Private portrait gallery of the Great British public revealed in a new series from Bodleian Library Publishing

3 February 2011

A new series of books from Bodleian Library Publishing illustrate how the private photograph radically democratised portraiture in the early twentieth century.

In 1902, the post office allowed personal messages as well as addresses on the backs of postcards. In addition, the proliferation of photographic studios and the mass production of the Box Brownie meant that, for the first time, ‘ordinary’ people could afford to own their portraits, and to have them replicated as a photo postcard for only a penny a card. An industry was born. Within the studio, individuals could choose how they were presented through a variety of dramatic props, theatrical backdrops or costumes.

Over 50,000 photographic postcards from this era (1900-1950) have been collected and thematically arranged by the artist Tom Phillips. This archive, recently acquired by the Bodleian Library, is now featured in a series of books, designed and assembled by Tom Phillips. Vivid and diverting as individual albums, the publications are a unique contribution to both social history and the history of photography.

The first two titles in the series bring together images of Readers and Women & Hats and include a foreword by a well-known commentator. Speaking about the images in Readers, the novelist David Lodge says, ‘Some are naïve, others artfully contrived, but they all provide invaluable clues to the way people lived in the past.’ In his foreword in Women & Hats, the milliner Philip Treacy says, ‘thinking of the pleasure these images have given me since I pinned them up on boards all round my studio, I say hats off to past hatters and the poetry of hats and the lovely wearers of hats gone by!’

For each title, Tom Phillips has painted a unique Humument, his signature artwork of a treated book, which is reproduced on the back cover.

Speaking about the Collection, Richard Ovenden, Associate Director and Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Library, said, ‘Tom Phillips is a great collector and curator. His collection of photo-postcards is one of the best in the world, having been built up through the painstaking search for postcards over a period of thirty years. Through his collection, Tom has created a window onto a lost world, one where the lives of ordinary people were revealed for the first time through the phenomenon of the photographic postcard.’

The next two titles in the series are Weddings and Bicycles, due for publication in May.

More information

Woman and Hats
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