PHOTOGRAPHY / Retouch of genius: The late E Chambre Hardman's legacy is a haunting collection of society portraits and idealised landscapes, as Jane Richards discovered

Jane Richards
Monday 25 July 1994 23:02

E Chambre Hardman had three great loves: his wife, the countryside and his photography, and when he died in 1988, he left a legacy of prints, negatives, cameras, lights, darkroom equipment, letters and studio records that prove the strength of these passions.

Indeed, Hardman's Rodney Street studio provides a rare insight into the life and working practices of a mid 20th-century photographer. Before his death, he set up a trust to preserve his 18th-century terraced house as a museum for his studio collection, including his exhibition photographs - which go on show from Friday at the Walker Art Gallery.

Born in 1899 in Foxrock, south of Dublin, Hardman later admitted that the beautiful landscape that surrounded him in Ireland inspired him from childhood. 'Most of my childish dreams were of landscapes, usually of some remote and spectacularly sited lake, which I could never find again.' After public school, he went to Sandhurst and was commissioned to the Brigade of Gurkhas, spending four years in India where he began to experiment with photography - and in particular, with the soft-focus, pictorialist landscapes that were to become his trademark. With fellow officer Kenneth Burrell putting up the capital, Hardman finally set up a photographic studio in Liverpool, later moved out on his own and eventually settled for good in Rodney Street.

Hardman became the leading portrait photographer in Liverpool from the 1920s to the 1960s: he photographed John Moores (founder of the Littlewoods empire), Robert Donat, Michael Redgrave, Ivor Novello, Margot Fonteyn, Beryl Bainbridge and the beautiful socialite Deryn Arkle. But it is the landscapes and cityscapes culled from his imaginative powers that remain his most memorable work.

He travelled extensively, taking photographs wherever he went in India, Spain, the south of France and throughout Britain. Views of Wales and Scotland display his fascination with wild, mountainous terrains and cloud formations, and contrast with his timeless visions of traditional English countryside: rolling fields, farms, cornfields and cottages. Then there is A Memory of Avignon, a wonderfully hazy study of three friends relaxing at a cafe in the dappled sunlight under the trees, which exudes an air of painterly French Impressionism.

But his most famous image is The Birth of the Ark Royal, taken around 1950. Showing the great ship shining like a ghost over the terraced houses of Birkenhead, it demonstrates the photographer's ability to see beautiful pictures where others might not. He used a telephoto lens to bring foreground and background closer together, and waited for the ship to be painted white in preparation for its launch by Queen Elizabeth.

Hardman wasn't worried about a little retouching either. As with all good pictorialists, it was simply a case of 'improving' reality. So in The Birth of the Ark Royal he had no qualms about painting out an unwanted lamp-post and retouching one of the schoolboy's socks to bring it up to the same height as the other.

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 29 July-25 Sept. National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, from 5 Nov

(Photograph omitted)

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