Northern light


Last week I visited Liverpool, a place which remains one of the great cities. The northern skies glowered as if a hurricane were on the way. At a fine high Georgian townhouse just ten minutes from Lime Street Station, I spoke to an intense man and woman who made it clear they know they have a mission to fulfil. They are Viv Tyler and Roger Prideaux and they run the Edward Chambre Hardman Trust, which is dedicated to publicising and celebrating the life and work of a man who was arguably one of our best photographers. Hardman's old house is both a time capsule and an artistic and sociological goldmine. The trust which runs it is in dire need of a solvent financial partner, or Hardman's mesmeric archive is likely to be dispersed to who knows where.

Hardman was born 100 years ago this year and died a sad, lonely man in Sefton General Hospital in 1988. He was so obsessed with photography that he very nearly departed intestate for the next round of the great cosmological bout. Indeed, if ECH had nearly forgotten to make a will, he had very nearly forgotten to marry his wife and fellow photo-grapher, Margaret Mills, who pre-deceased him. So concerned did she become that her boyfriend would never make his move, she resorted to flamming up a transient relationship with a faintly gruesome-sounding squaddie to make him jealous: "He's a jolly fellow and sings! He's glad he's flirted a bit because he now knows what real love is!"

Hardman was born into a moneyed Anglo-Irish family at Foxrock, south of Dublin. He took an early interest in photography and his father encouraged this. So did a local doctor's daughter who was also the town film star, though Hardman noted that his young maiden aunt, "who also had some claims to this title, used to describe her somewhat differently".

The Hardmans were army stock and the young Edward duly served in India. He would have enjoyed this more had it been possible to do his photography without the risk of being shot by insurgents against the remnants of the Raj. He met another young officer called Kenneth Burrell, the scion of a Lancaster shipping dynasty. For whatever reason, Burrell was determined to open a photography business in Liverpool, but wished to concentrate on the commercial side. The pair quit the colours for Merseyside and Burrell's father put up the money. Today, there is a real romanticism about the nameplate at the Hardman house: "Burrell & Hardman Ltd" - just as if ECH were still snapping away inside.

Hardman became phenomenally successful. Portraiture was his bread and butter and he dined well on it. His Liverpool was a proud, rich city, and its captains of industry queued to sit for him. So did visiting showbiz figures. He photographed Ivor Novello, Margot Fonteyn and a young John Moores, of the Littlewoods pools family. Hardman knew he was good: "Portraits of men by Burrell and Hardman are natural yet virile." ECH made at least one leading city architect look like a close associate of Al Capone.

Had ECH been able to afford it, he would have loved to concentrate on landscape. He and Margaret would put their bicycles on the train and take pictures all over Merseyside, Cheshire and North Wales. Their bikes are still at the house. If you took these contraptions on a train today, you would probably be arrested for going equipped, but Britain was another country then.

The Hardmans I admire most are his pictures of a hard-nosed, gutsy Liverpool, taken when the North-west still had real industry and Scousers were sure they had a role to play in the world. Hardman's meisterwerk is his stunning Birth of the Ark Royal (1950), an almost surreal vision of a great ship rising spectre-like from the Birkenhead dockyards. ECH took a breathtaking cityscape from the steps of Liverpool Museum (1946), which still suggests a place of vigour and potential. His shot of Chester Station (1947) transports us back to a time when people did things, went places and retained a vague notion of society, all but absent from this punch-drunk, benighted nation now.

Hardman's house contains his studios, darkrooms, equipment - and his and Margaret's living quarters. We see his vast Indian cooking pot, his sad old fiddle, now down to two strings; and even Margaret's fearsome rubber contraceptive device. Small wonder the marriage was childless.

Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery staged a major Hardman exhibition in 1994 but while the attendance figures were excellent, ECH paid the price for sticking solidly to his northern patch and national coverage was meagre. So it is vital that the ECH Trust now finds what Prideaux bluntly terms "someone to get into bed with", to put real money in. Then they can open the house as a museum or exploit its potential as an educational resource ("Or a tourist one! For God's sake just let's get on with this!" as Tyler puts it). At present they are sitting on a house in aspic, under wraps yet ready to roll. The ECH Trust envisages a Heritage Lottery Fund bid at some stage; but time is of the essence and they need a partner now.

I do hope they find one, for Hardman was an artistic genius and his legacy should benefit us all. Is there no rich son or daughter of moody, magnetic Merseyside who will reach for their chequebook today? There must be a cue here for someone - and in the meantime, you should see the house.

ECH's house is open to bona fide visitors by appointment, and reproductions of his works are available for sale. For further details, telephone 0151-709 5900

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition