Snapshots throw fresh light on poet Philip Larkin

One of the country's most popular poets, he's known for creating striking images in words.

But there has been little attention till now on Philip Larkin's ability as a photographer.

A new exhibition in Hull focuses on a hobby Larkin pursued with something of the same zeal he took to all his pursuits, poetry, novel writing and jazz criticism.

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Larkin may have inherited some of his enthusiasm from his father, a keen amateur who always took his camera on holiday and captured gauche images of the famously self-conscious poet as a young boy.

By the time he was a student at Oxford, Larkin was taking his own photographs and collating them in albums.

Despite the bleak impression he later created of family life, in many images he is, perhaps surprisingly, "openly and unenforcedly smiling".

Between the 1950s and the late 60s, the snaps give way to carefully-staged portraits, which he developed at home.

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A lot of thought went into the end result, sometimes cropped and then enlarged from a particular image which had caught his eye – a shady nook in Pearson Park, near his home in Hull, or a bird's wandering trail on an Orkney mudflat.

There are landscapes, cityscapes and portraits of the women in his life, his long-time partner Monica Jones, looking waspish, and another girlfriend, Maeve Brennan, hidden by reeds, elusive as she was in real life.

Dr John Osborne, director of American Studies at the University of Hull, who co-curated the exhibition with archivist Judy Burg, said Larkin was a "self-taught but highly-developed photographer" whose best work coincided with the time he was producing some of his greatest photography.

"The photography and the poetry definitely feed into each other," he said. "In Whitsun Weddings which is a train journey he took from London to Hull, when he pulls up at a station he describes the women's gloves, their jewellery and their outfits, lemon, mauve and olive-ochre, and you think not that many men would be that observant.

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"I think the exhibition will help highlight the visual element in his work."

The sense of fun in some of the images – posing the novelist and poet John Wain in front of a lingerie shop – are, despite impressions, an accurate reflection of the man.

Dr Osborne said: "Most of the people who met Larkin always say he was the wittiest person they'd ever met, the most fun. He was depressive but had an impish sense of humour. These smiling photographs are not a misrepresentation."

As well as the 70 photographs taken by Larkin, there are images from the Monitor arts programme, in which Sir John Betjeman toured the city, docks and river in the company of Larkin. These were taken by Anne James, a budding photographer, who was working as director's assistant on the 1964 film.

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The exhibition at Hull's Maritime Museum is part of the Larkin25 festival, which runs will conclude in December with the unveiling of the Martin Jennings-commissioned statue of Larkin at Paragon Interchange.

Director of Larkin25 Emily Penn said: "We have been thrilled with the interest and support the Larkin events have created, from the Larkin with Toads public art through to lectures, plays and exhibitions.

"There really is something for everyone to be able to 'take another look at Larkin' and discover something new about this enigmatic Hull University librarian, poet, novelist, jazz critic and photographer."

The exhibition runs until Sunday, December 12, from 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 1.30am to 4.30pm on Sundays.

Hedgehog that sparked grief

"The mower stalled, twice, kneeling, I found

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"A hedgehog jammed up against the blades, Killed. It had been in the long grass."

The poet Philip Larkin's brief and bloody encounter with a hedgehog was immortalised in the 1979 poem The Mower.

The creature which inspired one of his last great poems is captured in a colour snap on display, as it snuffled at a saucer in Larkin's garden in Newland Park.

Dr Osborne said: "It is believed to be the same hedgehog. Larkin started putting out food and it added to his upset when he accidentally killed it. Monica Jones described him as howling with grief."

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