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Notes on the Riza Collection of Photographs

(By Tony Simcock, Archivist of the Museum, 2010)

Mr Riza was an elderly gentleman who lived at Barton, near Oxford, and regularly visited the city centre shopping, where he was a familiar figure. He was characterised by a very severe stoop (spinal curvature), and consequently great difficulty and slowness in walking. But he even struggled up the steps of the Museum of the History of Science, and down to the library. He was captivated by the photography exhibition I arranged in 1989, and came to discuss the history of photography with me. His interest was not chiefly technical nor historical however: but his ordinary family photographs were one of his most treasured possessions.

He gave the Museum at that time two very early photographs, collodion positives (ambrotypes) of his grandmother's aunt and uncle (88250, 16202), and promised further photographs. For several years thereafter he visited the Museum from time to time, and talked about his family and about his treasured photographs. I learned little about the man himself: I have no idea what his profession had been, and little notion of his way of life. He was an educated man, very well spoken and precise. Some things about him seemed a little mysterious.

He spoke almost exclusively of his mother and her relatives, making almost no reference to his father. His mother was Ella Higgins, from Oxford, though his childhood was spent partly at Hastings or St Leonards-on-Sea, to where his grandmother had retired. His father was Indian, though he never actually said so. My impression - gradually and indirectly formed - was that the father returned to India when Mr Riza was a boy, and never came back; the impression may not be correct, or if so it was after the rather stiff family portraits dated 1931, when Mr Riza was about 14 (13103). A 1938 letter to his mother from a female friend contains the phrase 'life has not been hard to me as it has been to you'. Another oddity was that he was known to me as Mr A. Riza (for Anthony) - it was only gradually that I realised the boy and baby in some of the photographs, named Peter, was him. He did not at first point it out, indeed he himself referred to the boy as 'Peter', and he did not explain his change of name.

In various miscellaneous small groups during a few years following the Museum's photography exhibition, he passed on to me these personal and family photographs, together with several derived from a friend, an elderly Oxford lady named Miss Hilda Monk (who had died about 1980 aged nearly 90). The two ambrotypes he had first given were local examples of an uncommon early technique, sufficiently old and rare to be worthy additions to the Museum's collection of early specimens of photography. Most of the rest, however, were of little obvious interest to the kind of photographic collection the Museum has; they were routine family portraits and snapshots of a very ordinary kind, from a period when such things carry little technical interest, and most of them were in (to say the least) indifferent condition, cut down or mutilated, creased and too well handled.

I took them partly I suppose - as museums and archives sometimes do - to please the customer. They were so important and precious to him, and he was so keen that they be preserved, and he had in his own mind perceived a future home for them in the Museum. Yet I also took them because it seemed not inappropriate for a collection which for the most part does not contain such things to have a small archive that exemplifies the way photography integrates with people's lives, demonstrating how photographs that are of no special merit may nevertheless become someone's most treasured possessions.

High criticism speaks of photography competing with art, or disseminating knowledge, or shaping ways of seeing for modern humanity; but it has done something more intimate than those things, as Mr Riza's attitude to his photographs bears witness. It has intervened in the shaping of ordinary people's perceptions of themselves, their loved ones, their peers, and their pasts; it has become - like music - a participant in our memories and our emotions.

I think, on reflection, that Mr Riza treasured so greatly these scruffy, unassuming photographs because his mother had done so. I suspect it was she who turned them into treasures; it was probably she who had loved them to pieces, almost literally. And if they embodied some sorrow, some tragic turn in her fortunes, there is the greater poignancy in the fact. While Mr Riza was so devoted to his mother that her photographs became in turn for him more than just an ordinary keepsake, more than just reinforced memories.

In some sense an ensemble of unremarkable photographs with only a private meaningfulness illustrates better than any technically special, artistically excellent, thematically interesting, or otherwise carefully selected (and well preserved) collection the true role and meaning that photography attained during the lifetimes of Mr Riza and his mother. It was the period in which photography became accessible and even commonplace, without yet having lost its novelty. Although they have their highlights (see below), the Riza photographs make no pretence of being a collection of individually interesting photographs: like an archive of letters, they speak as a group, and in their very domesticity and ordinaryness, their very lack of 'museum quality', provide a balance to the conventional view of a photographic collection.

The several groups of photographs that Mr Riza gave during his lifetime were followed by a bequest of a further group. The complete archive contains 123 photographs, plus a few associated papers. Four of the photographs that belonged to Miss Monk have been catalogued separately (11866, 11867, 11868, 11870), as have the portrait of Bishop Herford included in the bequest (11872), and two of the personal photographs that are of larger format (11869, 13103). The rest are not catalogued in detail but summarised in two groups: 74 that were given in the early 1990s (11871), and 40 bequeathed in 1997 (67623). The two collodion positives given in 1989 are also catalogued separately (16202, 88250).

