Photographer keeps a record of the records
His pictures show the careful order of the Bristol Record Office, with its countless rows of velum-bound books – chronicling every aspect of the city's history for more than 1,000 years – but photographer Neil McCounbrey's latest collection also gives a nod to the forgotten human lives that echo beneath every quill stroke in every document.
From the medieval scribes with their vividly illuminated manuscripts, to the Victorian clerks who couldn't resist doodling faces on the margins of the pages – it's the humanity that echoes through the city photographer's study of the record office's historic collection.
"I spent a lot of time in these four floors of archives over the last 12 months," Neil says. "On ten visits I took around 10,000 photographs. But with every book I took down from the shelves, with every envelope I opened, I could feel the eyes of the clerk who wrote it watching over my shoulder from the darkness." Neil has chosen 40 of the images to make up a new exhibition, which will run at the Bristol Record Office for three months from February 12. But here, we can give you a sneak preview of some of his most evocative images.
Neil took to professional photography late in life – after 30 years of working in the sales department of Hewlett Packard he left to spend three years studying for a degree in photography at the University of the West of England.
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For his degree show, Neil focused on photographing the upstairs rooms of Tyntesfield – little altered since the late Lord Wraxall's death.
The project developed his style – for "hidden and historic" places, where the shadow of people's lives still cast faintly from beyond the grave.
After graduating he moved on to a project photographing the remnants of life for BBC workers at the Clifton Rocks Railway during the wartime years when much of the corporation relocated to the hideaway.
Last year Neil also photographed Redland Police Station on the day after the last police constable had beat a sombre farewell from the building, but before the accumulated detritus of years of the constabulary's work was removed to make way for the primary school that was to take over the building.
But the sheer quantity of historic documents available to Neil's artistic eye at the record office has provided him with almost unlimited opportunities.
"My photographic style is known as 'found still life'," he explains. "In other words, the important rule is that you don't touch it, you can't start rearranging the composition – you're looking for interesting shapes, colours and juxtapositions in the way objects have naturally been left.
"So here that was very much about the way the books are filed away – the contrast between the often fragile velum binding and the strong metal shelves.
"One of the first things I found when I arrived was a series of town clerks' records from the 1700s, which are kept in 250 individually made wooden boxes. Inside each box were hundreds of sealed invoices, many of which hadn't been opened since the day they were written. It was fascinating to be allowed to look through some of the documents, even though at the time they were for mundane municipal procedures.
"Similarly, I enjoyed photographing the old city buildings plans, which architects had been obliged to produce from every building proposed for the city throughout the 19th century.
"These contain the original plans for some of the city's most famous buildings, as well as for normal houses, and for countless constructions that were never actually built.
"I particularly loved a page that featured a cigarette burn, that must have been made by a tired draughtsman – you can see how the ash has been frantically brushed off the page. Again, it's just another little ghost of a moment in somebody's life from long ago."
As Neil leads the way through the archive, with the guidance of senior archivist Allie Dillon, we pass by boxes containing all the city's charters – including one from 1347, from Edward III, devoted to the punishment of bakers who used short weights with the flour in their bread, and also the punishment of "night walkers" – prostitutes.
A few shelves away is the Mayors' Book – which chronicles the details of every mayor and Lord Mayor of the city since the 1100s.
Another weighty tome, photographed by Neil for the exhibition, is the Great Orphan Book – which details the affairs and care provided for any child who had lost his father from the 1300s to the 1600s (losing one's father, rather than both parents, was the mark of an orphan in those times).
As Neil soon discovered when he started photographing the collection, the record office is also a place of great contrasts. On one floor the archive of the Society of Merchant Venturers stands beside the archive of the Arnolfini – the leather-bound books of the medieval merchants rubbing shoulders with the groovy 1970s posters advertising modern art exhibitions at the Harbourside venue.
"It's just a fascinating place to have been able to spend some time," Neil says, "I enjoyed photographing it all so much, and I hope the exhibition will give visitors a bit more of an insight into the workings of the place."
Neil McCounbrey's free exhibition runs at the Bristol Record Office for three months from February 12.
For more details, visit Neil's website at www.neilmccoubrey.com.