Thursday, January 4, 2018

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

The photographer and the sweep

One person I remember from my childhood in Cheltenham (a time that came back to me forcefully when I recently visited The Wilson in the town and came face to face with the figure in my previous post) was a photographer called Eric Franks. Eric, who was a neighbour of a relative of mine, worked for a publisher of guidebooks, Burrow, who were based in Cheltenham; they presumably sent him round to the various places they were covering in their books to photograph old buildings, picturesque high streets, and atmospheric views. Although colour photography was well established by the time I knew him, colour printing was still costly, and most of his work was in black and white.

Eric Franks didn’t put away his camera when he left work. He was always taking photographs, and built up a large archive of images of Cheltenham between the late 1930s and the 1950s. He was still at it when I came across him in the 1960s and 1970s, but those earlier images especially constitute a unique pictorial record of a very special provincial town before it changed radically with 1960s redevelopment and ‘improvement’. Eric Franks’ book, Images of Cheltenham, shows how good he was. It’s full of evocative scenes – not just architecture, but people, caught going about their everyday lives – children hurrying to school, codgers gossiping on street corners, shoppers, the Spa Harp Trio playing by the roadside. The handling of light in all the images is outstanding.*
One of the photographs shows the most extraordinary trade sign I’ve ever seen: the sooty black figure of a chimney sweep mounted high up on a wall, casting a cold and somewhat sinister eye on the passers-by below.  This figure had vanished from its original home in Cheltenham’s Sherborne Street by the time I was growing up, but what I’d not realised was that it found a home in The Wilson, again mounted high up so that visitors can see it as they would have done when it was above the sweep’s door. 

Its metal construction is clear from the jagged edge of the sweep’s coat and the way the material – zinc – has been rather crudely worked to represent the way the material of the coat bunches above the waist. If the jagged edge of the garment is worn with age, that’s understandable. The museum believes the sign to date to about 1830 and it was only removed from its original perch in 1950,§ when the last chimney sweep of Sherborne Street hung up his brushes and rods and retired. The last sweep was called Frederick Field, and when he retired he was 79 years old and was said to be the oldest working chimney sweep in Britain. He was apparently often seen around the town transporting bags of soot on the handlebars of his bicycle. Previous Sherborne Street sweeps used a small cart, drawn by a succession of beasts including at various times a donkey and a Shetland pony.

Looking down on us like this, the figure has a rather spooky gaze.† How unlike the appreciative and perceptive eye of Eric Franks, whose photographs shed a benevolent light on the streets and the people of the town he loved.

- - - - -

* Eric Franks is remembered in the name of one of the prizes given at the Cheltenham Camera Club; his book, Images of Cheltenham, is well worth seeking out. The photograph of the book’s cover I have used is taken from the internet, as I seem to have mislaid my own copy: I hope it turns up and if it does I intend to replace the photograph with one more worthy of its creator.

§ I'm told the figure was displayed on a house on the other side of street for some years after this.

† As the figure in the museum was well lit, but not ideally so for photography, the face in my picture is rather dark, but not inappropriately so, I think. ‘What we need is some snooted light on the face,’ as a photographer colleague of mine used to say.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

This is exactly the quirky sort of stuff we enjoy. Many thanks!

Stephen Barker said...

I remember seeing this figure in the museum and thinking he looked rather creepy. I am surprised no one has animated him in a film.