Rescued in a London Attic: 80 000 glass negatives from the Lafayette archive

In tangent with this project’s endeavour to salvage vestiges of the past, I am reminded of numerous articles revealing the dark side of museum ethics. Recalling the incident of how the V&A admittedly dumped archival material using “a secure data disposal service”, which was denied by a spokesman that the decision “was a mistake”, explaining that in removing the picture archive in 2007 to make way for new gallery space. The Tate Britain is no stranger to questionable ‘de-acquisition’ practices.

Brian Allen, director of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, received a call out from an anonymous Tate employee, who said to him:

“Someone said … you might like the curatorial photo archive because we’re about to throw it on to a skip.”

He immediately dispatched a van to save what he estimated to be  hundreds of boxes of confidential material, “so confidential that he asked the Tate to take items back.” These included sensitive documents relating to government committees and export applications.

Source: Dalya Alberge, ‘Tate’s national photographic archive ‘rescued from skip’ after internal tipoff’, The Guardian, Thursday 23 February 2012.

Michael Daley, director of ArtWatch UK, the restoration watchdog, condemned the disposal of photographic archives as “scandalous”.

“The new iconoclasts wanted to get rid of history … more forgivable for artists in the postwar flush of excitement about new possibilities in art. For historians to destroy archives, it should be inconceivable. It’ is unforgivable.”

“Scholars can never guess the significance they may find in photographic records. It may be 50 years before something suddenly resonates with some other evidence. 

Photo archives are almost more important than documentary records because photos are taken by machines without motive or vested interests.”

Can we trust museums and public institutions to fulfill their fundamental role as a place or building where objects of historical, artistic, or scientific interest are exhibited, preserved, and studied. Despite their variety of purposes,  variety of purposes, form, content, and even function, they are bound by a common goal: the preservation and interpretation of some material aspect of society’s cultural consciousness.

The Drawing-room: Photographing a Debutante" appeared in The Illustrated London News, 20 May 1893 and gives a realistic impression of a photographic impression in a studio, such as Lafayette. In this case the photographer directs the shoot from behind the camera, which was not always the case as studios came to offer a "style of photograph" as opposed to a photograph taken by a named photographer.

Sir Walter Besant, The Queen’s Reign 1837-1897, London, 1897, p 65
The Drawing-room: Photographing a Debutante” appeared in The Illustrated London News, 20 May 1893 and gives a realistic impression of a photographic impression in a studio, such as Lafayette. In this case the photographer directs the shoot from behind the camera, which was not always the case as studios came to offer a “style of photograph” as opposed to a photograph taken by a named photographer.

Perhaps sometimes, one has to take this duty into one’s own hands. 

On a lighter note, having lamented on the fateful life biographies of archives, from the vaults of museums to skips. Here’s a story I want to share on how 80,000 glass negatives belonging to the famed Lafayette photo studio that operated in 19th century London were salvaged from an abandoned London attic and are now safe (I hope) in the V&A photographic archives.

Spotlight: on the chance discovery of 80,000 portraits that enrich Britain’s photographic archive. 

Article from: The Sunday Times, 24 July 1988, pp. A9, by Geordie Greig

The Nyonya who had her portrait taken at Lafayette studio after receiving an M.B.E from the King.

In the late 19th to early 20th century, having a portrait taken in London was a tremendously fashionable luxury, only afforded by nobility, dignitaries and socialites. Only the ‘who’s who had their portrait taken at the Lafayette Studio in London’s New Bond Street. The Lafayette collection features numerous Asian dignitaries, one of which is Singapore’s very own Nonya – Mrs Lee Choon Guan, also known as the diamond queen.

Image

I chanced upon this knowledge and reproduction of her portrait not from the V&A archives,  but from the 1923 edition of Song Ong Siang’s ‘One Hundred Years’ history of the Chinese in Singapore’, any researcher on Peranakan/Straits Chinese study will claim this publication to be their bible. It was most likely taken during her trip to London in 1918, to be confferred the honour of Membership of the British Empire by His Majesty the King, who believed that ‘she was the only Chinese lady who holds that distinction’. It was a award in recognition of her active interest during the War in several charitable enterprises. She receive the medal dressed in her iconic Baju Koo Sah, high heels and diamonds. (Nyonya women began to wear Chinese costume as a reaction to the Straits Chinese reforms at the turn of the 20th century. (To read more about why Peranakan women adopted Chinese costumes for public occasions, read Peter Lee’s article published by the Peranakan Association on ‘Cross Dressing Chameleons’, where he explores the Nyonas affinity for Chinese Costumes.

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