Friday, August 06, 2010

A Picture Post

There is something wonderful about looking at old photographs, especially if they're of members of your family. To suddenly recognise the curve of a jaw, the tilt of an eye, a dimple, the bridge of a nose in someone long dead links you to them. You suddenly realise that these people aren't just names in a parish register or a genealogical chart; they lived and loved and died and a part of them lives on in you and your family. The subtle nuances that make every human face unique are repeated across generations. I, for instance, share my maternal grandfather's nose, my mum's hair, my dad's smile and my paternal grandmother's toes. I'm a patchwork quilt made from scraps and off-cuts of those who came before me.

I'm lucky that there was always money in my family. at least, until the years between the wars there was. Prior to the 20th century, my mother's side of the family were farmers and master masons, MPs, high ranking military personnel. On my dad's side there were shipbuilders, poets, MPs and master mariners. Trace my bloodline back far enough and you find a man so rich that he gave the estate we now call Beaulieu to the first Lord Montagu as a wedding present. Go back further still and there are scraps of evidence to suggest that my family once owned the land where about a quarter of St Ives in Cornwall now stands. The 'Faerie poet' Robert Herrick (1591-1674) dedicated a collection of his works to one of my ancestors, his 'peculiar friend Mr Thomas Shapcott' (though not a direct ancestor due to his sexual preferences) and my family pretty much built half of the village of Looe in Cornwall. As I say, there was always money. Quite where it all went is a mystery. Bad investment possibly. Or it may be (no sexist slight intended) that the women I'm descended from had to take over the running of large and complex businesses without any training or experience when their husbands, brothers and sons didn't return from the war. Whatever the reason, by 1950, my family was left comfortable but no longer rich.

The reason I mention all of this is because with money comes opportunity and the Colgans, Dawes, Shapcotts and other branches of my family tree invested some of their loot in family portraits. Consequently, I have a set of photos that stretch right back to the earliest pioneering days of photography when subjects were still strapped into iron frames to keep them still for the long shutter-less exposures. It's an amazing archive and I thought I'd share some choice images with you.

Cataloguing and chronicling our family history is a long tradition that we Colgans keep going to this day. My grandfather and father were very keen photographers - I grew up with a darkroom in the house - and my brother Simon is a professional photographer working in Cornwall today (Here's his site). My kids are pretty keen to take photos too ... even if it is just them on the lash posted to Facebook. And with the quality and availibility of cameras in phones and i-pods etc. it looks as if the tradition will continue. I sincerely hope so.

It's looking encouraging; my five year old granddaughter took this one of me on Coombe Hill, Buckinghamshire last week.
That's one for the family album.

1 comment:

Mo said...

Great photos there. We have many family photos but are having real problems identifying people as so many say things like "Uncle Taff" or "at home" It's what got me started on genealogy, trying to identify them all