A spare half hour on a greyish Sunday morning and, dangerously, I am in the vicinity of a boot fair. It isn’t promising, to be perfectly honest – it is in one of Cambridge’s Park and Rides and is mostly traders selling huge quantities of stuff that I can’t believe anyone buys. At least, surely not in the quantity you would need to make this a viable enterprise. Mobile phone covers! Thousands of them! But there are enough outbreaks of bric-a-brac to keep me happy, and I rummage contentedly
There isn’t much catching my eye until I spy real treasure, half hidden behind yet another sentimental painting of a Spitfire at dawn (or dusk – are they all just reprints of the same painting, or was there a period when certain artists, all called Frank, painted nothing else?). About 14 inches high, in a heavy dark wood frame as solid as its subject matter, there is a photograph of a man and his sheep. It is a glorious find and I am smitten.
And what a splendid pair they make! Not tall, but with a walrus moustache that Paw Broon would be proud of and a smart suit of waistcoat and trousers (a bit worn at the knee), our man cuts an impressive figure. I would hazard a guess that he is from the lower end of the social scale – no tie as such, just a knotted scarf. His scuffed boots are showing signs of wear – and they are both unlaced! Has he pulled them on quickly for the picture? And there is something about his pose – slightly awkward, he is holding his arms in an odd way. Hard to explain why I think this, but has he been drinking? This leads to a theory – this is his prize winning sheep (why else would it be in the picture?) and he is all dressed up because he is just back from the County Show. A couple of pints to celebrate and he’s returned home and kicked off his shoes, only to discover that the photographer is here. Shoes back on (no time for laces), sheep ready, and smile!
Is he the shepherd, or the landowner? In Sussex, well into the twentieth century, shepherds were buried with wool in their hands, just so that God and St Peter knew why they hadn’t been attending church on Sundays.
As to the sheep, well, my knowledge is limited but a quick Google and I am ready to suggest this might be a Cheviot of some description – but as to its gender I have no idea, perhaps because of my reluctance to type “sheep sex” into the search engine. There aren’t many other clues to work on in the picture itself but, imprinted into the mount, is the impressive legend: “Harry Bullock, 48 High Street, Crewe. (Under Royal Patronage)”. The photographer presumably – there can’t have been many shepherds located in the middle of Crewe. Another search proves this to be correct – Harry Bullock, the son of a King’s Lynn photographer, had a shop in Crewe from the 1890s until his death in 1929, with the business carrying on into the 40s. This photo is surely from the early end of that timescale – perhaps Edwardian, but certainly before the First World War.
Of course, the real mystery is what they are doing in a Cambridge flea-market, a full century after the photograph was taken – and in such good condition! Recently, a friend told me that the Dutch in the Golden Age believed you died twice. Once for the physical death, and then a second time, when the last living person that remembered you died themselves. This comes to mind as I carry it back to the car – the picture has clearly been looked after, most likely by a relative, and the suspicion must be that they have, in all probability, taken the names of our friend (and his sheep) with them to the grave.