for a while).  Spenser had had formed the Flying Tigers but they had broken up, producing two bands – Spenser’s the Cannibals, with whom Jeff played for a while on bass, and the Inmates.

The Inmates covered Dirty Water and did very well with it, substituting the banks of the River Thames for the Charles, and London for Boston.  A generally punchier version than the Standells’, with singer Bill Hurley channelling Mick Jagger, it was a huge crowd-pleaser guaranteed to get everybody dancing.  The song was included on the LP First Offence and issued as a single.

Surprisingly, it was the Standells’ Dirty Water which was used on the soundtrack to the film Fever Pitch (2005), a missed trick.  The Inmates’ though appeared in the 1999 film EDtv.

One unfortunate line which may account for its failure to appear on Cerys’s show is ‘Those frustrated women have to be in by 12 o’clock’.  This was apparently a reference to the curfew imposed on female students in 1960s Boston but frankly didn’t make much sense in late 1970s London, and sounds sexist now.

Yet overall there is a difference in tone between the Standells’ and the Inmates’ approaches.  Where the former feels sneering and ironic (they didn’t even live in Boston), the latter has always struck me as sincere; a love letter to a London that, despite undoubtedly grotty aspects, still evident beneath its creeping homogenisation, is a city worth celebrating and worthy to be called home.

Thankfully the Thames is a lot cleaner than it used to be, but the Inmates’ Dirty Water feels relevant all the same.  I’ve not lived in the city for a quarter of a century, but the river is in the DNA of all Londoners, wherever they find themselves, and Dirty Water is its appropriately grungy anthem.  It would have been wonderful if Cerys had found time to play it in celebration of London Rivers Week.  Perhaps she will next year.