Marjorie Baker's portrait of her father. Image courtesy of Henfield Museum.
Olivia Laing went to the West Sussex village of Henfield to explore a collection of photographs that form an alluring portrait of village life spanning the twentieth century.
Like most village museums, Henfield is used to receiving unusual objects as gifts. Since Miss Lucie Bishop began the collection in 1948, archive material from farm implements to penny farthing bicycles and antique wedding dresses have been preserved for posterity. Over the years, bequests and loans have swelled the collection, and by 1994 the museum had grown so large it was moved to the current purpose-built site.
But in 2004 Henfield Museum became the beneficiary of an unusual gift, and one that would be the envy of many much larger museums. One of the village’s long-term residents was Marjorie Baker, a local photographer who had worked in the Henfield area since before the war. When she died, she bequeathed her entire archive to the museum.
The collection of 30,000 negatives spans 60 years and is a stunning evocation of country life throughout the twentieth century. In the course of her career, Marjorie documented everything about the local area: from farmhands to gentry, shop-fronts to stately homes, street parties to military exercises.
Henfield Village Cricket Team by Marjorie Baker. Cricket has been played in the village since 1773. Image courtesy of Henfield Museum.
Her work, nearly always privately commissioned, covered all aspects of the village, and some fascinating details have been preserved. There’s a sense of a rural way of life that has now been lost, with fresh-faced girls milking cows, a chimney sweep clutching his brushes and a road-mender sprawled in the sward, sipping his lunchtime beer.
The Second World War is particularly well documented. Portraits of servicemen were very much in demand by families, and these photographs are amongst the most moving work in Baker’s collection. While many of the fresh-faced and smartly turned out young men returned safely, others were not so fortunate, perishing in seas and battlefields far from their village home.
But the collection is not only significant as a social history archive. Baker was an extraordinary, and very much unsung, photographer in her own right. The Guardian described Baker’s photographs as “masterpieces of technical, visual and dramatic art”, and in her obituary noted:
“Marjorie's remarkable sense of vision meant that she worked subconsciously to tell a story - it was a story she knew because she had grown up within the village community. She knew what made it tick and what made it proud, and could get under the skin of village life. It was this almost documentary ability that makes her collection, now given to her village museum, outstanding.”
Alan Barwick, curator at Henfield Museum, explains the collection to Renaissance student journalist, Olivia Laing. Photograph by Chris Drake.
The bequest did not come as a surprise to the museum’s two curators, Marjorie Carreck and Alan Barwick. Knowing they were going to receive the collection, they had spent the past two years visiting Baker twice weekly to record the history behind every one of the images. Baker had an extraordinary memory, and according to Alan Barwick, “could literally remember every photograph she ever took”.
Despite its importance, the collection was not without problems for the museum. Many of the negatives were on dangerously flammable nitrate stock. Nitrate stock had to be used before the war, in the absence of more modern techniques, but the curators were horrified to realise that Baker had also returned to it during the privations of the post-war period. As Alan explains,
“It was terribly difficult to get photographic paper during the war. It was rationed, and Marjorie had to scrounge around. She used tiny negatives, X ray film, anything she could get her hands on.”
Portrait of Judge Block by Marjorie Baker, image courtesy of Henfield Museum.
All of these images, as well as the post-war nitrate photographs, had to be scanned to DVD, a time-consuming and costly process achieved thanks to an Awards for All grant for £5000 and £1500 from Henfield Parish Council.
Once the images had been digitalised, the next step was to engage the community with the history the photographs represented. Unlike many villages, Henfield has had a remarkably stable past. As Marjorie Carreck explains, “it’s an unusual village in that it is a very close knit community, where newcomers are made welcome. People don’t tend to leave, and if they do, they retire here.”
Many of the people whose portraits hang in the collection still live in the village, their descendants often still carrying on the family business. This is an enormous help in stage two of the project, which is to produce a book celebrating Marjorie Baker’s work.
Curator Alan Barwick shows Olivia Laing the images that have been selected for the Marjorie Baker Showcase Book. Photograph by Chris Drake.
For the Marjorie Baker Showcase Book, Alan Barwick has selected two hundred photographs, and is now inviting members of the village to caption them. The images have been divided into sub-sections like ‘People at Work’ and ‘Views of Henfield’, and each has a helpful question, designed to trigger memories.
Villagers are urged to respond either by identifying activities or individuals in the pictures, or using them as a springboard for their own reminiscences.
It’s a wonderful idea, which draws together visual imagery and community memories to form an unforgettable portrait of twentieth century rural life. As well as preserving the village’s history, it will stand as a lasting testament to Marjorie Baker as a photographer who documented a world now lost.
Anyone wishing to participate can find full instructions on the Henfield Parish Council website at www.henfield.gov.uk/mbb.htm
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.