Monday, 29 July 2013

Cornwall's Photographer: George Ellis

George Ellis at work
George Ellis moved to Bodmin with his wife Jessie on Sunday 3 September 1939, a date he'd always be able to recollect. The following morning he began work at the Bodmin-based Cornish Guardian, as the paper’s staff photographer. George had trained as an engineer but hoping to turn his hobby into a livelihood, had left his job to become a press photographer.

Early in life George had many adventures; he crossed the Atlantic in a Moravian Missionary windjammer, spending six months in Labrador with the Eskimos to record their way of life. Keen on deep-sea fishing, he made several long trips with his cameras to explore the fishing-grounds of the North Sea and the Arctic. Afterwards he gave talks about his experiences, illustrated with his photographs: ‘The Western Isles’, ‘A Trip to Labrador’, ‘Meet Mrs Eskimo’.

Bodmin 1943: Bob Hope entertains the troops
With a growing family though, the expeditions came to an end. George worked for the Guardian until the summer of 1940, but wartime paper rationing led to his redundancy. He became self-employed, and began to build up his own photographic business in Bodmin.

Throughout the war, George also served with the Royal Observer Corps at the Bodmin Beacon post known as S.3. When American troops arrived, he set up a small studio so the GIs could send home photographs of themselves with their Cornish girlfriends. George was one of the few press photographers with access to military establishments, notably the naval airfield at St Merryn.

He liked to be known as George W F Ellis, and styled himself Cornwall’s leading Press Photographer. Working from his premises at 4 St Nicholas Street, he contributed to the Guardian but supplied other newspapers too, including the Western Morning News, and magazines such as Women’s Own; most of his work was in black and white. George also printed calendars bearing local scenes, and started a lucrative line in post-cards carrying his images. They sold in thousands; many survive today as collectable items.

Cornish saffron buns: a mixed reception.
Though he tended to focus on mid-Cornwall, George also travelled widely across the Duchy. His camera faithfully captured village life: Young Farmers functions, baby shows, carnival queens, musical occasions, agricultural shows, wassailers. George loved traditional occasions, and for around 30 years attended the annual Shrove Tuesday hurling at St Columb Major, as well as Padstow’s May Day festivities. He covered local sporting fixtures and enjoyed weddings; images with large groups of people usually meant good sales, as often mementos were ordered by the subjects. Some of his more unusual assignments included a rat-catching session at Liskeard, a party for centenarian Mrs Alicia Tugwell, and a giant haddock.

Charlotte Dymond memorial, 1943
But as well as parochial happenings, he photographed some big events: the manhunt following Newquay’s murder in July 1958; the Royal Cornwall Shows; the Tamar road bridge under construction. George was interested in technology, and travelled to the Lizard as the Goonhilly satellite station was being commissioned in mid-1962. St Austell’s china clay industry and the Cornish railways also attracted his lens.

George’s work was generally of fine quality but sometimes he was a little snap-happy. In his archives, some rural and shoreline scenes occur again and again; it seems he cherished certain views which he felt compelled to revisit. Numerous images, particularly the topographical, can’t be dated accurately because there are no people, cars or buildings to suggest when they were taken. A few show human failing; like everyone else, occasionally George would produce blurred, wobbly or lop-sided images, heads or feet missing. But he kept them all.

When the chance arose, George photographed royalty and the famous. Among them were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, together with Princess Elizabeth, when they visited Bodmin during the summer of 1950; twelve years later he recorded the Queen Mother once more, at the official opening of the new Tamar Bridge. He also visited Fowey, where he snapped a resident whose lifetime of artistic work had been admired by millions: Mabel Lucie Attwell.

Winter at Jamaica Inn, 1950s
As he aged, George’s photographs concentrated more on central Cornwall, nearer his home. He officially retired in 1975 but worked until his eighties. In retirement he developed an interest in painting, and kept up his musical activities: singing, and playing the piano and organ. George died in October 1985.

