Sunday, 16 October 2016

Ginx's Baby

In the summer, a long-standing traditional book shop in Kirkstall closed. The owners were retiring and were giving away their stock.

I left with two ornate bookshelves for a fiver each, and boxes full of wonderful old hardback books, mostly falling apart, but with a new potential - for altering them with artistic means.
Now before you go: NOOOO! Books do come to the end of their lives and I seek out such, so that I can recycle them and try to throw little or nothing away. The pages can be drawn on (Tom Phillips - A Humament), carved into (Brian Dettmer), folded, painted, embellished and so on. I have made papier mache out of the pages, turned the spine into a bookmark, and the covers for creating book boxes.
So, armed with my stash of books, I went home to investigate further. One book, was called Ginx's Baby, and initially I was thinking about how I could alter it yet keep the theme of the wonderful cover picture and inside illustrations. Then I started to read the book. And couldn't put it down.

Ginx's Baby was written by Edward Jenkins, who lived from 1838 to 1910. The book,
published in 1871 was described as: "A satire on the struggles of rival sectarians for the religious education of a derelict child."
Then, as in the discovery that so much overlaps and connects, I found that Ginx's Baby inspired a polychrome drawing , taken by Oscar Gustav Rejlander in 1871. The picture is in the Royal Photographic Society collection, which just so happens to be housed in the archives at the National Media Museum in Bradford, my college and work city. The photograph was one of a series taken for Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) work ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’, 1872, a study into the origins of human expressions. After meeting Darwin in 1871, Rejlander became the main photographer for the project. ‘Ginx’s Baby’ was also commercially successful, and so Rejlander created versions on cartes de visite and cabinet cards. 

"The striking image of this helpless working class child soon became part and parcel of the Victorian social and political debate on poverty, charity and social justice. Photography took on a new relevance. It suddenly dawned upon critics and observers that certain photographic images have the power to influence public opinion and determine or change its course. A single shot can strike deeper than a million words."

Rejlander was famous for his large, allegorical photographs and self-portraits. At the invitation of Darwin, Rejlander posed for four photographs in Expression. He even had his moustache trimmed so as not to obstruct the pantomimic grimaces and decorous gestures he acted out for the camera. But his most famous contribution was his picture of a screaming child, known as Ginx’s Baby, illustrating the chapter on “Low spirits, anxiety, grief, dejection, despair.” Rejlander sold 300,000 prints of this photograph, which almost single-handedly kept his foundering studio afloat.

Photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander,
with  his picture of Ginx's Baby
In the Darwin archive at the University of Cambridge there is a photograph of Rejlander next to Ginx’s Baby. It rests on an easel and by it sits the photographer, mimicking his subject’s expression, his arm around the picture of the baby. Another, almost identical picture appears alongside it, like a stereoscopic slide. “Fun, only,” he wrote on the back of the photograph, “There I laughed! Ha! Ha! Ha! Violently—In the other I cried—e, e, e, e,.. Yet how similar the expression.” It is almost impossible to tell them apart."

I contacted the Bradford museum to see if it was possible to arrange to see the picture and maybe put it on show with the book. Collections assistant Lewis Pollard invited me to call in which I duly did and was invited into the hallowed chambers of a backroom in the museum where Ginx's Baby was ensconced in protective wrapping. Lewis put on a pair of white gloves and removed the picture. I admired it for a few minutes, and took some pictures of it next to the book.
So, I asked, would it be possible to put this photograph on show alongside the book in the museum?


Lewis explained that the photograph had been 'acquired' by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and was soon to be transported down South along with other prints from the Bradford collection.

Lewis Pollard with the photograph of Ginx's Baby
 and my book
This move is not without controversy. The Royal Photographic Society collection, which is made up of more than 400,000 prints and historic equipment, had been housed in the National Media Museum since 2003.
The decision to move the collection from Bradford to London was described as an act of “cultural rape on the city” by local politicians and a signifier of “metropolitan cultural fascism”. It prompted an open letter, signed by figures such as David Hockney and Mike Leigh, that protested against the relocation.


* August 1 2017. I emailed the V&A about Ginx's Baby in June but have heard nothing back from them.