Introducing The Argus Glass-plate Negatives

7 June 2016

By Kate Elms and Emma Skinner

The Keep’s conservation volunteers

The newspaper archive is one of The Keep’s best-loved local history resources – it’s rare for a day to go by without at least a handful of people coming through our doors to search through back issues of The Argus or one of the other Brighton and East Sussex papers that we keep on microfilm in our Reference Room. What we have never been able to offer, however, is the opportunity to view the photographs accompanying the published articles and reports, which range from events of national importance to family weddings and local sporting encounters. But thanks to some of our wonderful volunteers, we’ve taken the first steps to making digital copies of some of these images more accessible.

The Keep holds a substantial collection of glass-plate negatives from The Argus‘s photographic archive. Some came directly from the paper to East Sussex Record Office, others were part of Brighton Museum’s local history collection and have recently been integrated with ESRO’s holdings. They date from the early 1930s to the early 1960s and, potentially, offer a tantalising visual record of Brighton’s history at this time. However, before any of these images can be viewed, there is an enormous amount of work to be done.

The first phase, now complete, took place in our conservation studio, where a dedicated group of volunteers have been meeting every Thursday for the past 18 months to clean the negatives. Around 15 people have been involved in the project, some coming for a few months, others just in the school holidays or in between paid work. A core group have come in nearly every week since September 2014. Over the weeks, they all gained confidence in their manual handling of these fragile items and, after a few boxes, became highly adept at cleaning, documenting and repackaging something in the region of 40,000 glass plates.

The conservation process initially required assessment of the boxes in which the negatives had been stored in the delivery area of The Argus‘s office in Hollingbury. The completion of documentation is a core conservation task and serves to record all treatment carried out on the plates themselves. Gelatin silver glass plates are covered with a gelatin coating containing silver particles making up a negative photographic image. They are prone to silver mirroring (bloom) and delamination, whereby the emulsion comes away from the base caused by extremes in relative humidity and poor storage conditions.

The plates were lightly brushed on both sides to remove surface dirt, and then cleaned on the glass side only with cotton wool and a small amount of water. It was often challenging to tell the glass side from the emulsion side and, for the first few weeks, the volunteers would need a second opinion before they became confident in telling them apart. Once cleaned, the glass plates were repackaged; with nearly half of the original boxes damaged beyond repair, new ones were made with acid-free card. Gloves were worn at all times, and extra care had to be taken handling cracked or broken plates. These were packaged separately, with the contents clearly marked that extra precautions should be taken until further conservation treatment could be carried out.

We originally predicted it would take three years to complete this project, and so to finish in just 18 months is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our conservation volunteers. They did admit, however, that they were pleased they never saw the archive in its entirety at the beginning as it would have been overwhelming to see the extent of the task ahead!

An extract from one of the negative registers

The next step, which will be equally challenging and time-consuming, involves matching the numbered negatives to their corresponding entries in the negative registers. The registers were completed by Argus staff at the time the photographs were taken, providing details of their subject, where and when they were taken, and where and when they were published (the registers also refer to photographs published in the Brighton Gazette and Sussex Daily News). While one dedicated volunteer transcribes the registers, creating digital records that can later be uploaded to The Keep’s online catalogue, another is scanning the negatives themselves – one numbered box at a time – creating an archive of fantastic images.

The two strands of work are being carried out simultaneously and, when the job is done, it should be possible to search for images using a keyword, name or date. This is because the cataloguing process will cross-reference entries in the negative register with the scans of the negatives themselves. It’s a huge task – so please don’t inundate us with requests for specific photographs as we’re not at that stage yet – but it’s certainly a worthwhile one. Tests carried out so far suggest that the quality of these images is superb – although glass-plate negatives were disappearing from consumer use by the 1920s, some professional photographers continued to use them until about 1970 for this very reason.

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

We would not be able to undertake projects of this scale at The Keep without the time and skills offered to us by volunteers. We hope, in return, that they enjoy their time with us while developing their knowledge and skills, meeting other people who are interested in local history, and helping look after the wealth of material held in our archive.

