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Conservation project saves E. Chambré Hardman photograph collection

Gloved hands holding old photographs from the Hardman collection
A conservator working on photographs at the Hardmans' House, Liverpool | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

A significant conservation project by the National Trust has saved around 16,000 photographic prints and negatives by renowned Liverpool photographer Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret, most of which have been hidden from public view for decades.

To mark World Photography Day on 19 August, the conservation charity has released images showing the extent of the work required to conserve some of the most at-risk items in the collection, which is the only known 20th-century collection where a photographer’s entire output has been preserved intact.

The photographs span five decades and include subjects ranging from portraits of 1950s and 60s celebrities and Liverpool’s high society to British landscapes and iconic shots of post-war Liverpool, as well as business records and personal papers.

Most of the collection is stored securely in the archives at Liverpool Record Office, who also own a portion of items belonging to the Hardmans.

Lindsey Sutton, archivist at the National Trust, said: “Edward Chambré Hardman rarely threw anything away, so the collection we have represents nearly the entirety of the life and work he and his wife Margaret built.

“The vast size of the collection, previous storage methods and a lack of resource in the past has meant much of it hasn’t had the attention it needed.”

That changed in 2019, when the Archives Revealed programme awarded funding to the National Trust to catalogue a significant portion of the collection, in partnership with Liverpool Record Office.

Archives Revealed is funded by The National Archives, The Pilgrim Trust and the Wolfson Foundation. Additional funding from the National Trust has also made it possible to conserve and digitise thousands of items.

Specialist conservation techniques

Alex Koukos, conservator at the National Trust, said: “When we began to prioritise items, we found most were in relatively good condition, and simply needed cleaning and rehousing into new, more suitable storage boxes. That has been a huge task in itself.

“However, there were many that had been affected by ageing, inappropriate handling and past storage conditions. Specialist techniques have been used to treat damage such as creases, folds, tears, soiling and mould in order to preserve the items.

“A small amount had also suffered chemical damages including fading, discoloration and ‘silver mirroring’, where parts of the emulsion on a print acquire a silver sheen. This type of damage is irreversible; however we’ve been able to prevent any further damage by rehousing them into PAT [photographic activity test] acid free boxes and silver safe paper envelopes.”

In addition to the work conserving prints, attention was also given to the large number of negatives in the collection.

Some of these had suffered from being stored in closed, tightly-packed boxes and unsuitable environmental conditions over the years. This led to chemical reactions such as ‘vinegar syndrome’, where the negative begins to decompose and give off a vinegar-like odour.

Alex Koukos continued: “We had to act fast to save these negatives and stop ongoing deterioration processes. Through carrying out tests and monitoring, we could identify the negatives most at risk and move them into open storage boxes where any gasses could dissipate. Work is also ongoing to develop a plan to safely separate negatives that have become stuck together.”

Access for the public

As part of the project, around 4,600 photographic prints, negatives and paper records have also been digitised to make them accessible to the public for the first time. The National Trust will publish these online later this year.

A further 5,000 photographs, negatives and paper records have been catalogued. They will now be accessible to researchers and the public to explore either online or in-person by appointment at the Liverpool Record Office.

Lindsey Sutton, archivist at the National Trust, said: “The Hardmans’ photographs were made to be seen, not hidden away from view. One of the most important aims of this project has been to make them more accessible for the public to enjoy.”

The future of the project

Throughout the process of cataloguing and conserving items in the collection, the project team were able to undertake a more thorough survey of what and how much it contained.

Previous estimates had put the size of the total collection at around 140,000 items, however the National Trust now believe this number to be much larger, and potentially double that amount.

Lindsey Sutton continued: “It’s important to note that this project so far has only dealt with a relatively small portion of the Hardman collection. There are tens of thousands of items still to be catalogued and conserved, including multiple boxes filled with loose prints of various sizes and subjects.

“However, thanks to the initial support of the Archives Revealed programme and private donors, we’ve been able to secure a future for this record of the Hardmans’ life and work.”

The support of National Trust members and private donors is now allowing the charity to continue work cataloguing and conserving thousands more items in the collection. A group of conservation volunteers have been specifically recruited and trained to assist in the huge task of cleaning and rehousing prints.

Most of this work is being done at the Hardmans’ House, the couple’s preserved 1950s home and studio in Liverpool, where a photographic conservation studio has been set up on the top floor of the Georgian townhouse. Some of the more specialist work is being undertaken at Liverpool Record Office.

Anita Bools, senior national conservator of paper and photography at the National Trust, said: “World Photography Day is a perfect moment to give people an insight into the work that goes into conserving photographic prints and negatives. People are used to seeing the work that goes into conserving traditional artworks such as paintings, but maybe not photographs.

“Our understanding and knowledge of how to care for photographic material has increased massively in the past few decades, certainly since Edward and Margaret were living and working.

“The work we’re now doing to look after the special collection they left behind hopefully gives an insight into an area of conservation that will become only more relevant in the years to come as we increasingly see photographs as an important record of their time.”

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