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Narratives

Note on MS Museum 185

H. M. J. Underhill's album of photographs of windmills

Henry Michael John Underhill (1855-1920), a native and lifelong resident of Oxford, was a talented artist, naturalist, and entomologist. He had been regarded as a child prodigy, and was given serious artistic tuition. He was especially interested in microscopy and the scientific illustration of nature, and was 'a past-master in the art of painting lantern slides' (according to R. T. Gunther). He gave 'delightful lectures' with these slides to audiences of children, and to the Oxfordshire Natural History Society (now the Ashmolean Natural History Society), of which he was Secretary for some years and President in 1893-4. His first act as President was the inauguration of the Society's special lectures for children, which continue to this day. He was also interested in folklore, and, clearly, in industrial archaeology. It is said (by F. A. Bellamy, who was disappointed when Underhill left the N. H. Society in 1902) that he lost interest in natural history in the early 1900s, which is the time when he was beginning to compile this album of photographs of windmills.

The album, together with lantern slides of some of the same photographs, was presented to the Museum by his sister, Miss Maud Underhill, in about 1926. His natural history and entomology notebooks and illustrations are also in the Museum (MSS Underhill, and lantern slide collection). Their preservation is due to R. T. Gunther's appreciation of the merits and historical value of Underhill's work, and to his concern, when he became the founding Curator of the Museum (in 1924), to preserve in it material evidence of Oxford's scientific and technical talents, both great and humble.

It is assumed that the two photographs at the beginning of the album show Underhill himself. The note beside them, in his hand, explains his motives in photographing windmills, and lists some of the contents. At the back are holiday photographs taken in 1908-9. The rest of the album contains 149 photographs of windmills and 8 of watermills. More than half of these are by Underhill, taken between 1901 and 1912, mostly in 1907. The photographs by others include one by Taunt, one by the Oxford photographer Henry Minn, twenty-odd by J. H. Crabtree of Oldham (c.1897, mostly Lancashire), and a number of commercially produced postcards.

[Since this note was written in 1985 attention has been drawn to Underhill's photographic and hand-painted lantern slides of archaeological subjects and sites, such as Stonehenge, also dating from the same period of his life. They are held at the Institute of Archaeology, Oxford, and featured on their web site, which has further details of Underhill's life and work.]

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