The image is of a wealthy woman. She’s standing against a mahogany-shaded chest of drawers holding a branch of hawthorn that runs across the lower half of the frame. The branch meets the pink rose pinned to her waist. Her shoulders are bare, but pearl-like straps run down to a grey and black embroidered bodice that meets a pleated purple skirt. Her skin is soft, tinged with a touch of blush, as she looks out the top right of the frame.
It’s a beautiful image to see on the screen or the page, the softness of the focus, the delicacy of the palette giving it a dream-like quality. But this is an autochrome and to see it in real life is quite a different matter. Hold it up to the light by the edges of its metal frame, and it shimmers into life, the skin tones taking on a tactile quality that almost radiates the heat from the woman’s skin, the positive image floating out of its two-dimensional boundaries as you tilt it this way and that.
Go deeper into the storage box that houses this autochrome and another image comes out, this time of a man. He’s sitting against a sea-green backcloth, his arm leaning on the wooden table. He wears a round-collared striped shirt, a striped tie emerging above the grey flannel of his wide-lapelled jacket, upon which is pinned another of those pink roses. His black hair is slicked back, he stares beyond the right of the frame.
The man is Robert Bird, and these are his images; part of a collection of 224 autochromes that last year were donated to the Royal Photographic Society in Bristol. “The Robert Bird Collection was donated to the RPS by his grandson Robert Bell,” says Michael Pritchard, the RPS’s director of education and public affairs. “They are important because they represent a development in colour photography and of course the autochrome has a colour palette and softness that is appealing.” The dilemma for Pritchard and the RPS is how do you exhibit images to a mass audience where the value of the images comes from an intimate engagement with the original plate, plates that do not reproduce well (which is one of the reasons they rapidly fell out of favour once other colour processes came along), plates that have a presence that short circuits the past into the present.
These autochromes are soft, gentle, but also dark. The process was developed by the Lumiere brothers in the 1890s but was only introduced commercially from 1907. It layers grains of potato starch dyed in red-orange, green and violet, supported by a layer of lampblack, onto a glass plate, and then combines this with another layer of panchromatic silver emulsion. You photograph through the coloured potato starch and the lampblack, send the plates off to be developed as a positive image, and there is your colour in the form of a mosaic of light shining through coloured potato starch. It’s a simple process but (thanks to the presence of potato starch and lampblack) one which needed thirty times as much light as regular film.
Robert Bird took up the autochrome process in 1915 and began to record the domestic life of his wealthy family around their home in Solihull, England and the attraction was the colour. The autochrome process was the first commercially available process in which colour photography became available to those who could afford it (each plate was about five times more expensive than a regular black and white plate). It was a hobby of the wealthy photographer but was also taken up by people like Joseph Rock of National Geographic, Alfred Stieglitz, and Albert Kahn (his Archives of the Planet was early colour documentation of the world in colour).
Autochromes were expensive but Robert Bird could afford it. His grandfather was famous for many things, but most of all for inventing both baking powder and custard powder (his wife was allergic to eggs so in 1837 he created a cornflour-based powder in lieu of the real thing). Bird’s Custard is an iconic foodstuff in the UK, a wondrous sweet liquid that cuts across class boundaries and still serves as a key element in the classic British comfort diet.
Robert Bird was chairman of that family company, he lived in a large, modern house (the White House) not too far from the company factory in Solihull. And until he took up moving pictures in 1920, he photographed - in colour - for the colour.
He photographed the gardens of his fine house, the flowers, the surrounding countryside with its hayricks and cottages. He photographed the family sitting in the family car (and a very fine car it is too), on holiday in Wales, feeding into the romanticism of the British countryside. It’s a classic series of images that ticks all the boxes of wealthy domesticity.
There are pictures of the gardens of the family home, hollyhocks and conifers rising against a backdrop of the family home, there are old Tudor houses where the timbers are collapsing and the plasterwork is cracking, and fields of green cabbages running over the edges of the frame. Flowers are everywhere; foxglove, camelia, dahlias, chrysanthemums, violets, campions, and daisies. Flowers are colourful and (wind permitting) do not move. This mattered with a process that had such slow exposure times.
That is all run of the mill stuff for a collection of autochromes. It’s wonderful but it’s to be expected. What is special in the collection are the faces on view, faces that are anything but still. One woman is shown in evening dress, she sits on her green, wing-backed chair in her sky-blue dress, and looks over the right corner of the camera. She is flesh and blood personified, every part of her coming to life as you hold the image up to the light.
His wife Edith is shown modelling her numerous dresses, her flesh tones jumping out of the glass at you, the autochrome process raising the blood to her cheeks as she looks into the camera.
She poses on a red velveteen sofa in a picture titled ‘Siesta Time’, resplendent in her pink silk gown gathered beneath the bust in a splendid silver butterfly flourish, the entire scene looked over by two giant toby jugs standing in the background.
Their daughter Pamela appears naked, like a water baby, by a stream, and poses with animals and her parents. One image shows her with her mother holding a spoon as Pamela is about to taste what seems to be a custard-based dessert, her hands covering her eyes as she wonders at the treat that is to come.
There are nods in here to Victorian photographers, to the childhood photographs of Lewis Carroll, or the dramatic pictorialism of Julia Margaret Cameron. There’s both a playfulness, and an openness before the camera that is revealed in the range of expression, a little bit of Duchenne de Boulogne’s dramatic studies of the Mechanism of Human Expression brought to life in Middle England. One image shows a French woman staring straight into the camera, her brow knotted into an intense frown. There are looks that challenge, that question, but also that delight in the camera. Some of the people Bird photographed are so direct in their gaze, others avert their eyes and evade the camera or, as with the gap-toothed woman, break the pose too quickly, a flaw in the image that sparks the portrait to life. There is energy in there that goes beyond the frame and that life is what defines this collection. Bird was never quite in control of his subjects, and you get the feeling that that is the way he liked it.
By Colin Pantall
Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.
See a short film on the photography of Robert Bland Bird here.