It is a bitter cold day and I find myself in the Saturday market, rummaging through the bric-a-brac stalls, looking for treasure. I am quite taken with a 21st birthday card to an Ethel, written in the early part of the last century, from her sister. The card itself is forgettable, a bunch of flowers with a few lines of doggerel. But it makes me laugh because Ethel, clearly an unsentimental type, has used the card to carefully tot up her accounts, writing over the message in a beautiful script. But not so unsentimental as to throw it away! It has been kept, in near perfect condition for almost 100 years. The original message, written in pencil, has faded almost to being illegible, whilst the inked pounds, shillings and pence stand proud. The stall holder, a rogue straight out of Steptoe & Son, looks at me quizzically but I am not amused enough to buy it and move on.
I head to the “antique centre and gallery”, in truth a glorified emporium of bric-a-brac but with the advantage, on this chilly day, of being indoors. It’s a terrific place arranged over a dozen rooms on three floors. Books, postcards (neatly sorted and filed), a record shop in the basement, paintings on the top floor and piles of stuff everywhere – it’s wonderful and I quickly lose myself.
I resist the temptations of a 1930s pamphlet on the health benefits of nudism, obligingly illustrated by a series of informative (and tasteful) photographs of young women living the naturist dream. I also decide against an odd collection of photographs taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s of random derelict buildings around the town and local countryside. There is almost no commentary – maybe a brief note on the location but otherwise nothing. They aren’t even especially good – there is no sense of artistry or composition. It the oddness that is appealing – who took them, and why! However, I am pleased with my restraint – I must stop buying this kind of stuff.
And then I found this fellow – resistance was futile.
Look at that face! It’s ever so hard to read – the eyes have a hint of a twinkle (mischievousness, insolence?) but there is a steeliness too. And is there a melancholy, or is that just the melancholy that comes when looking at any old photograph? The downturn of his moustache doesn’t help. All the same, he’s a pleasing looking cove, whatever his mood, small in stature and despite his clothes there is a sprightly tidiness about him.
And there lies the rub. His clothes are falling apart. The cuffs of his sleeves are fraying, the buttons are coming off his waistcoast, there is a pocket hanging off his jacket and there are holes in his trousers. His cap, smart once with fancy braiding on the peak, has seen better days. Admittedly there is foxing on the photograph, but the suit is clearly faded and worn. There is no suggestion of wealth – no brass chain and watch for him! And yet the shirt looks spotless and clean, as do his hands. Is this a man posing for what might have been the only photograph ever taken of him, clean shirted and proudly defiant in what is his only suit? Or has some Victorian anthropologist pulled him in from the street to represent the working classes for a collection of trades and professions?
There are no clues, other than what is in the photograph itself. The wonderfully ornate table and the scenic backdrop, and of course the suit, might help a historian close in on the date but there is nothing to reveal the identity of the subject. I will have to content myself with idle speculation about the man who tidied his beard, put on a clean shirt and went into a photographers’ studio sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century in order that his likeness be preserved for posterity. And with this in mind I left the warmth of the shop and braced myself against the snowy squalls and biting wind.