Today though, thousands of his negatives are still with us, held by the Cornish Studies Library at Redruth. George’s records of his work have also survived, great hand-written ledgers organised with a generous dash of Byzantium. Frozen in time, these historic images of Cornwall exist today thanks to the constant enthusiasm of George Ellis, and his indefatigable camera.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Cornwall's Unique Stone: Serpentine

Serpentine is the beautiful stone found at the foot of the Lizard peninsula, Cornwall's most southerly point.  Though it occurs elsewhere, the Cornish variety is uniquely coloured; dark green, red or grey, run through with contrasting seams, it polishes like marble to a wonderfully deep sheen.

For centuries, serpentine-bearing blocks were used to build the Lizard’s homes and farm buildings.  Local people also carved small decorative objects but it was a Mr Drew who first saw business possibilities for ornamental items, when he arrived in 1828 to repair the peninsula’s lighthouse.  The rock’s glorious tones must have caught his eye; he developed a polishing technique to buff it to a fine lustre, and opened a concern in his home town of Penzance which cut and carved serpentine items commercially.

A second factory soon opened nearby, at Wherrytown, also in Penzance; at first, orders were taken for items such as pedestals, vases, flower stands and mantelpieces.  But a boost came in 1846, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert called at the town aboard the royal yacht.  Ashore, they were shown specimens of polished serpentine.

Enchanted by the colours, the royal holidaymakers made an unscheduled visit to see the rock in its natural surroundings.  They ordered many serpentine items for their Osborne House residence, including several mantelpieces and twelve polished vase bases.  News of the stone travelled among the great-and-good of the land; with royal approval, serpentine grew as a fashionable material.

During 1851 the Great Exhibition was held in Hyde Park, an enormous show of culture and industry; from May to October, six million people visited.  Serpentine was exhibited there, bringing the unfamiliar rock before a huge audience.  Business soared; to represent the stone in the capital, the London and Penzance Serpentine Company was formed.

Orders arrived for ever-larger pieces: towering obelisks, columns, ecclesiastical pieces, fireplaces.  Cornish serpentine found its way to Chatsworth House, Hampton Court and Westminster Abbey.  Across Britain, the stone decorated the exteriors of municipal buildings and prominent shops.  Locally, serpentine was used to create ornamental items within the Lizard’s churches, including lecterns and pulpits at Grade and St Wynwallow.

In 1853 the Lizard Serpentine Company was founded, on the peninsula close to the stone, in tiny Poltesco valley; it too opened a London office.  Whereas Wherrytown used a steam engine to power its processing machinery, at first Poltesco relied on a waterwheel driven by the stream which ran through the valley; later, it acquired an engine of its own.

The two factories were great rivals, but there seemed enough work to go round.  Quarrying increased, all within a few miles of Lizard Village.  The raw serpentine was hewn in ever larger slabs; blasting damaged the material, so instead jacks, wedges and cranes were used.

But gradually a problem emerged with some of the veneers adorning building exteriors.  Serpentine wasn’t sufficiently resilient in the face of severe cold or frost, and away from the Lizard’s gentle climate the thin sheets began to flake and crack.  Serpentine’s critics, not least those from the rival marble trade, lost no time in hand-wringing.

Wherrytown put up the shutters but its rival continued, buoyed temporarily by the closure; during 1871 a change of ownership created the Poltesco Serpentine Marble Company.  Finally though, in 1893, the Lizard enterprise closed down too.  Processing and manufacturing equipment was sold off, the workforce left and the valley fell silent.

That might have been the end of the story, but as serpentine’s large-scale uses fell into decline, a new market emerged for items which could be made by small workshops: the tourist trade.  By the 1880s, amongst its myriad routes the Great Western Railway had opened a branch line to Helston, the Lizard’s northernmost point.  Later an omnibus connection appeared between Helston and Lizard Village.

Holidaymakers eagerly bought serpentine keepsakes: ash-trays, paperweights, tobacco jars.  Tourism developed into a mainstay of Cornwall’s economy, and demand for souvenirs grew.  The serpentine workers improved their artistry, creating bowls, miniatures and vases as well as elegant lighthouses, symbolic reminders of the seas around the Duchy’s long coastline.

Today a handful of craftsmen still work at Lizard Village and local showrooms sell serpentine pieces.  Poltesco valley shows evidence of its former use; the three-storey warehouse built in 1866 remains, as well as workshop footings and the waterwheel pit, during springtime surrounded with vivid wild flowers.

