A family photo album is a set of busy intersections, composing and redirecting, grouping and collecting, full of identification, full also of implied knowledge. If that is your grandmother you will know who she is and that the squirming child in her arms is your mother, your father, an aunt or an uncle or even yourself. A family photo album produces more questions and complexities of navigation the older it gets. Who put it together? When? To show what? A family photo album is a set of opportunities for recognising a face here, a name there and sometimes the connections between them. Then there are the moments when other eyes look into the album and find a face or a name connected with some other grouping, some other intersection, something that has been pulled into the album from somewhere else and now stands discovered.
This is what is beginning to happen, as the Harris and Weyergang Album Photographique opens its digital pages and discloses visual treasure of a rare order. Look, here are Edwin and Sarah Harris and their daughters (page 11, 12 and 13). Look, here are their Weyergang relatives from Germany (page 5 and 6), their English relatives from Plymouth (page 18), London (Emma Cole on page 2), Lincolnshire (Court Family on page 19 and 20), and Nantes (William Hill on page 17). Here is a nephew who moved off to Australia (Harry Moore on page 16). The earliest photos go back to the 1860s, the most recent could be from the 1920s. There are reproductions of British and European art (the family predilection showing up again). There are pages with mementos pasted in and a broadsheet poem.
Three or four times already the album has done its work of intersection. A family member in England spotted a portrait of his great great grandfather David Murray (brother-in-law of Edwin Harris). A curator in Plymouth with a knowledge of historical photography of the region spotted a photo of portrait-artist James Cobham Harris (Edwin’s elder brother). And we were delighted to find the Hobart studio stamp that pins Emily Harris to her Australian location in the early 1860s. Now it seems there may be a connection between the pasted-in reproduction of an Emily Harris flower painting (bindweed, berries and foliage framing a view of island and sea) with the watercolour recently acquired by Puke Ariki at a hospice auction in New Plymouth. Puke Ariki Information Services Officer Mike Gooch spotted the painting on the auction site and his colleague Kathryn Mercer remembered the page in the photo album.
A family photo album extends its intersecting arcs in a multitude of ways. Who is not to say that someone, somewhere will recognise the anonymous poem pasted into the last page of the Harris and Weyergang Album Photographique and identify its author?
I stood it was a summer’s day,
Upon a ruined grass grown pa,
The scented fields stretched far away,
To the forest belt afar.
Above Mount Egmont reared her head,
Like giant guardian of the land,
With snowy mantle round her spread,
The winding rivers murmuring flow,
To meet the silver crested ocean,
Pure as the flakes of falling snow,
With swift and ceaseless motion.
Numerous flocks and herds grazed on
The brown hill side and grassy plain,
While the glorious sun unclouded shone,
O’er treasures of golden grain.
Long – long I gazed upon a scene,
Where heaven’s benison seemed to rest,
Where stony war had never been,
A land supremely blest.
But suddenly a furious blast
Came rushing from the mountain range,
And hoarsely whispered as it passed,
That time the scene would change.
Could this be true, I looked to heaven,
A cloud the sun obscured,
And back upon my heart was driven,
The truth I had ignored.
And with the blast prophetic came,
A vision of pale windows lone,
Of peaceful homes all wrapt in flame
And orphan’s wailing tone.
A snow white bird with bleeding breast,
And mournful cry of pain.
Fled from her torn and ravished nest
Far o’er the slumbering main.
Oh! dove of peace, I cried in vain.
Stay, stay to bless this fertile land,
Fly not away with fear and pain,
Unto a distant strand.
Hast thou already seen on high,
Some dark and spectral bird of war,
With bloody pinions sweeping by,
Like an ill-omened star.
I turned away with bitter sigh,
Too deep for tears to start,
I who had gazed with hope so high,
Dreamt not of strife’s fierce dart.
Time hath passed on in his ceaseless flight,
Nor paused one moment brief,
Though around us closes war’s dark night.
And swords leap from their sheath.
Relentless Death in his grim array,
Has entered many a home,
And hath borne the best beloved away.
Too oft to the silent tomb.
Despair and Want stalk through the land,
A cloud o’er shadows all,
While Ruin with her meagre hand,
Spreads out her sable pall.
Lead writer: Michele Leggott
Research support: Makyla Curtis, Betty Davis