A COVID Crisis Update

Many of you will have seen the public statement from Historic Royal Palaces that was made on Monday (14/9/20) in regards the consultancy on proposed redundancies.

You sent kind words and wished myself and the Kitchen Team well so it was only fair to let you all know the following.

Teams across the organisation have begun to be shown the proposed new structures and the job losses and changes that will possibly form part of them. We are lucky, and have been told that the Historic Kitchens Team, and with it the cookery and kitchen interpretation we provide, are not currently roles determined to be ‘at risk’ of redundancy.

While this is clearly good news for those of us within the Kitchen Team, this is not a time for celebration. Our survival will be cold comfort to all those friends and colleagues who find themselves still ‘at risk’ of redundancy and my thoughts are with them and the situation that they are in.

Watch the Birdie!

Let me take you back to the heady days of summer, 2005. It was a different time, when self isolation was something that Howard Hughes was famous for, Don’t Stand So Close To Me was a Police song rather than a maxim for everyday life, Base Court at Hampton Court Palace was covered in grass, and Robert from the team had an idea for a photographic history event…yes it’s not just cookery for the Kitchen Team. As I’ve said several times before, cookery happens to be a great lens to look at history through, but sometimes it’s not just about the metaphoric lens that’s used.
Now right off the bat I’d better get the caveats in quick…2005 is a LONG time ago, mistakes in my recollection are highly likely. I’m no expert, that’s Roberts thing, unfortunately the current Covid-19 lockdown sees him stranded without access to a computer so I can’t ask him to fill in the details or gaps… I’ll aim to get an updated version from him as soon as is feasible, finally, this will very much be image heavy, detail light!

In actuality I suppose I should start back in 2001 when we visited the ALFHAM annual conference that was held that year at Colonial Williamsburg. As part of a jam packed time in the US we managed to fit in a day trip to Gettysburg to look around the town as it was only a few miles from where we were staying, and there was something, or someone there that Robert wanted to try to see. ..Rob Gibson.

Gibson ran a photography business that used the wet plate collodion process, the same process used during the US civil war, and was (as I recall) unique at the time we visited him, with every other photography business in town producing mock sepia prints for tourists and re-enactors. Rob produced the real deal and was absolutely the nicest chap in the world. With a kindred spirit in Robert, he spent ages explaining his process and showing us results, advising on best practice and even letting Robert have a go with his studio. By now Robert was already formulating plans to suggest a live photography event at some time in the future, and all the chatting with Rob Gibson merely cemented this thought in his head. There might be some drawbacks for us though, following the process authentically required the use of both high concentration alcohol as a solvent, and potassium cyanide as a fixer! Rob kindly explained which side of the state line you needed to be on to buy the 95% by volume grain alcohol that he used in the process, and we absolutely did not head straight to a liquor store to buy any, nor did we experiment with using it in cocktails…but that was unlikely to help us back home. The cyanide was a bigger problem.

After our US jaunt, Robert continued to work on his plans for an event and decided straight away to work in calotype rather than the wet plate that Gibson used. This was an earlier type of process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot and much more suitable for use in close proximity to visitors.

Vintage large format camera with modern focus plate

As well as the process to use, Robert needed to add more cameras and lenses to his personal collection, make a load more focusing plates and negative carriers for the backs of the cameras, a portable darkroom so that he could process in-situ, tripods, darkroom equipment and work on practising producing the negatives and taking prints from them; all of which took time. Fast forward to summer 2005 when the event was ready to go and for a couple of weeks, each day (light permitting) Robert, ably assisted by Marc, Robin and Barry, would take photographs all around Hampton Court.

Portable darkroom for processing in-situ.

He would photograph the architecture, trying to replicate the earliest images taken of the Palace in 1845, he would take pictures of his assistants and he would photograph visitors to enable them to fully understand the whole process and the history and science behind it.

Marc explaining the photographic process
Processed negative of a family of visitors

By working in a darkroom in-situ he could process the images “in front” of visitors and even though he would not have time to make prints until much later in the project, the use of digital cameras would allow the negatives to be inverted for visitors to see the final results before they went home. This working in-situ is the principal reason for the brush marks and streaking on the images. Robert never did find a satisfactory brush or sponge for applying the chemical solution to the paper to make the film. He tried a raft of different methods but couldn’t find anything that would allow even application of the solution while working in darkness. I suspect that this is the main thing he’d want to correct if we could run this event again.

That being said, the results were fantastic! Processed outdoors, feet away from the camera and done so that visitors could watch and experience the process rather than to produce perfect pictures. Move the slider left and right to see the negative and positive versions.