Updates on progress with the Argus negatives will be posted on our blog and social media channels – watch this space!

International Women’s Day: Mrs Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889)

8 March 2016

By Emma Skinner

ACC 8642/1/19 Mary P MerrifieldMrs Mary Philadelphia Merrifield was one of only a handful of women who established themselves as experts in their field at a time when science and academia were dominated by men. An accomplished linguist, a specialist in Old Master paintings and having written on topics such as colour pigmentation and the art of dress, Merrifield was a diverse and ambitious scholar. By the end of her life she was considered an authority on seaweeds and had papers published in various scientific journals including the Annals of Botany and Journal of Linnaen Society. Her interests reflected the Victorian sense of enquiry towards understanding the natural world and curiosity for collecting.

Commissioned by the Royal Commission on Fine Arts under Robert Peel’s government, Mary undertook research trips to France and Northern Italy accompanied by her son, Charles Watkins Merrifield, who assisted with transcribing and copying manuscripts from some of Europe’s most prestigious libraries. The results of these trips were consolidated in 1845 for her book The Art of Fresco Painting in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which consisted of an introduction to the chemical structure of colour pigments and translations of extracts from well-respected historical writers on Renaissance art and architecture including Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti and Vasari. In 1847 Mary was made an honorary member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, awarded for her research into Italian art history.


Her influence on local history is equally remarkable. During her travels, Mary wrote regularly to her husband and parents back in England. Here at The Keep we hold ten booklets of transcripts of the surviving letters sent to 4 Grand Parade Brighton, which can be ordered to view in the Reading Room. When she returned to the Sussex coast she wrote Brighton, Past and Present: A Handbook for Visitors and Residents which was full of lively Regency anecdotes and, in 1860, her study of the county’s flora and fauna entitled A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton and its Vicinity. In this quotation Merrifield’s admiration for the South Downs is unequivocal:

In their general outlines, the Downs, like all mountain ranges of the chalk formation, are rounded in their forms, and though in their natural state destitute of trees, they possess a beauty peculiarly their own, in the long serpentine lines into which they fall, the variety and harmony of their colours, passing from blue in the distance through grey, to the warmer tints of green, broken orange and russet. (A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton, 1864, p.21)

There was a decisive shift in her curiosity after this date from the visual arts to botany and marine life. Mary assisted in the display and arrangement of the natural history exhibits at Brighton Museum and some of her seaweed specimens are now in the care of the Booth Museum.

An extract from 'A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton'

An extract from ‘A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton’

A newspaper from 1857 reported that she was awarded a civil-list pension of £100 per year ‘in consideration of the valuable services she has rendered to literature and art’, and in tribute to her contribution to the advancement of late nineteenth century marine biology a species of marine algae was named after her. After the death of her husband John in 1877, Mary moved from Brighton to Cambridge and remained there until her death. Her correspondence relating to botany was donated to the Plant Sciences library in Cambridge. Mrs Merrifield’s extraordinary legacy lives on through her herbarium which now resides at the Natural History Museum in London and in her many published books, many of which can be viewed here at The Keep.

For the Merrifield family papers see our online catalogue and browse the hierarchy.

Stories from the Collections: the curious case of costumier C.H. Fox

9th December 2015

By Emma Skinner

‘Dear sir I respectfully beg to solicit the favour of supplying you with the necessary wigs and masks for your forthcoming Pantomime…’
Letter from Charles Fox
Dear Sir,

I respectfully beg to solicit the favour of supplying you with the necessary wigs and masks for your forthcoming Pantomime. I have a select stock of masks, comprising of Bradlaugh, Gladstone, Salisbury, General Booth, Lord Wolseley, Parnell, Chamberlain, Churchill and several other notable characters, also com-mens head.

