An Astonishing Photographic Discovery
Today, it is my great delight to reveal these breathtaking photographs taken by Horace Warner in Spitalfields at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These pictures which have never been reproduced before, and have hardly been seen by anyone outside his immediate family, are published with the gracious permission of Horace Warner’s grandson, Ian McGilvray.
Previously, only a handful of Warner’s sympathetic portraits of the children who lived in the courtyards off Quaker St – known as the Spitalfields Nippers - were believed to exist, but through some assiduous detective work by researcher Vicky Stewart and a stroke of good luck upon my part, we were able to make contact with his grandson who keeps two albums comprising more than one hundred of his grandfather’s pictures of Spitalfields, from which the photographs published here are selected.
Many of the pictures in these albums are photographic masterpieces and I believe them to be the most significant set of photographs in existence of East Enders in this era. There is a rare clarity of vision in the tender photography of Horace Warner that brings us startling close to the Londoners of 1900 and permits us to look them in the eye for the first time. You can imagine my excitement when I met Ian McGilvray and opened Horace Warner’s albums to discover so many astonishing pictures. I experienced a sensation almost of vertigo, like looking down the dark well of time and being surprised by these faces in sharp focus, looking back at me.
It was no straightforward journey to get there. I first published a series of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers in these pages in 2011, reproduced from a booklet accompanying a 1975 exhibition of the handful of pictures once published in fund-raising leaflets by the Bedford Institute in 1912. Then last year, when I sought to reproduce these pictures in The Gentle Author’s London Album, Vicky Stewart established that the photographic prints were held in the Quaker archive at Friends House in the Euston Rd.
This discovery which permitted me to include those pictures in my Album was reward enough for our labours and I wrote an account of our quest entitled In Search of the Spitalfields Nippers last August. The story might easily have ended there, if we had not been shown a 1988 letter from Horace Warner’s daughter Gwen McGilvray that accompanied the prints. In this letter, Gwen mentions the ‘albums’ which was the first tantalising evidence of the existence of more of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields photographs.
Even as our hopes of finding these other pictures were raised, we were disappointed to realise that Gwen was unlikely to be still alive. Yet through the research facility now available online and thanks to his unusual surname, Vicky was able to find an address for one of Gwen’s four children, her son Ian, in Norfolk. It was a few years out of date but there was a chance he was still there, so we waited until the Album was published in October and sent off a copy to Ian McGilvray.
Within weeks, Ian wrote back to ask if I would like to visit him and see the ‘albums.’ It was my good fortune that the one of Horace Warner’s grandchildren we had been able to reach was also the guardian of the photographic legacy. And so it was that on a bright winter’s day I made a journey to Norfolk to meet Ian and see the complete set of Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers for the first time. My fear was that I had seen the most important images among those already known, but my shock was to recognise that the best pictures have not yet been seen.
These wonderful photographs have the power to revolutionise how we think about East Enders at the end of the nineteenth century since, in spite of their poverty, these are undeniably proud people who claim a right to existence which transcends their economic status. Unlike the degraded photographic images created by charitable campaigners or the familiar middle-class studio portraits, Horace Warner’s relaxed intimate pictures draw us into a personal relationship with his subjects whom we meet as our equals. The Spitalfields Nippers are a unique set of photographs, that witness a particular time, a specific place, a discrete society, and an entire lost world.
As a designer managing the family wallpaper-printing business, Horace Warner had the income and resources to explore photography in his spare time and produce images of the highest standard technically. As superintendent of the charitable Bedford Institute, he was brought into close contact over many years with the families who lived nearby in the yards and courts south of Quaker St. As a Quaker, he believed in the equality of all and he was disturbed by the poverty he met in the East End. In the Spitalfields Nippers these things came together for Horace Warner, creating compassionate images that gave dignity to his subjects and producing great photography that is without parallel in his time.
Ian McGilvray has granted his blessing to the publication of all Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers in a book for the first time so that everyone can see them and – with your help – we mean to do this on November 1st. As with our other titles, I need to gather a group of readers who are willing to invest £1000 each. Please email Spitalfieldslife@gmail.com if you would like to help bring this exciting project to fruition and I will send you further information.
Photo referred to by Gwen McGilvray with headlines at the end of the Boer War, dating it to 1902
At the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Burne Jones exhibition 1901
In Pearl St (now Calvin St)
See the man looking over the wall in Union Place (off Wheler St)
Friederike Huber’s cover design for the book to be published on November 1st
Publication Rights in these Photographs Reserved