NB all positive images used here are digital inversions of the scanned negatives, not scans of the prints. No post production other than inverting and reducing in size has been done

Fortunately for most of the time the weather was fantastic…brilliant sunshine and clear blue skies, which made for ideal photography weather, mostly because it really shortened the exposure times into the sub one minute bracket.

Robert preparing to photograph a family group. Image courtesy M. Hawtree
The subjects eye view. Image courtesy M. Hawtree

Some days though, were not so great, but somehow Robert managed to work wonders with ridiculously long exposure times, often measured in minutes, to get some great shots

Visitors chatted for ages about the science and history of photography as well as waiting patiently while the “film” was exposed and a photograph was taken.

Base Court
Looking at the image on the focus screen
Marc talks details to a visitor
Robin helps him take a picture of the picture

As well as visitors and the buildings, Robert tried his hand at a still life

Setting up a still life composition with some handy fruit. Image courtesy M. Hawtree
Setting up a still life composition with some handy fruit. Image courtesy M. Hawtree

and when visitors weren’t forthcoming, there were always willing subjects waiting to have their portraits taken…any excuse to sit down for a few minutes!

Marc posing for his portrait
The processed negative, hot off the press

That last one is one of my favourites as it really illustrates that the camera does lie! As you can see from this image of Robin, he’s not that swarthy in complexion and his waistcoat is actually made up of dark colours, not the light ones that the positive image above might imply

Robin and Robert

It’s all to do with the wavelengths of light that the calotype is sensitive to, picking up a little more UV (I believe) than modern films and digital cameras…hence the darker face on both Robin and Marc who had been working outdoors quite a bit…hard to tell with Barry as he was channelling a more “Victorian side show wolf man” vibe for that week, and Robert was pasty faced from being in a darkroom for weeks!
The other “lie” is the lack of people in many of the images of the Palace, though this is one that most people are familiar with…though it was nice to be able to show it “live” so to speak

The lengthy exposure time means that only Barry, who was stood still, shows up in the image; the rest of the visitors who are walking through the courtyard can only just be seen as a light blur (this is easier to see on the right and left of the positive image)

Long exposure times measured with a pocket watch rather than a stopwatch

It wasn’t just the main Base Court that they worked in, Robert took the camera and darkroom all over the place, from out in the East Front Gardens

Fountain Court

Clock Court

As well as looking out onto the Privy Garden from the upper floor of the south side of the Palace

This was a really successful event, that really showed that it’s not just through cookery that people can learn about history at Hampton Court Palace. Watching the actual process of tasks being performed, in this case real photographs being created, and being able to engage in the practical process really adds to the visit, it gives the opportunity to forge lasting memories and to learn new things about something that you thought was quite a simple topic.

Visitors waiting to look through the camera back. Notice the clockwork birdie on top of the foreground camera!
Taking a bigger image needs a bigger “film”
Robin and Marc explain printing a positive from a negative
Making a print by exposing the sensitised print paper to light through the negative
Up on the roof. Robert acquiesced to requests for a portrait from the builders…where they were working! Image courtesy M. Hawtree

I’m certainly keen on trying to repeat this again at sometime in the future (if we ever get out of the current COVID-19 lockdown), and will be sure to record it in more detail if we do.

Below is a gallery of all of the negatives (and their digital positives) that are worth seeing, click on the thumbnails to see the larger images. You’ll note that I didn’t get too creative with image titles, but that should allow you to easily match negative to positive.Enjoy!

A selection of these images was published in Alternative Photography: Art and Artists, Edition I


Plough your own Furlough!

I had big plans a few weeks ago when home working was mandated as the way to cope with this current covid-19 situation…there’s lots of things I’ve never got round to writing about, so I could occupy my time writing a more regular series of blog posts while there was no kitchen to fret about or cookery to plan.

But, and there’s always a but, that was before the great furloughing of ’20! As I write this, around 75% of my friends and colleagues (including myself and all of the Kitchen Team) are on furlough or in the process of being placed on furlough. This is taking some getting used to…not working on plans for the year isn’t easy, and with no fixed end date it’s very much a state of limbo that I find myself in.
With Easter upon us, this would ordinarily be one of the most busy and fraught times of the year. We’ve just gone through the process of “closing” one financial year and would be beginning a new one, setting up budgets, allocating spending plans and such like. The Easter cookery would be mid-way through, with the holiday weekend soon to be in full swing and with it the the thousands of visitors that would usually bring. There’d be planning for the upcoming bank holiday weekend’s in May to get finalised, shopping to order, roster planning to tweak and details for the summer of daily cookery to get on top of…but now…nothing. Life is strangely silent. With no rhythm and routine to fall back on, the days all blur into one, and I’m finding getting started on something meaningful is proving tricky; whether that be blog posts or thoughts and musings about how live interpretation will look in the future, where social distancing is the new norm and how my team will cope with that.

