Around 1996 my Uncle Jason gave me a box of quarter plate negatives he’d picked up from a flea market a few years prior to that. I’d just taken up an A Level Photography course and I used the opportunity to make contact prints of the glass plates. The box was marked “Day Trip Views of London 1907”, and I was intrigued to discover 7 photographs depicting Trafalgar Square, the Thames, St Paul’s, the Mansion House, and what I believe to be a glasshouse at Kew Gardens.
Obviously though, there was no Flickr or Instagram to share the pictures on, so the prints went back in the box with the negatives and I pretty much forgot about them for the best part of 20 years.
In late 2014 I got a fancy new Epson V550 scanner, and whipped myself into a digitisation frenzy. Amongst the prints and negatives I scanned, I decided to have a bash at finally getting the plates into the electronic realm.
The kit is pretty much geared around 35mm and 120 film negatives, as well as prints, so I had to cheat a little to make it work. I used some A4 sized acetate on the scanner to protect the glass, and positioned the plates in the section used for scanning roll film. This resulted in a little bit of cropping, as the area is slightly too narrow, but that was the compromise I had to make.
With the pictures finally on the computer, I thought it would be interesting to go out and take the modern view to do side by side comparisons, but it took me pretty much a year to get around to it!
It turned out not to be quite as easy as I’d thought, but here are the results…
The steps of St. Pauls Cathedral. This is actually the last one I took and by this point I realised that the difference in the optics of my camera, with its micro four thirds sensor, and that of the 1907 camera, with it’s massive 4×3 inch negatives, would make it essentially impossible to precisely match the perspective of the original shots.
I didn’t have any idea what the original lens was, so it was a bit of a game trying to guess how close I should get to the subjects by physically moving, and how much by zooming. With this shot I’ve not really got it that accurate, I’m probably a little too close and maybe not near enough to the ground.
In terms of the scene, the cathedral certainly looks a lot cleaner now than it did 109 years ago, and the road has been relaid, but otherwise there’s very little difference to see.
This is the Mansion House, and thanks to there not being too much depth in the shot, I’ve been able to match it pretty well. Again, not much different between the ages here, fashions aside. I wonder at which point the big lamp standards between the columns vanished?
This view of the Hungerford Bridge, taken from the north bank of the Thames between Westminster and Embankment was another exceedingly tricky one to get right because of the lack of near detail. Lots has changed over the century though, the factories of the South Bank replaced by offices and the Festival Hall, and the addition of the Jubilee footbridges either side of the railway into Charing Cross.
Nelson’s Column here, taken from the northern terrace of Trafalgar Square. The bollard in the foreground looks the same, as does nearly everything else, London Eye peeping from behind the buildings of Northumberland Avenue aside.
This is my favourite of the original photographs thanks to the characterful lady with furs eyeing the camera. The trees in front of the National Gallery have obviously vanished at some point, and the fountains seem to have changed too.
So that’s the lot. Overall no radical differences in the scenery. I’d quite like another go at doing a better job of matching the scenes just on a technical level, but without a quarter plate camera and a set of lenses, that’s unlikely to occur anytime soon!
Lastly, I’ve not been able to do the modern photograph in Kew Gardens, but here it is if you’re interested…