The latter show Samuel Morby of Oxford and his wife Sophia, née Tutty, and date from the 1850s. Sophia was still living about 1890. She was the aunt of Kate Higgins, wife of Joseph Higgins; their daughter Ella was Mr Riza's mother. Various relatives of Ella, in Oxford and in the Hastings area, are depicted in the photographs. Ella married an Indian who ?studied at Oxford, named Haidar Riza. Their son was born in 1917, his full name probably Anthony Peter Immam Riza; he was known as Peter in childhood, but as Anthony in later life. A photograph of Mr Riza as I knew him (taken in 1991, aged 74) is rather touchingly included in the bequest group. He died in 1997 aged 80.

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Having said what I have said about these photographs, it may be paradoxical to comment on certain interesting ones among them. The portrait of Bishop Herford (about 1910-20) was a special favourite of Mr Riza's (11872). He mentioned it in our conversations, and specified it in his bequest. An accompanying note indicates that he worked as the Bishop's secretary briefly, in 1934-35, when he would have been 17. Mr Riza and his mother were, seemingly, liberal Roman Catholics - though whether we can infer that they were followers of Bishop Herford I do not know.

Ulric Vernon Herford (1866-1938), originally a Unitarian minister, though he had studied at both Manchester College, Oxford (Unitarian and Free Christian) and St Stephen's House, Oxford (Anglo-Catholic), was an independent (or bogus) Catholic bishop, claiming to have been consecrated in India in the episcopal lineage of an archaic independent Catholic sect (termed Syro-Chaldean in Mr Riza's note) which he regarded as representing the pure apostolic faith. The date is usually given as 1902, though the authenticity of his claim was disputed. He was also said to have been consecrated (or re-consecrated) in 1904 by an American independent bishop, Edward Donkin, who had obtained his consecration from a renegade Mexican bishop.

Whatever the truth, Herford lived in Oxford and styled himself Bishop of Mercia or of Mercia and Middlesex, and founder of the independent Evangelical Catholic Communion. How many followers he truly had has been called into question; but he ordained many independent and eccentric priests and bishops himself. He married in 1907, he and his wife being leading anti-vivisection campaigners and pioneers of the concept of animal rights. During the First World War he was a pacifist; he also opposed child labour and supported women's suffrage. While the details of his career tempt us to picture an eccentric, if not a complete charlatan, Herford's good character, his radical principles that are nowadays unexceptionable, and the genuine tradition of 'free' Catholic communities or sects and of independent clerics (sometimes termed 'episcopi vagantes') in which he belongs, as well as Mr Riza's evident respect for him, restrain us from such a judgement. The photograph is to be taken as that of a sincere religious maverick with social and ecumenical principles ahead of his time, rather than an eccentric in fancy dress.

Ella Higgins attended St Ursula's Convent School for girls, in St Giles, Oxford, in about 1908. Some of the photographs date from that time and show herself and her friends, including in fancy dress and/or in amateur theatrical productions. In one of them Ella is Princess Ida, from Tennyson's poem, an early heroine of women's claims for equality and independence. From Mr Riza's conversation about his mother, evidently a woman of intelligence and strong character, perhaps the role in some measure characterises her. Some of her friends in later photographs, including French and German women, are contemporaries from St Ursula's with whom she stayed in touch.

The photographs derived from Miss Monk include an interior view of the children's ward at Liverpool Infirmary in about 1890 (11870), which she in turn had been given by a cousin who once worked there. The staff, patients, and possibly some parents pose for the picture of course (though several children have moved); but it is much more interesting than a conventional group photograph. It is a wide angled view of the ward, in very much its normal daily state, with patients and nurses scattered about in fairly natural positions. It provides a rare glimpse of an unfamiliar Victorian medical environment, with its fireplace, gas mantles, sacred and moral pictures on the walls, clip-boards, cot-beds, and of course their young occupants.

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Since most of the Riza photographs are not catalogued individually, here is a list of the photographers' names that occur among them. Most of them however are anonymous or taken by amateurs.

A. F. Allcorn, Oxford 67623
J. Engelmann, Posen, Germany 67623
Koretz Studio, Oxford (1991) 67623
Lafayette Ltd., London 11872
E. L. Leach, Oxford 11866, 67623
John Rice 67623
Robinson & Thompson, Liverpool 11870
F. Scrivens & Sons, Herne Bay 67623
Simonet, Paris 11871
G. Norman Taylor, Day & Electric Light Studios, Oxford 11871
Wakefield's, Ealing, London 11871
Hermann Warschawski, St Leonards-on-Sea 11869

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