The exhibition An Inland Voyage: Life on the Coventry and Oxford Canals features the evocative photography of Robert Longden. It opened at the Herbert on the 26th June and Exhibition Officer Dominic Bubb caught up with the curator of the exhibition and great grandson of Robert Longden, Stephen Pochin.
Name: Stephen Pochin
Occupation: Father, artist, photographic re-toucher, curator
Can you tell us a little about the exhibition?
Robert fortunately caught these working scenes just before the waterways were transformed into destinations for leisure. In so doing, he has left us with a precious document, of the people and their uniquely (for this country at least) intertwined domestic and working life.
How did the idea for the exhibition develop and how did you come to work with the Herbert?
I was never that interested in my family history or in the ancestor worship that usually comes with genealogical research. As a child I was always aware of Robert’s archive, but it didn’t occur to me that it would have any wider relevance. Then a couple of years ago I turned 40 and became a father, and last year my mother commenced medical treatment. As I reconsidered my role in life, my family history took on a new lustre, and I began to see Robert’s work in a newly resonant light.
I thought the archive deserved some public exposure. Being an artist and photographer myself helped me to appreciate both Robert’s technical achievements, and the means required to restore and re-present the archive.
Why are the photographs Robert Longden took of Coventry and Oxford canals so important?
They are unique in capturing in intimate and diverse detail an era’s industrial process in rapid transition. An industry that also defined a lifestyle that was at odds with the rest of our social customs and expectations. They depict a now lost working class dynasty. But beyond their relevance as photo-documentary, many of these complex compositions stand out on their own merit as poetic achievements.
What relevance do the photographs have for museum visitors today?
There are several layers of relevance, and this is partly addressed in the previous answer. But there’s also a revelation. There’s a picturesque aspect present that is beguiling and almost palpably Dickensian in flavour. But this notion can cut both ways and is largely driven by our expectations of vintage photography which, as yet, this is not.
Some of the feedback that I have heard involves the shock and surprise at how recently the images were taken. The fact is here were poor, dirty, shoeless kids living on what was an industrial highway and missing out on an education; in the post-war years. Just one decade before Harold Macmillan’s famous ’’…most of our people have never had it so good…’ speech of 1957, Robert recorded child labour at its most picturesque. But it is still child labour.
For the exhibition you have created your own set of photographs. Can you explain the idea behind your project and how Robert Longden inspired you?
For me the brief for this project became three-fold:
To convey how someone with an awareness of contemporary photographic practice (and with the latest digital equipment) would frame the location differently. The digital screen display is important in suggesting the stream of images one can produce these days.
To assess how the location has been transformed in the 21st century: By detailing diverse details of its use and abuse. Although there are no portraits, the tell-tale traces of a spectrum of human activity are strewn everywhere.
To suggest how that which currently appears mundane, marginal and of little consequence, may, through the decades, acquire an unexpected resonance: In Longden’s instance, apart from the obvious humanity he portrayed, we know this is due largely to the decorative artefacts, the now desuetude machinery and architecture, and the now out-moded processes that he managed to frame.
You have also created the ‘Robert Longden Photography Archive’, what are your plans for the photographs in the future?
To further promote awareness of Robert’s achievements by producing a website and hopefully a large format, high quality art book of his canal imagery. Eventually I want to restore the imagery specific to Coventry. There’s a wealth of captivating views of the lanes of the Medieval City, interior details old cathedral, that may well be unique, and portraits of flat capped road-menders, and crowds of people fishing in the Swanswell. As a whole, I hope to confirm its significance as a local and national image archive of some importance and worthy of recognition.
And finally… Would you ever consider living on a canal boat yourself?
No. There would be no room for all my bookshelves, books and CDs, no wall space for my pictures and no floor space for our son’s Lego. We can’t just leave all that out on the cabin roof!
The exhibition runs until 30th of August at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.
Dominic Bubb, Exhibitions Officer