Trusting to receive your kind favours,

I am sir, yours faithfully,

Mr Charles H. Fox
This letter from London wigmaker Charles Henry Fox was sent to promote his collection of masks and costumes for use in an upcoming pantomime. Although no direct mention is made of a venue, from 1882 to 1889 the general manager of Brighton Aquarium was Mr Isaac Wilkinson and the letter is part of the Brighton Improvement Commissioners’ and Borough Council archive held here at The Keep.

Mr C H Fox started his theatrical business at the age of twenty. At the time of the 1881 census he was living at 23 Russell Street in Covent Garden, London, with his wife Adele Leonie Fox along with their new born son Charles Walter Fox. His profession is listed on the census as ‘wig maker’.

During the late 1880s there was a distinct rise in customers attending costume shops looking to purchase a disguise. This coincided with the Jack the Ripper scare and Mr Fox admitted to one contemporary newspaper, ‘I even dare say that the gentleman himself may have passed through my hands more than once’. When asked by the interviewer about the process of creating a disguise, he replied:

Making up for the street is totally different to making up for the stage…We change the expression of the face by deepening the shadows, alter the shape of the eyebrows by touching with a trifle of colour, put a little hair on with the spirit gun, change the fashion of the hair on the head, and sometimes throw into prominence the bones and muscles of the neck.

In 1890 he was also interviewed by the Pall Mall Gazette. He began ‘you would be astonished to know the number of people who come here to be disguised. It has grown into a part of our regular business. Men of all classes come- gentlemen, detectives, amateur detectives, and I do not doubt that I have disguised on many occasions some of the greatest criminals of the day’. Mr Fox claimed the most important thing to remember when creating a disguise is that it is not only the face and head which must be altered; the attire and dress must also undergo a complete change. ‘Even the pocket-handkerchief needs to be different from that you ordinarily carry’. Preferring not to use wigs, as this increased the cost, Mr Fox promised his customers that in ten minutes (at the cost of half a guinea) ‘neither your own mother, your wife, nor the editor of your paper would know you’.

Mr Fox had been the principal wigmaker during the reign of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry at the Lyceum and in 1892 he sought to expand on his success by securing number 26 Wellington Street, the historic house of Charles Dickens. In May 1892 the Pall Mall Gazette documented this achievement and advertised that his expanded business now sold an array of wigs, costumes and scenery. Alongside his many skills, Mr Fox published various books on the theatrical profession. There was significant demand for wigmakers and theatrical costumiers at the end of the nineteenth century by provincial theatres, such as Brighton’s Theatre Royal. Known as ‘The Red Book’, Fox’s Dramatic and Musical Directory comprised a list of provincial towns with information such as theatrical tradesmen, actors, agents and composers. To ensure the publication was up to date, every address was tested and sent communication through the post that required a response, this involved sending around 40,000 letters and a cost nearly £200 in postal charges.

For a man who had a successful career and was evidently talented and admired in his profession, the story of Mr Fox took a sad turn. At the age of just 34 he took his own life. His body was found in Hyde Park by a passer-by late in the evening of Friday 12 May 1893. Only a couple of hours before, he had been at the Lyceum Theatre looking after the wigs to be worn at the performance the following day. Mr Fox was taken to St Georges Hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. Post mortem examinations revealed a bullet to the chest had caused almost instantaneous death. The jury ruled a verdict of ‘suicide whilst in a state of temporary insanity’.

An unaddressed and unfinished letter was found on the body, covered in blood. The letter was dated May 11th but was not addressed to anyone in particular, and was read out by the coroner at the inquest:

I am afraid I only told you a little of my troubles last night. I have been worse than foolish, and God knows how I shall get along. If I am sold up there will be enough to pay everyone. I am glad I did not borrow that £100 from you, for I owe you enough already. It is only just now that I see my true position. The prospects are very disheartening and I am broken hearted. All my speculations have been failures.

What is somewhat mysterious is that friends and acquaintances insisted that he had never before threatened to take his own life. The body was identified by the deceased’s brother Mr George Fox, who remarked he had seen his brother merely hours before and he had ‘appeared in good spirits’. What is also odd is that while the alleged suicide note points to Mr Fox’s business suffering financial difficulties there are various newspaper reports that contradict this. According to the probate record his effects were in excess of £4400 and the Sheffield Evening Telegraph confirmed that on his death he was ‘perfectly solvent’.

