"If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter." George Bernard Shaw, quoted in The Best of Popular Photography, p276.
George Bernard Shaw was an active amateur photographer from at least 1898, the date of his first surviving negative. Shaw was a pioneer of photography as a serious art form: reviewing exhibitions and writing widely on the topic. He corresponded with other photographers such as Alvin Langdon Coburn on subjects such as use of colour and was possibly producing images as early as 1890. In a letter to Ernest Rhys he writes, "I have to spare... a good photo; but the results of processing it the other day in a Northumberland paper were unspeakable." (British Library MSS 3248, 16 November 1890).
His photographs document a prolific literary and political life offering glimpses into Shaw's inner world. Shaw's images are almost endless in their subject coverage: from changes in fashions to portraits of the 1860s, from architecture to education; and their personas, from Vivien Leigh and Mrs Patrick Campbell to Sidney and Beatrice Webb. They also record his experiments with photography and for the photographic historian the collection provides a record of the development of photographic and processing techniques available from the 1890s. In total the archive comprises approximately 20,000 photographs and negatives and 14 photograph albums compiled by Shaw. The collection is in remarkable condition considering its age, only tears and one binding had to be repaired on the albums and 13% of the negatives underwent conservation.
Assessing Shaw's albums for cataloguing
The Man & Cameraman project catalogued the prints and negatives, offering descriptions of their contents for the first time: alongside approximately 18,000 of these will be the images themselves making these records fully available online. The scans are a true copy of the originals, following Shaw's own opinion on photography we are not manipulating or re-touching the scans.
“Technically good negatives are more often the result of the survival of the fittest than of special creation or "retouching" which can only be compared to the pipes and moustaches with which portraits of the sovereigns of England get decorated….... [manipulated/retouched images] ought…to be excluded from a photographic exhibition, on the simple grounds that it is not photography.” Shaw’s article for an exhibition by his friend Alvin Coburn (1906).
When the National Trust took over management of Shaw's Corner at Shaw's death the house contents included his photographic collection. At this time his diaries and business papers were bequeathed to the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). In 1979, the National Trust transferred the photographs to LSE and thus began a long and continuing collaboration. Since then the prints have been largely untouched and the negatives totally untouched.
During the summer of 2008 Sarah Allen, Assistant Conservator (Photographic Materials) with the National Trust and volunteers from Camberwell School of Art conservation courses and LSE staff began work on the re-packaging of the photographic prints. Since 2010 this work has been undertaken by LSE Archives staff. The albums were sent out for specialist conservation to ensure the prints could stay in-situ as Shaw had them. During cataloguing prints requiring further conservation work were identified.
Cleaning the prints
Over the summer and autumn of 2010 volunteers from Camberwell School of Art conservation courses repacked the negatives into conservation-grade paper pockets and boxes. These will be frozen to slow down their deterioration, having been scanned and conserved. The negatives are in remarkably good condition. Less than 1% had deteriorated beyond conservation and only 13% had to be conserved (an incredibly small amount for such a collection, especially as the work was mainly low level, e.g. cleaning mould). These have now been digitised by Max Communications and Bespoke Archive Digitisation and these images have been attached to the catalogue.
Cataloguing uncovered new facets of the collection on a daily basis - prints taken by TE Lawrence, images of Shaw and his wife Charlotte at leisure and behind the scenes shots from the set of Major Barbara to name but a few. Alongside cataloguing the prints were digitised in-house and these images attached to the catalogue. The catalogue is now available for all to browse on our archives catalogue: around 5,000 of the entries currently have images. This will increase weekly until the scanning is complete. The photographs and albums can also be viewed at LSE Archives.
In the last 18 months, events have also been attended and promotion undertaken, such as talks at the National Portrait Gallery and The Shaw Society.
We hope you enjoy looking at this amazing collection. As you shall see not all people or places have been identified. If you are able to identify any of these please email (email@example.com) us with details, quoting the reference number for the relevant item.
Early highlights from the collection, along with information on the project, are showcased in an online feature on the Archives Hub and in Snapshots from Man and Cameraman.
Our blog features 'Every picture tells a story' - entries from the Shaw collection as well as Man and Cameraman updates.
George Bernard Shaw at LSE Archives provides details of all the Shaw materials at LSE.
For more information about Man and Cameraman please contact us.
Through the lens: the photographic world of GB Shaw celebrates the close of the project and Shaw as a photographer by showcasing over 300 images.
Man and Cameraman is generously funded by the LSE Centennial Fund.