George’s work ￼￼￼￼￼made its public debut as part of the 2014 Artist Open Houses Festival in Brighton. It was intended to be a modest tribute to him, an exhibition in his former home of a few of the beautiful images found after his death.
But it all ran away with us. The pictures caused a sensation. There was a huge response from both the press and the public. The small exhibition got big publicity and the visitors who came to George’s little Regency house kept returning with friends and then friends of friends. Hundreds of people told us they loved it and wanted to see more.
We made a video to try to capture the atmosphere of that first show of his work.
Nigel Swallow, co – curator of that first show, explains how it all took shape.
On July 10th 2013 I went to see my friends Roger and Shan who live in Sillwood Road, down by Brighton seafront. “Quickly, pop over here,” said Shan and took me over the road to the house opposite, Number 14, a funny old place that seemed to have been trapped a in time warp since the 1960s. She explained they’d inherited it, with all its contents, and showed me a scruffy old grey filing cabinet full of folders marked with well known names. I dug in and the first thing I pulled out was a medium format negative of a portrait of a young Dirk Bogarde. I was blown away.
George Douglas was the photographer, and the man who had owned the house. He bought Number 14 in 1964 and it was his home for the rest of his long life. All his work was just crammed into files, lockers and boxes all over the place. After he died in December 2010 his wife Jill had tried to organise this enormous archive which spread chaotically from basement to attic. But she sadly passed away less than a year after George, leaving the house, the archive… and the organising… to her friends Roger (a photographer, like me) and Shan.
Jill never told anyone how hard she was trying to make sure George’s work was preserved, and she was nowhere near the finish line, but she left stacks of folders neatly labeled with famous names, a cabinet full of ‘miscellaneous’ files from A to Z, more folders marked in her immaculate handwriting: “TV shows” or “Picture Post” , and hundreds of magazines from the 1940s to the 1970s, all featuring pictures by George. You could see right away she’d worked bloody hard researching who was who, staring at negatives, matching up publication dates and putting what she identified into good order.
When I saw the old filing cabinet, I never imagined that I might end up living with it! I emailed Shan that night saying I thought some of the pictures should be exhibited as part of the annual Brighton Festival Open Houses event in May and it would be wonderful to do it in George’s home in 2014, exactly 50 years after he bought it. She asked could I help make it happen – “Of course!” was my reply.
Then a few months later I unexpectedly needed to find a larger home and found myself agreeing to rent Number 14, pictures and all, when the builders finished refurbishing and repairing it.
It was a mighty renovation job. Everything needed fixing, but on February 4th 2014, with the house still minus several floors and the odd ceiling, we decided to just go for it and register for a major Open House photo exhibition which had to open in a shade under three months time.
I knew we could do it. I’m used to putting on exhibitions in a short space of time; for seven years I ran the North Laine Photography gallery in Kensington Gardens, Brighton, so I ignored the building site and began looking through negatives and getting my head around the story we should tell to the Brightonians who came to see what this man who lived amongst them had done in his extraordinary life.
By mid-March the builders had worked miracles and I could move into the house. I set up a studio and really got cracking.
By then I realised that George’s archive held a lot more than just showbusiness stars. He was a fine documentary photographer with an enormous body of work and overall we should really have taken at least a year to go through everything before a first serious exhibition. But we’d registered the show – the press were very excited by our starry images – we were on our way now, with no way back! It also just seemed right to seize the opportunity to honour George as the photographer who lived here before me, so we pressed on.
We decided to concentrate on picking out stars this time, and leave the documentary work for more careful consideration later because it would take a lot more time to edit – but even then it was chaotic because we kept finding more stars all the time. Finally, as I was staring at an Audrey Hepburn print shining out amidst lots of other images on three 6ft magnetic boards I said to myself –
‘My God, we have unseen prints of major people here – I need some serious advice’
I contacted the National Portrait Gallery. To my delight Helen Trompeteler and Terence Pepper replied within a few hours, saying they’d like to come down and take a look. Helen is the assistant Curator of Photographs for the NPG and Terence is the NPG’s Senior Special Advisor on Photographs.
It was time to call in some serious studio help. Enter Finn Hopson, a great photographer who owns and runs the Brighton Photography gallery on the seafront. He joined the team on the 14th April, to help search the files and begin cleaning and scanning negatives of the images we hoped would interest the experts. We still couldn’t believe they were actually coming to see us.
Terence and Helen sounded intimidating but in fact they were lovely people. They turned up full of enthusiasm and were very keen on the archive, saying afterwards: “We were delighted to establish contact, and explore the archive with you, as we have long identified George Douglas as an under-appreciated and under researched British photographer of significance, especially with regards to his Picture Post work”.
Their visit was extremely helpful. They gave advice on how to progress with the archiving and preservation and they were simply amazing at recognizing significant names in the filing cabinet! They also told us that they were working towards an exhibition of Audrey Hepburn portraits for the NPG in 2015 and that they might be able to include one from our archive. Our morale soared.
We felt more confident after that and decided the exhibition was not the time to sell prints, we would wait until further work had been done to research and collate the archive and just throw all our efforts into properly cleaning the negatives and to producing one set of exhibition quality prints to show the pictures at their very best.
Shan, Finn and myself knuckled down as the days flew by. It was hectic. Finn was getting test prints from negatives that hadn’t been kept in storage packets, or even worse, had become stuck to storage packets. Some were over 60 years old. Some were scratched and battered and had no label or date …. but we could see they had wonderful images still.
Aubrey came in to join the team and go through a vast pile of magazines I hadn’t had time to check for spreads featuring Douglas’ images. Some of the magazine spreads were scanned and put up as part of the exhibition and made fascinating displays.
We only started printing the final exhibition prints on April 30! BBC and ITV film crews were due the following morning to do stories on this treasure trove and we had to have something to show them.
My sister Daryl, who was Gallery Director of North Laine Photography, then joined in the mayhem of putting things together. We hung the exhibition on the night of May 2nd. It opened the next morning. It was a bit rushed! But our hundreds of visitors seemed to love what they saw.
We had achieved what we wanted to do: to introduce them a fellow Brighton resident they may have passed many times on the street without knowing how special he was.
And that’s still our intention … to honour him and introduce you to George Douglas.