The best place on the Lizard to see serpentine in its raw state is Kynance Cove, where the pounding sea’s natural polish has fashioned and smoothed the rocks, leaving them gleaming as it recedes.  Against the soft white sand, Cornish serpentine stands out rich and unique.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Royal Cornwall Museum's Mystery Mine Paintings

Truro’s Royal Cornwall Museum has been donated a historic oil painting of a 19th-century Cornish mining scene. The painting shows a mine count-house, or office, where an auction of copper ore is taking place. A mixed group of buyers, miners and bal-maidens is depicted, along with the mine managers.

The earlier mystery painting.
The museum received the painting from a Cornish family with long-standing mining connections, but little is known of its origin. It probably dates from the early to mid 1900s, and is initialled ‘WP’. The painting bears a striking resemblance to another work also in the care of the museum, again anonymous, which is known simply as ‘A Cornish Mining Scene’.

The Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, which promotes Cornwall’s mining legacy, has studied both paintings and found similarities. In each, bal-maidens attend to their daily work, many wearing the distinctive white Cornish ‘gook’, a form of protective headgear. As the sale of ore takes place, buyers cluster around the managers. Both paintings show piles or doles of copper, ready for selling, while background buildings and scenery are also alike.

The Heritage Site says the paintings reproduce many activities of a Cornish tin mine of the period; some are particularly accurate. The earlier painting shows a raised wooden trough carrying water from the mine engine house and shaft; such channels often leaked, and the painter includes this detail. Some of the bal-maidens are dressing the copper ore, while others bring the ore to the balance-scales for weighing, before it's auctioned.

Who's this by?
But licence has also been used. In the later painting the maidens are dressing the ore close to the count house, unlikely in real life; this job was usually done at the mine workings, rather than near the offices.  In the more recent painting, a thatched cottage is in close proximity to a smoking mine chimney.

Lucinda Middleton is the RCM’s Curator of Arts. Lucinda explained: “The similarities in the subjects, as well as the broadly comparable colour pallets and style of brush strokes, indicates the paintings are probably by the same artist.” However, she feels the two were probably painted some years apart. The recently-donated work shows more attention to detail, implying a growing experience and maturity of observing and painting.

Both the museum and the Heritage Site are keen to learn more about the paintings.  If you can help with information, particularly the locations portrayed, or details of the artist, they'd be pleased to hear from you at

Monday, 22 July 2013

John Skewes: Cornwall's Frog Enthusiast!

John (left) with a friend, at the main frog tank.
Cornishman John Skewes lived at the Countryman pub, near Redruth. Born in 1910, he worked as a bus-driver before starting on his own as a haulier. But during his spare time John nurtured a consuming hobby, a passion which led to a reputation for eccentricity, as well as scrapes with the law.

Always very interested in frogs, John began collecting them from the ponds and ditches around his home. His forays gathered the amphibians for use by hospitals and universities in medical research. Soon, thousands lived in a big tank at the yard where he kept his lorries.

John’s home became known as The Froggeries, a notice by his gate advertising ‘England’s Largest Frog Dealer’. Frog requirements grew ever greater; John advertised for more, at 2s 6d (12½p) a dozen. Local children caught them to supplement their pocket-money, but John was picky and would accept only prime specimens.

During 1949 John agreed to sell a motorbike to his neighbour, Albert Shortman. The price agreed between the two men was 2,500 frogs, in John’s mind equivalent to £25.  The motorbike changed hands; however, time passed and John claimed Albert only ever made a down-payment of 88 frogs; finally the case went to court at Redruth.

At the hearing there was much deliberation over the habits of frogs, and methods of capturing them. John’s (estranged) wife testified that Albert had actually paid 1,000 frogs, leaving an outstanding balance of only 1,500. Perplexed Judge Scobell Armstrong, presiding, felt he was dealing with “a little community of people who appeared to think of currency in terms only of frogs.”

Eventually, the hearing found for John. Albert was ordered pay the remaining amphibians. John’s council, Mr Caffin, when awarded costs, was asked by the exasperated judge whether he’d prefer money or frogs. 

John developed other interests; snails, dogs and pigeons all fascinated him. But always, his frogs came first. Despite many accidents while catching frogs – he often tumbled in streams and twice fell into the same quarry – John lived to a ripe old age.