The National Trust faces a “race against time” to save a historic collection of previously unseen photographs before they deteriorate.
Renowned Liverpool photographer Edward Chambré Hardman’s collection of 140,000 prints and negatives passed to the National Trust, along with his house, in 2003 but some negatives were found to be “actively deteriorating and emitting toxic gases”.
The under-threat prints were not properly conserved by Hardman at his studio on Rodney Street in the Georgian quarter of Liverpool and initial inspections revealed serious problems in the way some items had been stored.
Hardman died in 1988, 15 years before his collection, home and personal effects were acquired by the National Trust. The Irish-born photographer became well-known for taking portraits of 1950s and 60s celebrities and shots of postwar Liverpool.
The project, which conservators expect to complete this year, aims to catalogue, conserve and digitise 8,000-10,000 of Hardman’s photographs and letters – many of which are being made accessible to the public for the first time.
The items are being repackaged into new envelopes and open storage boxes appropriate for photographic material at the Liverpool Records Office. The new boxes will allow the gases to dissipate, preventing them from building up inside closed boxes and causing further deterioration.
An archivist and digitisation conservator were recruited in late 2019 to work on the project and had just begun surveying the collection’s condition and prioritising items when the pandemic struck in March 2020, forcing conservators to continue working from home.
Alex Koukos, digitisation conservator for the project, said: “It became clear that some of Hardman’s precious negatives were under threat when we noticed a strong vinegar odour coming from some of the closed boxes. This odour is a tell-tale sign of ongoing deterioration within those closed boxes and so we needed to act fast to save them.”
Katie Taylor, a cultural heritage curator for the National Trust, said: “E Chambré Hardman’s photographs are such an important record of 20th-century life in Liverpool and Britain, and this project will help us to better understand them.
“It will also help us to explore and understand other aspects of the collection such as the photographs he took of 1910s India during his time in the 8th Gurkha Rifles … Overall, this collection is arguably the largest of its kind by a photographer in Europe, if not the world, and we’re so proud to care for it.”