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.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Photography exhibitions by Jan Kempenaers and Christopher Nunn

© Jan Kempenaers 

Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers has a new exhibition at the Breese Little Gallery in London which shows the results of his forays across Europe to record a number of large structures, many of them in a state of decay.  My eye was particularly caught by his photograph of the enormous arch at Brest in Belarus (certainly not decaying) as I have walked through it myself.  The offset star-shaped entrance to the Brest fortress displays an aesthetic playfulness often missing in Soviet architecture.

Playfulness, however, is not Kempenaers’ concern: he presents these monolithic structures in black and white, emphasising their hardness and dominance, but also their drabness, ossified and out of time.  The results commemorate his subjects’ power and overwhelming presence in the landscape, with an emphasis on their’ graphic qualities. 

He had previously compiled a series in colour, Spomenik – also shown at the Breese Little Gallery – which focused on Tito-era Second World War memorials across the former Yugoslav territories, and the colour gives them a softness his latest project lacks.  As in his earlier project he has photographed the structures without people, emphasising their sense of permanence by excluding specifics that would date them, and foregrounding their sculptural qualities.

Information on the subjects is deliberately kept to a minimum as well, ripping them from their context.  For fans of surviving traces of (mostly) vanished regimes – Belarusian president  Alexander Lukashenko doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave office – the exhibition is well worth a visit, but this is by no means a documentary approach and some viewers may find it frustrating not to have captions to support the images.

Down the road at the Calvert 22 Foundation, British photographer Christopher Nunn’s Holy Water work-in-progress consists of recent photographs taken in eastern Ukraine, showing as part of the Independent Photography Festival.  He has captured people being themselves in what must be difficult circumstances; just how difficult can be judged by Nunn himself, who earlier this year ended up in hospital with eye damage when he was caught in shelling by separatists.

In a world dealing with so many problems it is easy to forget the Russian efforts to destabilise Ukraine, but Nunn show the determination of the residents near the front line to carry on as best they can.  Looking at the photographs, one wouldn’t know that there was a conflict raging that has now claimed tens of thousands of lives.  Eschewing the fighting itself, he captures people relaxing, drinking, being affectionate.  Pet dogs feature prominently.  As a counterbalance to the people there are shots of domestic interiors.  The emphasis across the exhibition is on the everyday.

The war is not totally absent, as indicated by a photograph of a field with fragile wooden crosses marking graves, but the focus is firmly on ordinary activities.  Religious iconography is prominent: a golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary; an elaborate tattoo on a man’s back of the Holy Family, and youths stripped to the waist by a lake sporting Orthodox crosses; but at present its residents must surely feel this is a land that God has forsaken.

While the conflict lasts, life will become ever harder and more dangerous for the local population, and Nunn’s photographs reinforce the message that the world cannot look away from what is happening.  He has put his own life on the line to document this troubled region, and he deserves our utmost respect and attention.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Changes to the SPR logo

The new SPR logo

Eagle-eyed followers of the Society for Psychical Research’s Facebook page and Twitter feed will have spotted that the logo adorning the top of each has changed, though not by much.  The previously shaded psi symbol is now entirely black and sporting a broader foot, the typeface used for the name is slightly thinner and upper case, and the ‘SPR’ abbreviation at the bottom of the ring has been replaced by Est. 1882, an improvement as the initials are redundant and the date reinforces the longevity of the Society.  These are fairly cosmetic changes, but it was decided the logo needed to be refreshed as the old version was looking dated.  The replacement will be rolled out on the website and print publications in due course.

The old one had been in use since 1990, when I co-designed it with Bernard Carr.  The then SPR Publicity Committee, which Bernard chaired, held a competition among the membership to choose a logo.  This was announced in the SPR Newsletter, No. 30, July 1989, p. 20.*  The judging process was protracted, and the winner was not announced until the October 1990 issue, No. 35, p. 29.  Bernard introduced the design by saying the Committee had received nearly 40 entries (some half-a-dozen of which must have been mine) and that ten had been selected as a shortlist for a Council decision.  One of these was my double ring with lettering, to which Bernard had added the psi symbol.

