Potato Starch Miracles

The unknown girl in red still haunts many. It’s been deduced she wasn’t his daughter, so exactly who could she have been – a relative, a friend’s daughter or just some damsel he found with a group of others on the shingle of Ludworth Cove, Dorset? For some reason it’s been passed down that her name was Kristina. But whoever she was, Kristina has become a potato starch mystery.

christina6-19113 o'gorman

Around the same time as she was captured for eternity, in the year before the Great War, Etheldreda Laing was also using the same relatively new process to take photos of her two girls, Janet and Iris. She did so in the gardens and on the rolling lawns of her family home near Oxford – Bury Knowle House. Between the two photographers, we have some of our earliest surviving colour photographs – they are potato starch miracles.

eltheldreda laing01

The two photographers concerned were both amateurs, but like many throughout the history of the art/hobby, they became obsessed by it. Both were fortunate to be well off enough to service their passion in days when it wasn’t as cheap or as ubiquitous as it is now. A couple of plates for this challenging process would equal a day’s average wage. But with it photography pushed the envelope into territory that was difficult to master, but one that produced stunning results. Amazingly though, the key ingredient in the ability to take and make these surprising images was something very humble and everyday – potato starch. A microscopic amount of the root vegetable was stained red-orange, green and blue- violet. Then this was used to provide a filter for light to pass through. When a photographic plate was inserted the light would react with the plate’s chemical emulsion to make images appear naturally coloured. Not simple by a long shot and thus it took skilled practitioners. They are ethereal, the results, redolent of days gone by, but exquisitely still exhibiting the eerie freshness of just having been taken yesterday. The process was called Autochrome Lumière, invented, as the second part of the name would indicate, by the same two French brothers responsible for giving us moving pictures.

eltheldreda laing02

Audrie, as Etheldreda was known to family and friends, must have given birth to two very patient daughters, given the time needed to be still for a successful picture to be created. She had been playing around with the colour process since ’08, but it took her years to get the hang of it. The use of it had virtually died out by the twenties, given its complexity. Colour film itself, as we who were born before the digital age would be familiar with, only came into being in the mid-thirties. Gone then was the necessity for the earlier unwieldy means. But potato starch had its place in the history of the art form – what amazing and intriguing photos it made possible!

eltheldreda laing03

Laing was a trained artist before photography took hold of her. She married lawyer Charles in 1895 and moved to the nineteen acre property appearing in the images. In 1898 the first of her two children entered the world, followed by number two in 1903. So enamoured was Audrie of her camera that she had a dark room constructed on site for her hobby. She took to the autochrome method early and is now recognised as one of its greatest success stories.

Originally photography was thought to be an unsuitable pastime for genteel womenfolk because of all the messy chemicals involved. But by the turn of the century it was considered ‘developed’ enough to to be respectable for the fairer gender. But for women it was still not the done thing to go wandering around with camera in hand snapping willy-nilly, so subjects were normally family members – thus Janet and Iris were constantly prevailed upon to satisfy their parent’s fixation. Take a gander at the photographs on-line – to my mind they are remarkable, given their provenance.

Etheldra-Laing-autochrome-Iris-bench

Audrie later became a noted painter and developed a new fascination with miniatures when that became fashionable. But she still continued camera-smithing throughout her life as a side-interest. She passed away in 1960, aged eighty-eight.

At forty-two Mervyn O’Gorman was considered a bit of a dandy. He was also, undoubtedly, a person of stature. When he died in 1958, at age eighty-seven, it was written of him that he was ‘…a man of agile mind and Hibernian eloquence.’ In 1913 he was married and one year on would be serving in Flanders Fields, reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. We know a great deal about him, but little about the strawberry blonde posing afore his camera in that cove before awfulness took over the world. What was Kristina to Merv we wonder? He and his much older wife produced no offspring.

The determined souls who have sought to solve this riddle can only point to one census record of a Kristina O’Gorman around the time – the 1911 count registers an eleven year old Irish lass by that name. A relative perhaps visiting England? She was photographed in a group, so she was no lone random he picked up on that day. It could all point to the fact she was known to him – especially as she also posed for his camera at other locations. That she was in a group on a beach suggests rejecting the notion she was a hired model.

christina3-girl in red 1913 mervyn o'gorman

The muted tones of her surrounds in the images allows the reds of her various items of clothing to really stand out, to be incredibly distinctive. O’Gorman’s portraits of her possess a timelessness that ensnares your eye – and you cannot but wonder about her, although some dismiss the need to find out her story. They maintain that we should be satisfied that the reproductions of her have found their way down through time for us to marvel at. She has been described as the true embodiment of the pre-Raphaelite ideal. – and I’d like to think that O’Gorman, for that reason, saw her potential in that group out for a day by the briny. Assessing her suitability, he asked her guardians permission, under supervision, to capture her for posterity.

christina7-1913 o'gorman

As to the other questions about her, part of me would like to know more, but another hopes she will always remain a mystery to tantalise lovers of beautiful images down through time. And to think that her youth will remain eternal is the result of adding to a mixture just a minute smudge of potato starch.

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