Marjorie Baker

Photographer whose images of Sussex document the social changes of the 20th century
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The Independent Online

Marjorie Baker, photographer: born Henfield, West Sussex 13 November 1912; married 1940 Stephen Tidey (died 1999; two sons); died Henfield 9 November 2004.

For 64 years, Marjorie Baker recorded the lives of the people of West Sussex - creating an archive of images which reflected changing habits, fashions, class and style, during an era when professional photography was at its zenith.

Two hundred of her photographs have already been deposited at Horsham Museum, with between 15,000 and 60,000 further negatives now left to the local Henfield museum. These will reveal to historians of architecture, clothing, industry and society the evolution of change during the middle and late 20th century after the great societal earthquake of the Second World War.

Baker produced images as classic as any Magnum photographer and as thoughtful as any by Cecil Beaton. She was not a snapper - she captured the moment of inattention or distraction more often than the sitter's desired representation. She did not travel discreetly around the countryside with a small Leica, but was most comfortable behind the large-format cameras of Rolleiflex, Hasselblad and finally Mamiya, and she most emphatically arranged sittings, many in the studio at the bottom of her garden.

A sitting with Marjorie Baker was almost anything but that - from baby to centenarian, her subjects stood, knelt, lolled, lay, crouched, perched aloft or strolled about in her images. She was the arch-talker and entertained her customers with memories of other clients and local history. Even within a fortnight of her death at 91, Baker was recounting incidents and describing personalities she had encountered 50 years earlier, in a voice that might have been borrowed from Edith Evans. She could recall the year each picture was taken, what everyone said, what the problems were with the shoot and why certain characters might have been absent from grand set-piece family shots.

Marjorie Baker was born in 1912 in Henfield, West Sussex, where her parents owned a butchers' shop. They sent her to be educated at Steyne School in Worthing "to be made strong on sea air". She emerged with a powerful personality and a determination to succeed in her apprenticeship to a London photographer, Margaret Ellsmoor, who had opened a studio in Worthing. Her first job there was to work on prints of Earl Winterton, the Horsham Conservative MP, from half-plate negatives.

Baker started work in Henfield in 1932 and one of the early portraits which has survived was of her father in dramatic pose as he tracks an aircraft overhead. By 1938, she had converted a coach house into a studio where she did most of her work and all the technical development for the rest of her life.

During the 1930s she began recording local festivities - carnivals, weddings and celebrations to mark such events as the arrival of a new fire engine in the village. In one of these images, the lolling benefactor, dressed in a light suit and casually angled on the fire engine, contrasts with the ranks of uniformed firemen, in their helmets and bulky buttoned jackets, as though in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Baker's sense of drama is brilliantly shown in the image of Tom and Harold Miles at their forge in the High Street during the Second World War - the daylight catching the men on their backs is mirrored by the fierce light of the fire on their faces as they heat the metal prior to moulding on the anvil. Fifty-five years later, Harold is still to be found at the forge every day.

During the war and by now employing four assistants, Baker was in demand to record the great number of weddings of servicemen - American, Canadian and British - who were billeted in the area. She recalled how when she was under the black cape behind the box camera, the couple would imagine they could not be seen and would canoodle, while she was in fact taking their photograph - giving a much better image.

Civilians were not allowed to travel in military transport at that time, but Baker enjoyed dodging the military police, lying flat on the back of the lorries to get to Wiston House near Steyning to photograph the US troops stationed there.

A telling wartime image is of the Cubitt family in Cowfold in 1942. One child stands with a slightly tentative-looking Mrs Cubitt, and the other two sit in a pony trap, grouped on either side of the dark and sombre doorway of the family house. Absent from the picture is the Hon Guy Cubitt, a lieutenant-colonel of the Sussex Yeomanry and ex-master of the Horsham Hounds, who had been badly injured and was almost blinded by his wounds at Dunkirk. Baker recalled later how much of the three-hour shoot had been spent trying to keep the pony trap in the photograph, in the pouring rain, with everyone, especially the family's Jack Russells, getting very wet.

Another classic social record is a shot of Land Army Girls, not out picking tomatoes, but gathered formally as if for a school photograph. Baker had immediately identified the prettiest and most outgoing girl and has her standing, hands delved into her Land Army breeches like a cowgirl, in the middle of the group while the others, medallioned and tightly clothed in jerseys and knee stockings, with full 1940s hairstyles, play the supporting roles - all of them beaming at the camera.

Wartime produced the challenge of finding film and Baker often travelled to London to buy at auction whatever was available, using both x-ray film and large format, which she cut down to size by quartering it, to extend her stock.

In 1947 she photographed the Browning farm team - they have just won a silver chalice for the best small market garden and the boss stands holding the great silver cup. He is wearing his double-breasted suit and trilby hat, his team beside him - Mrs Dale Wellington booted and aproned, with her hair tied up and carrying her hoe, behind her two great shire horses standing patiently, and the two men who make the photo image a classic, the brothers Harry and Alf Dale, flat-capped, wearing braces, gartered at the knee, in their shirt-sleeves, with Alf holding a spade and grinning in the friendliest way. The image captures an era of class division, but also of mutual dependency and common pursuit. It shows an agricultural age that has vanished and an economic system long extinct.

In 2001, Horsham Museum put on an exhibition of Baker's work called "Roadmender Country" - after the book The Roadmender written in Henfield by Margaret Fairless Barber (published in 1901 under the name Michael Fairless to great acclaim). The pictures included one of a local roadmender who had been assigned to repair the road north of Henfield; and one, of great technical interest, of a tinker who repaired ceramic plates with a hand-held drill, grinning from ear to ear, having never been subject to such interest before.

There is a smutty chimney sweep whose soot so filled the studio that carbon particles got onto the negative plates. A 1939 parlour-maid repairs a napkin and the vicar's tea party is a sea of hats. The scenes chosen were those felt to reflect the land and society around Henfield - the personalities and the places. The exhibition sparked a new wave of interest in Baker's work and a four-page spread on her work was published in Country Life magazine.

Over the last three years Marjorie Carreck, curator of the Henfield Museum and Alan Barwick, one of the executors of Baker's photographic legacy, had been talking to her in order to record the detail of as many as possible of the thousands of images which she took, so that this remarkable social document can be preserved for the future.

Patrick Reade