Then of course there’s the worry…who’d have thought that a global pandemic would be cause for anxiety attacks and moments gripped by sheer terror!?! It comes in waves, sometimes small, sometimes cripplingly large, always connected with the thoughts of losing loved ones to something that you have no control over. I know I’m not alone in having these thoughts, I know I’m not alone in experiencing these for the first time; it’s rational to be scared at times under the current circumstances. These are scary times and being pre-occupied with the pandemic and trying to live a life through it is fine.
It’s one thing to realise that you’re living through history (Arab Spring anyone?!), but that’s usually history at a distance; history that comes with the comforting thought that it’s not on your own doorstep and that you are merely an observer, watching it unfold on a phone, TV or laptop screen. Covid-19 is history that’s hammering at the front door, everyone’s front door and I’d much rather have a thicker door if you please! I’m not afraid to say that with its arrival I’ve been found wanting at times, genuinely terrified as to what it would bring if it found a way inside but unable to distract myself with thoughts of other, less unpleasant things…oh how I long for the demands of constructing the staffing rota, or updating my cost plan spreadsheet…and THAT’S saying something!!

So that’s why posts haven’t been as forthcoming as I’d have liked…like many, I’ve had bigger things on my mind! Not that I need to justify my silence…hell, there have been much longer gaps that this in my posting, but consider this post a clearing of my mind…I needed to write it to throw the rubbish and clutter out of my head if you like, so in that regard it’s not that much different from the usual ramblings here.

The end of this week has seen me start to work through much of this, coming to terms with not being in control, switching off from the news more, searching for distractions (as long as it’s not DIY). I have plans for some posts for you and just need to get my proverbial finger out and write them. Can’t say when they’ll appear or what they’ll be about, just watch this space to find out.

For now though, and apropos the title of this post, I’ll leave you with some old photos of some of Adrian’s handiwork….a couple of miniature ploughs that he made for school sessions he runs on the history of agriculture. He used to cart full sized ploughs around to schools and harness up children to pull them, but carrying tiny versions is so much easier apparently!!

Tiny plough no.1
Tiny plough no.2

Obviously the Ikea sofa doesn’t do them the full furrow justice…but what are you gonna do eh!?

Stay safe, stay sane, stay 2m away from me!!


Up on the roof

Back in October 2016 I caught a lucky break…a rooftop tour on a beautifully sunny day. It’s not cookery related (vaguely kitchen related stuff after the pictures), but we could all do with a lift and some images of a better time…click the images for larger versions.

If you feel the need for Kitchen related stuff…the roof on the right is the Great Kitchen

Looking west, along the Tudor north side of the Palace
the same view as above but zoomed out
The photos above were taken from here. Image clipped from and (C) Google Maps

When you stand there and look at this view it really gives a sense of scale to the Palace as the front seems so far away from you (this is taken from the eastern end of the Great Hall)…it looks like its own Tudor townscape, so different from the feeling you get when you’re walking around at ground level.

Looking at the Kitchen roof on the right (with the zig zag pattern in the tiles), you can see the 3 sets of chimney stacks that sit on top of the 3 fireplaces on the north side of the Kitchen.

north side chimney stacks correspond to….
1…the fireplace in the Baden-Powell space in the Kitchen
2…the fireplace modified in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with coal range and oven
3…fireplace altered probably in the late seventeenth century to convert to a charcoal range

Well it looks like I’ve meandered back inside from the roof…might as well finish off with some shots of the Great Kitchen roof from underneath then!

ooh! That’s a bad quality photo

One of the things we always encourage people to do when they come into the Kitchen is to look up…I mean it’s magnificent and they miss it. Ok, so it’s not quite the Great Hall or Chapel roof, but it’s not far off it in my opinion. Kids always say it looks like thousands of books on library shelves…just before they comment on all the spider webs they can see.

Seeing it from the ground is one thing, but you get a whole new appreciation for it from close up…the opportunity for which came during the last refresh of the Kitchen interpretation in early 2018

Up in the rafters
Don’t look down!

Of course, all those rafters and beams don’t look particularly Tudor because they aren’t, the original Tudor roof was supported on the corbels that stick out from the walls all down the length of the building.

This corbel used to hold up the roof

you can still see two parts of the original roof structure if you look up…well, one part of Wolsey’s original kitchen at the east end of the building, and one part of Henry’s extension at the western end.

right next to the wall…the curved beams…Henry VIII’s Kitchen roof
and this is part of Wolsey’s roof structure

So that’s the ever so exciting roof dealt with, not sure where I’ll go with the next post…I’ll see how the mood takes me, I’m making this up as I go after all.