Once a single design had been selected, on which there was ‘surprising agreement’ as Bernard put it, a number of variants were drawn up, with the chosen version looking similar but not identical to the one that has been in use for many years – the original had sans serif lettering of slightly different dimensions, and the shading was not quite the same.  Bernard continued by saying, somewhat disparagingly, ‘It is obviously very traditional – and not as modern or as imaginative as some of the other suggestions – but its conservatism is perhaps a fair reflection of the nature of the society and it does at least convey the essential message!’

The old SPR logo

He concluded: ‘The closest approximation to the final logo was suggested by Tom Ruffles.  Rather embarrassingly, he is also on the Publicity Committee, which adjudicated the competition.  We therefore decided to award the prize (a book token) to Maurice Grosse, who besides making several suggestions of his own, also helped by drawing up proper versions of the short-listed entries.’

On the whole the logo has served the Society well as part of its image, and it seems popular; so much that the Dutch SPR use it on their Twitter feed as well.  Whether the new version will generate the same degree of affection, or adoption by other organisations, remains to be seen.  The new psi symbol could be considered as rather heavy, even stodgy, whereas the old ‘3D’ one had a lightness chiming with the image of psychical research, but shading does seem dated and the new version will soon become familiar.  For all its ‘conservatism’ I’m pleased that what is essentially the same logo has been in use for over a quarter of a century, with a few more years in front of it, which in this fast-moving image-conscious world is no mean feat.


*The old Newsletter, which preceded first The Psi Researcher and then the Paranormal Review, ran from February 1981 to January 1991, edited for nearly all that period by Dr Susan Blackmore.  For some reason while the later two publications are in the Lexscien online library of SPR publications, the SPR Newsletter isn’t.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

George Harry Ruffels – 11 April 1917


April 1917 was a busy month in the prosecution of the First World War, with the Battles of Arras and Vimy Ridge in full swing, the declaration of war by the United States on Germany on the 6th, not to mention the death of writer Edward Thomas on the 9th.  Not as significant as the military and diplomatic endeavours, but of huge significance personally, 11 April 2017 marks the centenary of the death of my paternal grandfather, George Harry Ruffels (sic).  My father was not quite four months old, and he became an orphan when his mother Lucy died in the influenza pandemic towards the end of 1918, leaving him to be brought up by relatives.

George was born at Palgrave, a village close to Diss just inside the Suffolk border; that much is certain.  When he was born is less clear.  I have not been able to find a firm date of birth for him and there is a possibility the birth was not registered.  His parents’ census returns indicate he was born in 1867, or possibly the previous year, but he may have been born in about November 1865 according to information he supplied to the army.  He was baptised on 21 April 1867, but it could have taken place well after he was born, and his parents may have made an effort to obfuscate his true age in census records in order to conceal his illegitimacy – Thomas Ruffels and Elizabeth Firman married only in the first quarter of 1867.

In the 1871 Census the family is listed as living at Holly Cottage, Palgrave, though by the 1881 one they had moved to 40, St Andrews Street, Bury St Edmunds, and George’s occupation is given as errand boy.  His father’s census returns for 1871 and 1881 states George’s age as 4 and 14 respectively, and in the 1911 Census George gives his age as 44, putting his year of birth as 1866 or ‘67.

In 1881 or 1882 he enlisted for 12 years’ service in the First Battalion, The Suffolk Regiment.  During 1888-90 he was a private serving in India, according to the Campaign Medal and Award Rolls.  By 1893 he was back in England because on 12 August of that year he married Lucy Ann Gibson and was living at The Camp, Colchester.  According to the marriage certificate his occupation was lance corporal (bandsman), Suffolk Regiment.  He gave his age as 26, which again chimes with an 1867 date, while Lucy’s was 19.

