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A brief history of photography in Polperro

Photography has a long and distinguished history in Polperro, and we are fortunate to have rich collections of images of the village and its people dating from as early as the 1850s. We owe these collections mainly to two men: Lewis Harding and Francis Frith.

Source: 'Lewis Harding, Cornwall's pioneer photographer' by Philip Correll.
A scene by the harbour by Lewis Harding, about 1870.
Note the artist on the right.

Lewis Harding (1807-1893) was the grandson of Sir Harry Trelawny of Trelawne Manor in Pelynt. After his early life in France and Australia, Harding returned to his family home in 1846 in such a poor state as to be practically an invalid. To his great good fortune Harding was nursed back to health by Dr Jonathon Couch using an early example of occupational therapy, which took two forms: first, Couch encouraged Harding to makea detailed (and ground breaking) study of a nearby colony of birds, the rooks of Trelawne, and to record their hour by hour activities in a diary. Second, shortly before Harding moved first to Talland and later to Polperro, Couch introduced him to the newly emerging art of photography.

Over the following 30 years Harding photographed the village, its surroundings, activities like fish trading above the harbour and perhaps most interestingly its people, both around the village and in the studio at his home in Osprey Cottage on Talland Hill. Within the extensive collection of photographs that still survives are head and shoulders portraits of more than 80 Polperro fishermen.

Part of the photograph collection in Polperro’s museum.

These were still very early days in the history of photography. The first forms of image making that we would normally consider to be truly photographic date from the middle of the nineteenth century, pioneered among others by Louis Daguerre, William Fox Talbot and Frederick Scott Archer. A handful of keen amateurs established the Royal Photographic Society in 1853. But eventhen, Harding and his contemporaries relied on photographic techniques that were complex and cumbersome, requiring enormous cameras, delicate glass plates and bottles of chemicals that they had to carry with them for their outdoor work and manipulate within portable dark rooms. Photography did not become a truly popular, mass market activity and industry until Kodak introduced its first box camera in 1888 and eventually its immensely popular 'point and shoot' Brownie in 1903.

Source: Private collection of Paul Lightfoot.
A group of men and a prized possession, 1920s.

The life of Francis Frith (1822-1898) was very different. Born in Derbyshire, after dabbling with photography for a few years he set up his own studio in 1850, travelled widely in Europe and the Middle East, and in 1860 set out to photograph every town and village in Britain. For Frith, photography became a business, and a very rewarding one. He established Francis Frith & Company, mainly to produce and sell postcards. Although he did the early work himself, most of the vast number of photographs that bear his name were actually taken by the photographers whom he employed and trained, and who continued to record the detailed, place by place state of the nation long after Frith died. For Polperro, the result is a collection of 300 photographs dating from the 1880s to the 1960s.

Taken together, the Harding and Frith collections provide invaluable glimpses of village life and the development of the village during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From them we see the evolution of the quays around the harbour, the appearance of new houses along the foot path beyond the Warren, above the beach and eventually at Brent, and the change in the numbers and character of boats in the harbour, from handsome but utilitarian sailing luggers packed together in the 1880s to the gradual appearance of boats with engines and pleasure craft in the 1920s and afterwards.

A line of unsmiling coastguard officers and the fishermen's faces in Harding's portraits reflect what must have been a hard life. Some look dishevelled and wild, most are bearded or mutton-chopped and wear knitfrocks and narrow-brimmed, soft hats. Where seemingly unposed groups have gathered to inspect a recently landed shark, to weigh and sell a catch or perhaps just to chat about prices (bad) or the weather (worse), we see an occasional suit and top hat. We see children looking grubby in their playing togs and scrubbed up in their Sunday best, and well-dressed ladies having picnics on the cliffs. One of Harding's images from the 1870s shows an artist working at an easel beside the old Bark House, a sight that will have become increasingly common in later years. Early photographs show horses and donkeys, but by the 1950s we see cars and signs advertising petrol and parking spaces.

Polperro boys, 1920s.

Both collections are quite accessible. Many of Harding's photographs are assembled at the Royal Institute of Cornwall in Truro and copies can be seen in Polperro's Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing and in Philip Correll's book,'Lewis Harding, Cornwall's Pioneer Photographer' (Polperro Heritage Press,2000). The Francis Frith Collection website includes 125,000 images from around the country, including those of Polperro. The journals of the Polperro Family History A group of men and a prized possession, 1920s Polperro boys, 1920s Society are another good source for old photographs of the village, often coming from the members' private collections; the Society has produced a CD of Lewis Harding's portraits of Polperro fishermen.

Many of our visitors might be searching for the past, and in his photographs they can catch a glimpse of what Lewis Harding saw more than 100 years ago. But modern Polperro remains, of course, a much-photographed place, not only by thousands of visitors with their camera phones but also by the more serious hobbyists and professionals keen to sell their prints and contribute to calendars and the postcard trade, and by three professional photography businesses located in the village. The boats, businesses and people may look very different, but the uniqueness of Polperro's buildings, the ever changing weather, the coming and going of sea birds and wild flowers along the coast, the restless dynamism of the sea and sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic variations of the light will always challenge and delight photographers.