A Tour of Hardmans’ House

A Tour of Hardmans’ House,

by Lorraine Bacchus

There is something about stepping into a time capsule of recent history that is so much more poignant than a place simply occupied, centuries ago.  The sense is that however meticulously it has been cleaned and restored, the corners and shadows still hold the essence of the lives that were lived there.

This was my experience during a visit to the former home and studio of renowned photographers, Edward and Margaret Hardman, located on Rodney Street in the heart of Liverpool’s Georgian quarter.

The four-storey house, now managed by the National Trust, would have been the ultimate challenge for the present doyenne of de-cluttering, Marie Kondo; for the Hardmans never threw anything away, not from their professional nor their private lives.  And they lived and worked in the house for 40 years.

We can thank the founding art director of Open Eye Gallery, Peter Hagerty, that there was no unfettered throwing out.  His fortuitous involvement in the 1980’s came via a phone call from Social Services who thought that, as a fellow photographer, he might be able to help them persuade the, by then, frail and elderly Hardman to leave his home.

Edward Chambré Fitzmaurice Hardman, to give him his full name, survived his wife, Margaret née Mills, for nearly 20 years and in that time he became increasingly reclusive. Hagerty explains that when he arrived at the house after the phone call, things were being stuffed into bin bags in an attempt to clear some of the clutter surrounding Hardman.  Hagerty realised immediately that valuable photographic material was in danger of being dumped.  He halted the clearing out and the rest, as they say, is history.

The house one can visit today is preserved as it was in the 1950’s at the height of the Hardmans’ business.  It is the only known example of a 20th century photographic practice, where the complete output has been preserved intact – 150,000 images bundled into boxes – along with all the studio equipment, the stock, the personal possessions and all the office paraphernalia.

The amount of stuff is even now overwhelming and that’s after years of sifting, sorting, cataloguing and archiving.  Only four years ago some undeveloped rolls of film were found in a box and these previously unseen photographs are now on show.  They give a terrific insight into the Hardmans’ techniques, such as bracketing, which involves taking multiple shots of the same image at different settings.

The volunteers who conduct the tours do a good job in conveying what went on in each room and the effect of standing before such lives as the Hardmans is silencing. What is so affecting about this house, as with other artists’ studios that have been painstakingly recreated – such as Brancusi’s in Paris or Bacon’s in Dublin – is that a freeze-framing has taken place bestowing everything with a peculiar melancholia.

It is of course fascinating to be able to see in such detail how the Hardmans ran their business, right down to the framed instructions to the sitters: “do not use powder”, is the advice, “as its effect is to make the face look too full”.  And, pre-dating Photoshop by many decades, they are told that the studio’s artists would remove any temporary skin blemishes on the final print.

The Hardmans did not make the move into colour photography but they did offer a hand-colouring service.  Such was their attention to detail that in order to ensure the colours were as accurate as possible, copious notes would be made and a lock of hair and a snip of fabric would be taken from a sitter’s outfit.  One of the drawers in the house was crammed with envelopes containing such personal effects, which seems extraordinary these days, given the stringent laws around the storing of DNA.

This was a couple whose day job was producing studio portraits of the famous and the wealthy but who made their escape at every opportunity – strapping their equipment to bicycles – getting out and about, photographing the landscape of the city, its streets and its people.  The evidence of chaotic domesticity they left behind reveals two people who were too excited by their art form to be bothered with everyday chores.

For all their laissez-faire with regard to their personal lives, the Hardmans were scrupulous in their professional ones and although they demanded high standards of all who worked for them, they were apparently fair and kind employers.  There are a couple of eerie, disembodied recordings of their staff, whose recollections of their time working for the Hardmans make plain a high level of job satisfaction.  Some of the work practices, however, would make today’s zealous health and safety officers blanche; the description of the fumes in the cellar’s darkroom, for example.

And one can only imagine what would happen now if a real leopard skin, complete with bared teeth, were the prop on which babies were laid to have their portraits taken, as was the case in the Hardman studio.  They didn’t have children of their own but the Hardmans accumulated a large and diverse collection of mechanical and plastic toys, which were used to distract the kids. If all else failed, Bick their dog was brought in to perform tricks.

The Trust’s challenge was to open the house to the public, whilst at the same time maintaining a sense of how it was used.  The answer has been to limit each tour to a maximum of seven people and to choreograph it to a strict routine.  The focus is very much on Chambré Hardman who was the front man, the face of the studio, with Margaret seemingly doing everything else, having a talent for running a business.  But she was also a gifted photographer and it would have been good to see more evidence of this.  In fact I’d expected to see a great deal more of their photographs on the walls but presumably such a display has been jettisoned in the Trust’s endeavours to recreate the house as it was.  But not even Chambré’s most iconic image was on display, that of the birth of the Ark Royal. The ghostly shape of the ship glowing in the gloom of the Birkenhead streets is one of the most reproduced images illustrating Liverpool’s industrial past.

What is celebrated in this house is a photographic legacy of immense historical interest.  But what is palpable is the Hardmans’ love affair – not just with each other but also with the art of photography.

Over 1,000 digitised images from the Chambré Hardman collection can be seen on the National Trust site as can details of the tours.  https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardmans-house