At some point they moved to Liverpool, though why is unclear.  There is a Findmypast record of soldiers who died in the Great War which says of him that he was ‘Formerly 2/613, King's Liverpool Regt.’, so he may have transferred regiments prior to discharge; I have not seen any primary documentation for this.  He left the army sometime in late 1893 or 1894, after he had completed his 12 years, and became a goods porter on the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway, living in Toxteth Park.  This doesn’t seem to have worked out because by 1899 he was working as a dock labourer.

His movements and changes of occupation can be tracked by examining the birth certificates of his and Lucy’s children.  The couple had 12 over a 21-year period, only 3 of whom made it to adulthood, while the rest had mostly appallingly short lives, as can be gauged by this table.  Their early deaths cast a grim light on condition in working class households of the period:

13 October 1895         Birth of Ellen Elizabeth          (1st child)

22 March 1897            Birth of Sarah Ann                 (2nd child, died 1990)

13 February 1899        Birth of Albert Edward          (3rd child)

1st quarter 1900          Death of Albert Edward         (aged c. 1 year)

30 September 1901     Birth of Lucy Pretoria             (4th child)

1st quarter 1903           Death of Lucy Pretoria           (aged c. 16 months)

1 January 1904            Birth of Laura Marion             (5th child)

20th October 1905      Birth of James Harry               (6th child)

2nd quarter 1906          Death of James Harry             (aged c. 6 months)

16 February 1907        Birth of Lucy Ann                  (7th child)

3rd quarter 1907           Death of Lucy Ann                 (aged c. 6 months)

3rd quarter 1908           Death of Ellen Elizabeth         (aged 12)

18 December 1908      Birth of John William             (8th child)

1st quarter 1909           Death of John William            (aged c. 2 months)

8 July 1910                  Birth of Alice Louise              (9th child)

2nd quarter 1911          Death of Alice Louise             (aged c. 9 months)

2 January 1912            Birth of Annie Ellen               (10th child)

4th quarter 1912           Death of Annie Ellen              (aged .c 9 months)

22 February 1914        Birth of George Edward         (11th child, died 1973)

15 December 1916      Birth of John Harry                 (12th child, died 1995)

September 1918          Death of Laura Marion           (aged 14)


This is a shocking mortality rate by any standard.  Their mother Lucy only had four children alive and at home between 1905 and 1908, and never more than that at any one time.  In 1913 she only had one, Laura (Sarah had disappeared from the household by the 1911 Census).

The birth of Lucy Pretoria in September 1901 is noteworthy because of her middle name.  The city of Pretoria had been captured by the British in June 1900 during the Second Boer War, and there is a celebratory aspect to the name, one that enjoyed a vogue at the time.  More to the point, George had re-enlisted in the 8th Royal Reserve Battalion on 17 March 1900 for a year’s service, and Lucy was born in Colchester, with Georges’ occupation as musician on her birth certificate. George’s attestation form still exists, and here he gives his age as 34 and 4 months, which would make his birth date November 1865.  I think this is a possibility for his birth, rather than early 1867, as he would have provided this information himself, assuming he a) actually knew the date and b) was telling the truth.  He gives his place of birth as Palgrave, near Diss, and again states his ‘trade or calling’ as musician.  He does not appear to be in the 1901 Census, taken on 31 March, presumably because he was still abroad, though oddly neither do Lucy and the children, Ellen and Sarah, as far as I can tell.  The stay in Colchester was short-lived because by the time Lucy Pretoria died in 1903 the family was back in Liverpool, living in Kirkdale, and he was again working as a dock labourer.

It is possible the age on his 1900 attestation form and his RDC application is wrong and the 1867 date is correct.  We essentially have his word against his parents’, but the apparent lack of a birth record is suspicious.  One piece of evidence for the earlier date is that when he joined the army in 1881-2 he would have been only 14 or 15 according to his parents’ date.  However, he may have lied about his age to join up, adding a year or so enhance his chances if he had only been 14.  Without a birth certificate this seems an issue that will not be easy to resolve.

