Monday, July 3, 2017

From Blackpool to Cowes


I don’t know when I first became aware of the photographs produced by Aerofilms Limited. Looking back to the 1960s and 1970s, it just seemed that every aerial photograph of a British subject reproduced in a book – a book about architecture or archaeology or scenery or whatever – was credited to the company. Gradually I realised how many they must have taken, and that they stood in a proud tradition. It was a tradition founded by the pioneers of aerial archaeology, the men (they were usually men in those days) who realised that you could see so much from an aircraft (lumps, bumps, crop marks, scorch marks, visual patterns and clues) that could tell you about the archaeology of a place, even about what was underground and could hardly be guessed at from the surface. People like O. G. S. Crawford*, pioneer of field archaeology and aerial archaeology; and Major George Allen, pilot and aerial photographer who thought nothing of taking his hands of the controls of his aeroplane to lean out and take photographs – and then leaning back in and changing the plate in his camera, while still flying ‘hands free’. And later on, people like the writer Ian Nairn, whose experience as a pilot helped turn him into an architectural critic because he wanted to tell people what he could see of buildings when he looked down on them from the sky.

For almost 100 years, aerial photography has been showing us our buildings and landscapes from revealing angles, and Aerofilms played a major part in this work. Three men in the photograph above are Aerofilms pilots and photographers in a De Havilland D9.B in 1919, the year the company was founded: clearly they have enough manpower to leave the pilot in control of the plane while someone else does the camera work.†

The other day I was reminded of all this when looking at something on the BBC website: a fascinating video celebration of Aerofilms’ work. Their early photographers went up in open-topped biplanes and leaned over the side of the cockpit to take images of whatever they could see when the weather was clear – town and country, industry and pastoral, buildings and other aircraft, everything from a cathedral to washing blowing on the line (a good flying day was also a good drying day).

Places and buildings depicted in the video include Blackpool, Windsor Castle, Highclere Castle, Chatsworth, Glasgow, Doncaster, Stoke (with its bottle kilns), Swindon (the GWR works looming large), Bracknell (before it was a new town), Romford (when it was still a market town), Coventry (before the bombing, but with clearances for new development already taking place), and St Paul's Cathedral. There are glimpses of sporting events such as cricket matches, Ascot, Wimbledon, the FA Cup final, and Cowes Week. The Aerofilms aircraft flies over plywood battleships, housing developments, and prefabs. We can see the ghosts of old field boundaries caught between streets of new houses. And the history of aviation, so germane to this project, is there with shots of biplanes, an autogyro, and what was left after the Aerofilms plane crashed into a lake.

The Aerofilms archive, which is being conserved and digitised by English Heritage and the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historical Monuments for Scotland and Wales, is still a priceless resource. Here’s to those magnificent men.

Click the rectangle to play the video 

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*I often wondered what those initials stood for. Osbert Guy Stanhope, it turns out. His life (the life of his mind, especially) is carefully excavated and movingly evoked in Kitty Hauser’s outstanding book Bloody Old Britain: O. G. S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (Granta, 2008).
†For more on Aerofilms, see James Crawford et al,  Aerofilms: A History of Britain from Above (English Heritage, 2014).
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The photograph at the top of this post is from the Aerofilms archive. The collection can be accessed via the Historic England website, here.

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