A cache of photographs unseen in public for more than 75 years is set to be sold in a Surrey auction house this month – with one of the images purportedly capturing the ghost of a soldier.
Consigned by the descendants of Edward Hillsworth (1867-1941), an amateur photographer and founding member of the Basingstoke Camera Club, the archive of more than 500 photographs shows people and scenes in the south of England dating from the mid 1920s to late 1930s. Together they form a record of characters, activities and rural and coastal scenes from Essex, Kent and Surrey to Cornwall, now lost in time.
But it is an image titled The Shadow of the Shade, captured at The Old Hospital, Rye – a building that is still standing to this day – which most grabs the attention. Accompanied by a short story manuscript describing the events around the picture and Hillsworth’s subsequent experiences, the atmospheric photograph shows a young girl in a white dress sitting on a step in front of a brick-built house nestling in the shade of acacia trees.
All seemed peaceful and normal as Hillsworth set up the shot, when he suddenly noticed an unusual blank space on the wall to the right of the front door, a space into which he resolved “to introduce some shadow or darker tone” during the development process.
When he did develop the image, however, he was baffled because in the same blank space “a very definite shadow shape” had appeared.
Forgetting about it for a while, it was only when Hillsworth showed the photo to some friends that one declared the shadow “like a soldier standing at the door; see, he is properly at ease, and there is his pack upon his back, which seems to have slipped a little, and that looks like a little dog at his heels”.
Laughing off the phenomenon at the time, Hillsworth related that he later found himself back in Rye and so visited the house to give its occupants a copy of the print.
Having been asked in by a little old lady in a mob cap, he handed her the photograph. “As she looked at it, a startled, frightened expression came over her, and letting the print fall from her nerveless fingers, she sat down upon a low chair, and covering her head with her apron began to rock to and fro in an agony of grief.”
At this point another old lady entered the room, looking very much like the first. Seeing the photo, she too was shocked and burst out: “Good God, it’s Jock!”
Jock McKie, it transpired, had been a soldier billeted in the town with a Scottish regiment whom the sisters had befriended prior to him embarking for the Dardanelles in the First World War. He had come to say goodbye before leaving “but as the draft were on the move he was sternly ordered to fall in the ranks and was prevented from carrying out his desire”.
They heard later that he had been killed at Gallipoli, and the sisters believed that the shadow was Jock and his little dog, who always accompanied him, come back to fulfil his mission.
The haunting image will be offered for sale alongside hundreds of others, grouped into 28 lots by theme. Many are titled, but few clearly identify the scene or people pictured. Those that do include The Inner Harbour, Polperro, Rye Harbour, Romney Marsh and Port of London. Others are more romantically titled, such as Sunshine floods the narrow way, Waiting for Fatherand The last low rays their Benediction give.
Vernacular photography, capturing everyday scenes of life such as these, has become one of the most popular collecting fields in recent years, especially after the discovery of the previously unknown archive of images by Vivian Maier (1926-2009), a nanny and carer who took more than 150,000 images as a street photographer in her spare time and is now hailed as a major artist.
Hillsworth, largely unknown outside his close circle, was recognised as a talented photographer in his lifetime and was awarded a number of certificates of merit. Some of his photographs were published and featured in photographic exhibitions. The Royal Photographic Society records for 1870-1915 show that he exhibited there in 1908 and 1910.
He developed and printed many of the prints himself from glass plates on various papers at home.It is thought that after his death the glass plate originals were thrown into The Basingstoke Canal.
“This is the complete collection of his work, as passed down through his family to the present vendor,” explained auctioneer Chris Ewbank.
“It is one of the most extraordinary archives I have ever seen, not only because of the sheer talent of the photographer, but because the compositions themselves and the scenes they capture are so magical.
“Whether it is a study of a pipe-smoking man in a flat cap, village life between the wars, with children taking water from the stream, the empty streets of a Cornish fishing village or quiet woodland ways, what Hillsworth unknowingly captured was an England, largely unchanged for centuries, on the cusp of the modern age, where so much of this would have been swept away and lost forever.
It is one of the most extraordinary archives I have ever seen, not only because of the sheer talent of the photographer, but because the compositions themselves and the scenes they capture are so magical.
“Whether it is a study of a pipe-smoking man in a flat cap, village life between the wars, with children taking water from the stream, the empty streets of a Cornish fishing village or quiet woodland ways, what Hillsworth unknowingly captured was an England, largely unchanged for centuries, on the cusp of the modern age, where so much of this would have been swept away and lost forever.”
The sale takes place on March 22.