As well as a certain disdain for consistency in birth dates, there was also carelessness over the spelling of names.  Between the birth of Annie on 2 January 1912 and young George on 22 February 1914 the name changed from ‘Ruffels’ to ‘Ruffles’, which was how he and the last baby, John, were registered, though George Snr retained the original spelling in his own name, as did Lucy; at some point in her long life Sarah’s name was changed to Ruffles even though that spelling is not on her birth certificate.  There are other inaccuracies in the records:  When George registered Lucy Ann in 1907 he was put down as simply ‘Harry Ruffels’, while the 1911 Census form gives his middle name as Henry.  George was not alone in having a relaxed view about such matters: in the 1871 Census his father is recorded as Thomas Ruffells.

But George was not the first to change the children’s names from Ruffels to Ruffles.  His younger brother Thomas joined the army, at the age of 15, in 1893.  His attestation form is also existent, and he signed up as Ruffles.  Initially in the Suffolk Regiment, he transferred to the South Wales Borderers.  Despite enlisting for 12 years, he was only discharged in December 1918.  His entry in a 1919 list of soldiers entitled to the War badge still has him listed as Ruffles (it notes overseas service in South Africa, so he may have been there at the same time as George).  One gains the distinct impression that these were people not too bothered by bureaucratic niceties.  Thomas, it may be added, lived through yet another world war, dying in 1946.

At the time of his son George’s birth in February 1914, George was still working as a dock labourer, but at some point after its formation in March 1916 he joined the 123rd Company, Royal Defence Corps, with the rank of corporal, Regimental no. 37536.  He was serving in that capacity at the time of his death in an auxiliary hospital, Shornells, at Bostall Heath, Kent, on 11 April, 1917.  He died of pneumonia and syncope, by which was presumably meant he had a heart attack.  The age of 52 on his death certificate is in line with a year of birth of 1865, and this is probably also the date given when he joined the RDC.  (Actually the age on the death certificate is still wrong if he was born in November 1865, as in April 1917 he would have been 51, but it is a reasonable error if the person recording the information only looked at the years 1865-1917.)  The information he gave at the time of his third enlistment in the forces may support a year of birth of 1865, or it may be wrong but given to maintain consistency with her previous military records.   He is buried in a grave, plot F.601, in Woolwich cemetery with 13 other service personnel.  Remarkably, the register recording his effects at death has been preserved.  Referring to Shornells as Erith Hospital, the sum of £17/16/10 was authorised to be paid to his widow Lucy.

My father wasn’t told much about George, who was considered a black sheep with a reputation for having engaged in immoral behaviour in India.  There is certainly something unpleasant in fathering so many children even when it was apparent their life expectancy was low.  As a mark of this reticence about George, Dad knew nothing of all the children who died young – as far as he was aware there had only been three children, Sarah, George and himself, and he was astonished when I did some family research in the late 1980s and presented him with a set of birth certificates.  He had had no idea his mother had had nine other children, and that he wasn’t even the first child in the family to be christened John.  His elder sister Sarah had been institutionalised at an early age, and while she had made vague references over the years to other siblings, he had not taken them seriously.  Uncle George presumably knew as little as my father, and they were not particularly close; George stayed in Liverpool while my father made a new life in London as soon as he could.  It is surprising, considering the fractured nature of the family history, that a photograph of my grandfather in uniform has survived.

The centenaries of my parents’ births in 2016, and the centenary of my grandfather’s death this year, have given me a renewed interest in my family history.  I appreciate that this sort of thing is of little interest to others, on a level with hearing about someone’s dreams, but I think it worth recording my findings, and I shall add to them should more information come to light.  If anybody can establish the precise date of my grandfather’s birth, I shall be grateful.  As well as thinking about my grandfather on the centenary of his death, my thoughts are with the many aunts and uncles I had who never made it to adulthood.