On the day of his funeral, a crowd stood in the pouring rain outside his shop on Russell Street and then proceeded to Finchley cemetery, led by an open hearse drawn by four horses and covered in floral wreaths. There are an array of surviving newspaper reports on the tragic death of Mr Fox and some slight discrepancies between them, however all agree that he was well-liked and respected and would be terribly missed in the theatre community. The Western Times confirmed he was ‘exceedingly popular’ while the Dundee Evening Telegraph wrote that his death left ‘a feeling of deep regret throughout the dramatic profession’.

He left behind his wife, and one child, who continued to the run the business under the same name after his death. In 1940 the business secured a contract with the British Army to supply costumes for the Entertainments National Service Association and the following year purchased rival costumier Simmons with funds from their financial partner, the theatrical publishers Samuel French. Incredibly, Charles H Fox Ltd is still in operation today, trading under the name Kryolan, a theatrical makeup specialist who took over the Covent Garden premises in the early 1990s.

All newspaper extracts ©The British Library Board. Researchers can access the British Newspaper Archive via our online subscription at The Keep.

If you are interested in finding out more about the history of Brighton Aquarium join historian Paul Jordan and archivist Andrew Bennett for their afternoon workshop on 10 February 2016 – booking essential.



Stories from the Collections: Eric Ravilious Archive features in London Exhibition

30th March 2015 

By Emma Skinner

The Keep is very pleased to be involved in the forthcoming exhibition of Eric Ravilious watercolours at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. The unique retrospective will display some rarely seen works from private collections alongside beloved favourites, on loan from major galleries such as the Towner in Eastbourne and the Imperial War Museum. Together with the 90 paintings, the thematic exploration of the artist’s career will include selected wood engravings, lithographs and archive material.       

In May 1939 the prestigious London art gallery Arthur Tooth and Sons held an exhibition of Eric Ravilious watercolours. Two thirds of the paintings that were originally on display over seventy five years ago will be available to see at the Dulwich Picture Gallery this spring. His now nostalgic images of pre-war England will be displayed together with works painted during his time as a war artist, documenting scenes on the home front as well as abroad. Ravilious died in service in 1942, aged just 39, when aboard an air rescue flight from RAF Kaldadarnes in Iceland which went missing and was tragically never recovered. His legacy will endure through the substantial body of work he created, portraying scenes of ordinary life with extraordinary flair.

We are delighted to be contributing some personal items for the exhibition from the Ravilious archive deposited at the East Sussex Record Office by the family. The passes to restricted areas, currently on loan to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, were issued to Ravilious during his time in active service as a war artist and include this permit to enter H.M dockyard at Chatham and to go aboard ships, valid between 15 February and 14 May 1940. In addition to the military passes, two letters written by Ravilious will be on display; one to his wife Tirzah dated 30 May 1940 and another sent in September 1939 to Helen Binyon whose father, Laurence Binyon, was the Keeper of the Print and Drawings Department at the British Museum and a distinguished poet.

Other items from the Ravilious archive are available to view at the Keep, highlights being his personal papers, family postcards and letters written to other artists significant in the development of mid-twentieth century British design. Of particular interest is the correspondence between Ravillious and Peggy Angus. Ravilious was inspired by the landscape of the South Downs and the time he spent with his friend Peggy Angus at her home Furlongs had a profound effect on his approach to painting. In a letter to Peggy in 1939, Ravilious wrote ‘Furlongs altered my whole outlook and way of painting, I think because the colour of the landscape was so lovely and the design so beautifully obvious … that I simply had to abandon my tinted drawings’.

Ravilious will be on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, from 1 April – 31 August 2015.



We will be featuring some more Ravilious letters in our ‘Letters from the Archive’ Blog later this year.

Please note that you will be unable to view any original items at The Keep which are on loan to the exhibition but scanned copies are orderable until they are returned to us.