Pictorial record of literary lives

The view from the nursery in the Bronte Parsonage
The view from the nursery in the Bronte Parsonage
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A new photography exhibition in Scarborough presents striking monochrome images of writers’ homes. Yvette Huddleston reports.

If you’ve ever wondered what DH Lawrence’s kitchen looked like or how the view from the Parsonage might have inspired the Brontës, then it’s worth seeking out a new photography exhibition, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre gallery in Scarborough.

Writers in Their Place explores the homes of past novelists, poets and playwrights that are open to the public in Britain and Ireland. The atmospheric black and white prints are the work of Yorkshire photographers Peter Burton and Harland Walshaw and they cleverly capture the essence of the writer, sometimes through an image of just one object in the house. A wonderful example of this is a photograph entitled George Bernard Shaw’s Hat Stand, which speaks volumes about the man.

Burton and Harland took the pictures for a book, Writers and Their Houses, published twenty years ago which featured essays by modern-day writers about the homes of their predecessors. These included pieces by Melvyn Bragg on Wordsworth, Jeanette Winterson on Viriginia Woolf, PD James on Jane Austen and Seamus Heaney’s thoughts about fellow poet WB Yeats.

“The book was actually the idea of the Arts Council and they persuaded a publisher to do it,” says Walshaw who was born in York, brought up in Scarborough and is now based in Devon. “Peter and I were commissioned to take the photographs. We travelled all around the country and over to Ireland. It was a fantastic thing to do.”

Alongside the publication of the book, the Arts Council funded a touring exhibition which premiered at the Edinburgh Book Fair and then went into various venues around England.

The exhibition has been revived as a tribute to Burton, one of the country’s finest architectural photographers, who died, aged 87, in February this year. “The original exhibition finished its tour at Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home in the Lake District, and they asked if they could keep it for a while,” says Walshaw. “It stayed there for some years and then it seemed to get lost, they didn’t know quite what had happened to it.”

Then last October Walshaw received a slightly embarrassed email explaining that the exhibition had been found in a cupboard under some stairs. “Luckily the photographs were in fantastic condition so we decided it was a good idea to show the exhibition again and the Stephen Joseph Theatre were keen to host it.”

Walshaw and Burton worked on many projects together and their photographs appear in around thirty books. “It’s very hard to separate who did what, although Peter did all the printing of the photographs,” says Walshaw.

“It was always a real team effort and we got to know how to work with each other. I learned so much about photography from Peter. He was my English teacher at school, Scarborough College – he was a huge influence on a lot of people and he inspired me by his love of architecture and photography.”

Burton, who was born in Whitby and taught in Ripon and Scarborough, was first discovered as a photographer by the poet John Betjeman and the artist John Piper when they were doing their Shell Guides to the counties of Britain. Burton became one of their principal photographers.

“I was up with Peter at Christmas when he got the photographs back,” says Walshaw. “So he was able to see them and he was thrilled that the exhibition was going to the Stephen Joseph Theatre.”

• There are around forty images in the exhibition including pictures of Dylan Thomas’s writing shed, Charles Darwin’s study and Shakespeare’s bed in Anne Hathaway’s cottage, as well as Yorkshire writers’ houses – the Sitwell family’s home Woodend, Laurence Sterne’s Shandy Hall and the Bronte Parsonage. 
 The original book is now out of print but there may be some scope for revisiting it, says Walshaw, since other writers’ homes have opened to the public in the meantime, such as Agatha Christie’s house in Devon.

Writers in their Place is free to view at the SJT Gallery until August 30.