An evocation of people

Mar 25th, 2008 | By | Category: Cross Channel

Mrs Holman's Cottage

Edwin Smith’s Evocations of Place evokes characters long dead.

Mrs Holman, owner of the cottage in which Smith took a photograph of the fireplace in 1936 is a lady whose place tells much about its owner.

Mrs Holman lived in the little Somerset town of Crewkerne, a town that would have been a bustling and prosperous place, for there was enough work for the foundry that made the fine range that sits in her hearth.

Mrs Holman is a lady with a sense of the value of things rather than the price of things. A pair of horsemen sit either side of her mantlepiece, the rider to the right is headless, but what matters is that such heirlooms are preserved and passed on. It would have been alien to people of Mrs Holman’s generation to have gone to someone and asked, “How much is it worth?” Value was something far greater than price.

Mrs Holman’s family are central to her life. Sitting at her fireside each evening, she would have looked at the framed photographs lined up amongst the china, who was living and who was dead? We don’t know. In the 1930s, before the development of antibiotics, many lives were very short.

Mrs Holman is traditional in her politics. This is safe Tory territory and her mirror reflects a picture of the king. He was probably the old king by the time the photograph was taken, the young Edward VIII having acceded, for King George died in January and there is no fire in the hearth to suggest that the picture was taken so early in the year.

Mrs Holman is fastidious about timekeeping, the clock that sits on the mantlepiece is a big brass alarm clock. it shows just after quarter past two. Mr Smith probably arrived at two o’clock to take his photographs and Mrs Holman would have been waiting for the knock at the door.

Evocations of Place was a Christmas present. At £35 it was probably more than I would have thought of spending on a book, but Mrs Holman has been in my thoughts since yesterday – so much evoked in a single photograph which the Royal Institute of British Architects prosaically catalogues online under “Fireplaces”.

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  1. It’s a really interesting photo for want of a better word to describe it. You can imagine the kettle boiling away on the range to heat water for all manner of things. You can imagine the lady of the house sitting beside the fire perhaps with a radio on doing some needlework of some kind or other. It actually reminded me of the two dogs that sat on Nan’s mantlepiece. Yes, interesting in its best sense is perhaps the right word.

  2. It’s been a long time since I saw a bellows.

    We had one in my family home, in the days before firelighters and firelogs came into vogue.

    And it worked brilliantly – that is until the leather perished and it sprung an air leak!

    If I had an open fire in my house, I’d definitely go searching around the antique shops to find a bellows. You can’t beat them for getting a fire going 😀

  3. Great photo and with an interest in photography myself, Idont find it prosaic at all but very warm and informative. It looks like a typically Irish cottage (not that I’d know) I have a very stark blue and white house punctuated with old curiosities, one of which is my Grandad’s writing desk. On top of it, all the little curious of no value but great importance from a little Dubai camel to a miner’s lamp. I loves little things that have a story to tell!

  4. At about the same time the picture was taken a chemists shop in Crewkerne was boarded up as the owner had died, It was opened up about 60 or so years later when the then owner died. The contents were bought up by ‘Flambards Park’ in Cornwall and are on permanent display, its worth a look if you’re in the area, cobwebs and all!!!

  5. Paula,

    Did everyone of that generation have those heirlooms?


    Bellows were great – you could blow ash all around the place!


    Thass not Ireland! Thass Somerset, me dear!

    I agree with you that it’s not at all prosaic – but you can order the picture from RIBA under the title ‘fireplaces’. They even have the date wrong – they have it as 1953.


    Can you imagine what a lively place some of those towns must have been to have had a foundry that could make such fireplaces?

  6. Ian,

    I think they may have. Do you remember Nanny POulton’s big Swan?

  7. I think that the old kitchen ranges were works of art. There used to be one at my Mothers but it was replaced with a Rayburn when I was about 2, I do remember having a’copper’ in the kitchen where the washing of clothes was done.

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