70 years in pictures
The email arrived sometime in January, inviting me to join a team preparing for an exhibition of photographs to celebrate the 70th birthday of Denman College. This beautiful country house, set in grounds near Abingdon, Oxfordshire, had been bought by the WI in 1948 and opened almost immediately, offering classes and courses to members of the organisation. Since then, thousands of women and some fewer men have enjoyed spending time there, learning new skills in a safe and very comfortable environment. Of course, I couldn’t resist and said an immediate “yes”, looking forward to working with archivist Anne and being part of this fascinating project.
To begin with, we needed to decide on how to format the exhibition. How might we focus it and what might we include? Inspired by the recent BBC programmes entitled “xyz in 20 objects” we decided on a highly edited collection of pictures to tell the story. How about “70 years in 70 photos”?
The “team” by the way, consisted of myself, archivist Anne and Denman College Ambassador Sue, all three of us members and volunteers, together with the Deputy Head of the college, Ruba. Small, but perfectly formed (even if I say so myself!) First task was to look through Anne’s references and make some initial selections. With such an eminent expert on hand to share all the background details she knew of these images, you can imagine what an interesting meeting that was!
So here we are, in the entrance hall of the college with the NFWI Chairman and (I imagine) the head of the college greeting Her Majesty the Queen on one of her visits. (Her Majesty is a WI member and both she and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother have visited on several occasions) On this occasion, Anne told us, the new carpet had been acquired for the entrance hall, the manufacturer offering it at substantial discount if a photograph could be taken to display it prominently with Royal shoes upon it! Mission accomplished!
Another contender for a place in the exhibition was this image from the late 1950s showing a class of cookery judges training with the “Country Wife” mural in the background. For many years, this huge mural hung in the college, having been designed by Constance Howard for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and presented to the WI afterwards. It’s a fine piece of work with magnificent detail but in need of restoration is now housed in the National Needlework Archive in Berkshire. Many members remember it fondly and we felt it should feature somewhere in the show.
And so it went. Each photograph we looked at had a story to tell and with Anne there to fill in the background details it soon became clear that we had to decide what to leave out, not what to put in! Here a member of the BBC was introducing a group of members to the new broadcasting equipment, enabling them to make recordings and edit them.
We also thought it interesting to include some images of how it used to be in the days of shared bedrooms with “h & c running water”!
A month or two later, we returned to the college and opened up the archive to get our shortlist together, ready for digitising and printing. I had shared examples of the exhibition we put together in Gloucester using photographs printed onto foamcore board and we’d agreed that this would be the best way to put the exhibition together. Many of these photographs were way too precious to risk damaging them.
As we worked, Sue captured an image of each one as reference. The three of us were communicating by email and it was much easier to refer to the actual pictures than to try to describe each one in detail.
Eventually, we had our collection together. Some images we’d chosen were from Anne’s personal albums; pictures she’d taken over the years when she’d been present at celebrations and other events at the college. She would email these to Ruba, who was going to get them all scanned and printed locally.
The three of us returned to the college in late August to find the enlarged and printed images all done. Wow. They were stunning!
It was also a chance to spruce up some of the framed pictures which are usually hanging here and there about the place. Whilst Sue and Anne worked on the captions, I got out the duster and polish.
Time to straighten you up a bit too, Ma’am, because your frame has been wonky for quite a few months!
Under the watchful eyes of Betty Christmas, the first Warden of the college, and Lady Denman herself, I trimmed all the edges off, working my way through a huge pile of foamcore prints. Needless to say, we had more than 70 pictures but that didn’t matter. Who’s counting?
It took a while. In fact, we all went home and agreed to come back a few days later to continue and get it finished.
With pictures and captions together, we began the task of hanging them all around the college, in small collections on a variety of themes.
Since exhibition person left her spirit level at home, a little bit of resourcefulness was needed…until she remembered that her phone has a spirit level app, that is ;-)
Off we went. Working our way up the stairs, on the landing, in the bar, in the drawing room, in the entrance hall, in the teaching centre…hardly a wall in the building was left without a few photographs from the archive. We laid out the pictures first, then using a variety of non-destructive methods we created pleasing arrangements.
Last Tuesday, my Hero and I returned to the college for the grand opening and though I say so myself, I think it was looking pretty good.
What a fun project to be part of! Happy Birthday Denman College!
(Many of the photographs and a great deal of the detail shared by Anne are contained in a book, published to celebrate the 70 years)