Poles identify forebears in precious community photo archive at Polish Institute

By Lizzy Brooks | 17 June 2008
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A black and white shot of a grandmother washing a baby in a tin bath

Credit: Jan Markiewicz.

Jan Markiewicz’s photo archive, on display now till 26th June at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, bears witness to a fascinating story that transcends generational and national boundaries. Lizzy Brooks listened in as visitors identified old friends and family in the amazing photo archive rescued from a bin.

Crisp black and white images illustrate the social and cultural life of the Polish exile community, a group of approximately 2,000 people who chose to remain in London in the post-war era, rather than return to Soviet-dominated Poland. As a commercial photographer with a locally based practice, Markiewicz had unique access to intimate family celebrations, as well as to public events and religious holidays. The photos in the exhibition paint a vibrant human portrait. To the casual observer, they allow a glimpse into an unlikely pocket of history. For many members of London’s current Polish community, the images evoke old memories. Whether lived or just imagined, the exhibition spins a narrative that teems with the intrigue of a former time and place.

A black and white shot of a group of suited men and a hall - at the centre stands a priest in his robes.

Credit: Jan Markiewicz.

Markeiwicz ran a commercial photography practice from his home in SW11 during the late 1940s and early 1950s. His work appeared regularly in small local newspapers, and he was often commissioned to record the ballroom dances and folkloric pageants that peppered community social life in the post-war era. The first panel in the exhibition is labeled ‘entertainment.’ Champagne bottles, polka dot dresses, and a mid-song accordionist paint a celebratory portrait. A picture of a couple enjoying a quiet moment on the edge of a dance suggests a fleeting and intimate view of humanity that is easily overlooked by careless eyes.

The neat 4x6 prints are displayed like the images from a family album, arranged in rows on white matted backings. The informality of the display combines with the quiet, almost domestic atmosphere of the Sikorski Museum to give the viewer the thrilling sensation of uncovering dusty memorabilia.

A bride pins cheques to the wall above a mantlepiece

Credit: Jan Markiewicz.

The display continues into a series of official portraits of the Polish Government In Exile, a political body that was established after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. The organization was formed in Paris and later moved to London, where it gave face and leadership to the growing community of exiled intelligentsia. Prime Minister Wladislaw Sikorski died in 1943, but the Government In Exile continued its leadership with the help of a number of prominent political figures, including Lt. General Wladislaw Anders, who figures prominently in Markeiwicz’s photography.

Anders was the commander of a Polish cavalry brigade at the outbreak of World War II. Captured by Russian forces and held prisoner in Siberia until 1941, he went on to lead a renegade regiment, called ‘the Anders army,’ who agitated for the release of Polish nationals in the Soviet Union. After the war, Anders moved with his family to London, where he joined the Polish Government in Exile.

A black and white photos of little girls dressed in identical white dresses at a street parade

Credit: Jan Markiewicz.

Perhaps the most unusual element of the exhibition is the accident through which the photographs were discovered. Curator Nicole Tattersal was eating dinner at her friend’s home when he told her that he had recently found a collection of photographs in a rubbish bin. As they poured over the pictures, Tattersal recognized a sculpture of some wooden ducks that she remembered from her childhood in the Polish community. From that clue, they traced the photos to Markiewicz, and uncovered an interpersonal web that delves into the city’s collective memory.

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