I shall never enjoy that magic moment on “Antiques Roadshow” where a member of the public gasps with surprise as the expert gives a valuation way more than they were expecting for the antique they have brought along – I have already had my moment and nothing else is likely to surpass it,,,
Some years ago when I lived in Ireland, I went to jumble sale in Sligo and happened on what I thought was an old accounts ledger. Without even opening it I asked the price and handed over £1 – it was still Punt then – pre-Euro. When I did open it a few minutes later, I was delighted to find that it was an album of 19th Century photographs and as I flicked through it, I realised that it was probably from Kilronan Castle, a then roofless ruin near to where my sister and brother-in-law had lived. When I showed it to him, Willie agreed and said that he believed that there had been an early photographer in the family that had lived there. I resolved to take it to the National Library of Ireland – Photographic Archive and if it was part of a body of work, to donate it to them to be with the rest of the work.
As you can see, the pages were elaborately decorated with pen borders – sometimes Celtic knotwork and in this case the date and place are given however like so many family albums since, the compiler of this album has not seen fit to name anybody – on the assumption that everybody in the family knows who is who… This may be true but people pass on and we are left with a collection of the nameless. Undoubtedly this is a family album and for the several years I had the album in my possession, I enjoyed speculating about who was who and who was the compiler. My money was on the girl on page one placed centre page between whom I guessed were her mother and father. There were other pages that betrayed the sentimental nature of youth such as a page of pets and also the passion for categorisation as in the pages of estate workers and indoor servants below.
There were also holiday photos – also labelled and dated , unlike the people. Look at the detail below in this scene of Rome…
It was not until I had returned to England that I finally got around to contacting the National Library of Ireland and sending them the above scans and they confirmed that the family who had lived in Kilronan Castle, were the King-Tenisons and both husband and wife had been pioneer photographers. Also, they would be delighted to accept the album into the collection of work they had of the King-Tenisons. I offered to post it and aghast the lady said they would collect it the next time they had someone over to England. A few weeks later they emailed saying I would have to obtain an export licence for them to bring the book out of England. I duly downloaded the form only to find that a valuation was required and the form was only for items in excess of £10,000! I rang the NLI and said “Don’t panic, I’m still going to give it to you but I needto know what the album is worth?” ” Well we obviously haven’t seen it and its condition but we think about £25,00!”
Cue staggered moment!
Well eventually I got the export licence and the NLI sent someone to pick it up but that wasn’t the end of my involvement . Sadly I had to return to Ireland for the funeral of my dear ex-brother-in-law Willie and took the chance to go to the Photographic Archive to view the rest of the King-Tenison collection (my album was in conservation) ans they also passed on the name of an American academic who was writing a book about the couple. I made contact with Lee Fontanella and on one of his last research trips before publishing his book we met up at the archive and examined both my addition to the collection and other work that he had previously viewed. Lee outlined his book which is to tell the story of how this apparently cosmopolitan couple travelled round Spain for several years presumably before they settled down in Kilronan to raise a family. They hobnobbed with the Spanish aristocracy up to and including the queen, taking photographs of their estates and making a living by doing so.
Lee concurred that the album I had found was probably the work of the daughter and that certain pages were probably the discarded catalogue thumbnails of her parents work.
I hope that if economies improve and there is one day an exhibition of the King-Tenison’s work that I might play some part in the curating of it – perhaps exploring the theme of the shortcomings of family albums from this one henceforth, to label their subjects…