Frank Stephens – a life in photographs

TCD MS 10842/1/13 ‘Cottage. Aran Is/ Fish drying on roof/ September 1935’.
[Location on Inis Mór, Oileáin Árann]. Surplus fish were cleaned in fresh water, salted and then left on walls or thatched roofs to dry. The fish had to be retrieved every night, and also if there was a shower of rain, in order to dry them properly for storing.
Frank Stephens (1884-1948) was born in prosperous middle-class Orwell Park, Rathgar, Dublin, eldest son to solicitor Henry (Harry) Francis Colcough Stephens and his wife Annie Isabella Synge, sister of the playwright John Millington Synge. Both the Stephens and Synge families lived side by side until shortly before J M Synge’s death in 1909, a proximity that had a profound effect on Frank’s life and interests. From the age of six Frank was being tutored by his famous Uncle John on a range of subjects, among them natural history, archaeology, folklore and music. It was in the last decade of the nineteenth century that the development of small hand-held cameras changed the nature of photography making it more accessible and affordable but also allowing photographers to move away from posed compositions to more candid and natural images. J M Synge and his nephew, Frank Stephens, embraced this new portable technology as a means of recording the people and places they loved in an intimate and uncontrived way.

Frank spent his working life in education, teaching history and Irish, but he also found time to lecture on local history, antiquities and European history for the County Dublin Libraries Committee and various local history societies, deploying his 2000+ lantern slide collection to illustrate his talks. These slides are now being cleaned and rehoused by Trinity College Library conservator Clodagh Neligan prior to digitization.

Frank was one of the photographers who volunteered for the Irish Folklore Commission in 1939 recording the historic landscape of Poulaphouca in Co Wicklow and its farming community before the area was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water to Dublin city. His talents as a photographer were uniquely suited to such a project as he had a keen eye for the intrinsic beauty and honesty of simple things. His photographs celebrate the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life: the homespun clothes of the Aran islanders, street traders selling their wares in Dublin, a woman and her spinning wheel in Co Wicklow, or a cottage interior in the west of Ireland.

An exhibition Frank Stephens – a life in photographs, co-curated by Felicity O’ Mahony (M&ARL) and Gillian Whelan (DRIS), will be on view in the Long Room, September 2017

Preserving the faces and history of the Dublin University Boat Club Collection

Last year, the Preservation & Conservation department in conjunction with DRIS (Digital Resources & Imaging Service) of Trinity College Library was asked to survey a collection of the Dublin University Boat Club’s photographs and other documents that hung in the club’s boathouse in Islandbridge on the river Liffey.  The collection – which spans the period 1841 to the present – includes 255 framed photographs of winning crews and notable club members, a racing programme, and 70 winnings sheets.

The collection represents a unique record of rowing in College since the middle of the nineteenth century, providing inspiration to countless Trinity rowers over the years.  The Boat Club has been aware of the priceless nature of the collection and there has long been a desire to maintain and preserve it for future generations.

The winning history of the club goes back to about 150 years ago when Trinity competed for the first time at the Henley Royal Regatta, and won the Visitors’ Challenge Cup with Charles Burton Barrington (on the left in the fig. 1), who contributed to the distinguished reputation that the club has held since.

Fig. 1 Dublin University Boat Club crew, 1870.

Interestingly, for most of its history the Trinity Boat Club – like the rest of the university – was a purely male enterprise.  The collection is a testimony to that fact, and records only one female rower, K.E. Rooney (1998).

Moreover, this collection represents a fascinating history of photographic portraiture.  For instance, you will rarely find a protagonist looking at the lens of the camera in the earliest photographs (fig. 1).  This would change over time and eventually subjects even began to smile.  The age of selfies was still very far away however!

The background and the way people would pose in front of the camera also evolved.  In the earliest photographs, the influence of art is apparent, with subjects posing in front of a beautiful plant wall, or next to elegant furniture in a luxurious interior (fig. 2).  Nowadays, crews are photographed in a simple and more straight-forward way (fig. 3).

Fig. 2 Two Boat Club members, c. 1870

 

Fig. 3 Crew photographs, 2008

Just as the subject changes his pose through the ages, so too do the photographic techniques – from positives on paper to digital photography.  The crews were photographed almost every year since 1863, so these photographs offer a unique record of the evolution of photographic techniques.

Fig. 4 Hand-coloured photograph, 1872

Before Photoshop or any other retouching computer programs, people were using collage or adding colour by hand on the photographs themselves.  Going through the collection, we found that some heads were replaced by others, or that blue and black colours were added on the photograph itself to give further details to the rowers’ outfits (fig. 4).

These images and documents hung on the walls of the Boat House at Islandbridge for several decades.  Unfortunately, years of display and fluctuating environmental conditions have had a detrimental effect on the photographs, making the need for conservation more urgent with each passing year.

Fig. 5 The condition of the whole collection when it came at the Conservation Department

The documents were housed in frames that had become quite acidic and did not effectively protect the document from the dust (fig. 5).  The glass in some of the frames was broken, making consultation dangerous.  Documents suffered from tears, losses, scratches, mould stains and cockling. Silver mirroring (when a silver metallic haze appears over the dark areas of some gelatine silver photographs) and fading was also apparent in the photographic material.  Finally, most of the mountings were held together with a great deal of adhesive tape, which is notorious for causing damage.

The project started in July 2016 thanks to the financial support given by the TCD Association & Trust.  The priority was to house the photographs and winning lists in suitable storage units.  It was decided that the whole collection would stay in the College Archives and the Boat Club would receive surrogates framed in the original frames to be replaced on the walls of the Boat House at Islandbridge.

The original photographs and other documents were catalogued and each was assigned a unique archival reference.

Before digitisation, a long process of un-framing and mount removal, where necessary, began. Following that, dry-cleaning of the documents commenced.  Dry-cleaning is essential in conservation not only for aesthetic reasons but also because dust and dirt can be damaging to paper and photographs in different ways.  It can be abrasive, acidic, hygroscopic or degradative.  Soft Japanese brushes were used to remove dust, and Smoke Sponges were used to remove the more ingrained dirt on the verso.  A crepe rubber was used as well to remove synthetic glue from modern tapes.

Fig. 6 Photographs housed in mylar sleeves in acid-free box
Fig. 7 Original photographs boxes and ready to be moved to storage

Space and time were two main concerns. Because storage is an issue with regard to archives, we wanted the collection to take up as little space as possible.  We removed damaged and detached mountings that did not show any information.  Also, since there were more than 300 documents to house, we undertook repairs on the documents only when it was absolutely necessary for the preservation of the items.  Each item was housed in Mylar® sleeves and archival boxes (figs. 6 & 7).  The final stage of the process was the transfer of the original collection to the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library. There is takes its place among the many other student society and sports club records which may be consulted in the reading room there.

All the documents were digitally imaged and will be soon accessible on DRIS catalogue for all those wishing to dive in the history of the Boat Club, or indeed those interested in the history of photography.

We wish to gratefully acknowledge the financial support that has been given by the TCD Association and Trust.

Many thanks to Mark Pattison from the Boat Club for his knowledge and availability and to Lucilla Ronai, former conservation intern who had the courage and motivation to start the project.

Erica D’Alessandro

Heritage Council Intern, Glucksman Conservation Department, the Library of Trinity College Dublin