Artist Andrea Allan introduces us to her photographic project, Gobbles Loves You, inspired by the written correspondence between two lovers.
Tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I’m an artist working with photography, text, sound, installation and artists’ book. Through my work I like to explore the real and the imaginary, in an attempt to better understand the links between our past, present and future. Combining photography with the written word, I weave past narratives into the fabric of present places, casting old social and political understandings in a contemporary light.
And could you introduce us to Chambre and Margaret?
Edward Chambre Hardman was a Liverpool portrait photographer who documented many of the city’s most prominent figures from 1930s through to the 1950s. It was during the mid-twenties that he employed 17-year-old Margaret Mills as an assistant. After a few years she decided to train as a photographer in Scotland, thus leaving Hardman, and the point at which their letter writing began. They had pet names for each other – Gobbles for Hardman and Pearl for Margaret.
How did you discover these letters?
I was studying for my MA at Manchester School of Art at the time. One of the modules was to work with archives, specifically looking at Hardman’s legacy. The most natural place people started was with their house, which has been kept the same since they died. I wanted to delve a little bit more into their relationship, and to find out what type of people they were – what better way than personal letters.
Was there anything unexpected about these letters?
One of the first things that struck me about the letters, and why I spent so much time reading through them all, was the way in which they wrote to each other. Business was nearly always discussed, a shared passion, that they could discuss in detail. Then the narrative would switch entirely, sometimes mid sentence, to how they missed each other. These parts were always written in the third person, and they referred to each other by their pet names.
There were some pressed flowers between some of the pages; the pollen had stained the coarse paper yellow after all these years. Telegrams had also been kept, these more than anything show how technology can never replace the value of analogue. Text cut into strips, pasted onto starched white sheets, stamped with the telegram office details, draw entirely away from the intimacy that a letter can hold. Even pet names became confused – instead of Gobbles someone mistyped and put “Gopples”.
How did you select what line of each letter you’d reveal?
I’ve worked as a document controller and thought that I would draw on my experiences of working with and organising copious amounts of information by imposing guidelines on the way that I photographed the letters. I decided to show only one line of text (although I broke this rule a few times), to only use the back of the envelope so that you couldn’t see the postage stamp for date or location. The text had to be either on the top, bottom or either side of the crease in the middle of the letter so that I didn’t damage the letters in anyway. In the end it turned out a lot of Margaret’s letters were in plastic dividers and could not be removed, making the narrative biased towards him.
What was it like to read through correspondence originally intended for each other’s eyes only?
For most of the letters it was interesting to see how being a photographer has changed over the decades, and how some elements are very much the same. The only moments when I got embarrassed was when reading through lines like “he wants to whisper something into her ear...” and I won’t finish that sentence!
The tongue twister makes me laugh, and there’s a section where Hardman is off walking in Scotland with friends and complains that a woman in the group can’t manage the mountains, but he has no doubt that his Pearl would have been straight up without any fuss at all.
Are you a letter writer yourself? Did this project shift your ideas about them at all?
In my early 20s I used to write all the time, and then I’m ashamed to say, I seemed to lapse. After doing this project I started reading up on letter writing and came across a TED talk given by Hannah Brencher. Brencher wrote love letters and left them all over the city for strangers to find, eventually turning it into a global initiative ‘The World Needs More Love Letters’, which posts handwritten letters to those in need of human kindness. After creating these photographs and reading up about this initiative, I’ve felt the need to get to know people's handwriting again, to know that someone’s mused over what paper to use, to create that very personal, intimate connection, something technology will never be able to replicate.