Assembling the Collection

by Adrian on 11/08/2010

Back in 1987, I was starting out my career as a photographer in Manchester, England and needed a cheap studio. Although I didn’t realize at the time, by renting a room in an old fabric packing warehouse, I would be the last in a 100 year span of individual businessmen who would work from that office.

“Asia House” was at 82 Princess Street and was typical of the area, with its ornate frontage and lavish marble and tile entrance.

http://www.imagesofengland.org.uk/details/default.aspx?id=456835

I had inadvertantly located myself right in the middle of the old warehouse district containing grand old late Victorian buildings, as shown in the advertisement below

More importantly, the late 1980’s was a time when the fabric trade was all but gone, the merchants were closing down and the developers were starting to turn the buildings into apartments. Granby Row and India House were the first conversions and today, most of the old warehouses are either hotels or apartments.
When the merchants left and the interiors were stripped of their mahogany counters, oak panelling and ornate tiled stairwells in favor of clean modern lines, everything was dumped. Demolition crews would take out the elevators and bulldoze everything down the empty shafts. By this time, a warehouseman by the name of Steve Bates had given me a bag of old stamps because he knew I liked antiques and he thought it a shame they were being thrown out. This gift was the spark which ultimately led to the collection as it is today.

I started visiting all the merchants who were still in business and asking if they had any trademarks they no longer wanted and spent hours working alongside the demolition crews to rescue objects before they were dumped. The demolition guys were happy to see things saved and I became so well known that they would keep interesting objects to one side for me.

I could see there was a whole unknown history of Manchester literaly going down the chute, so anything I thought would be of interest, or I had duplicates of I donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester.  By the time I left Asia House, my office was furnished with everything a Victorian merchant used in their trade. That whole office is now on display at the museum after I pitched the idea of showing the merchant side of the fabric trade for the first time to one of the museum curators for their new Textiles Gallery.

http://www.mosi.org.uk/2283

Anyway, back to my own rummaging and I came across a large collection of stamps and labels when a company called Spruce Manufacturing of Sackville Street was taken over by a larger fabric company. Steve Bates put me in touch with the company and I ended up buying their collection of labels and about 650 stamps from their African and Persian Trade. It wasn’t just about trademarks as I rescued lots of company archives before being destroyed. A company by the name of R.A. Hamwee had long since gone but a lot of their paperwork had been abandoned in the loft space of Beaver House and provided a great deal of useful information on how a merchant business worked.

I even found the original hand painted architects drawings for the warehouse, detailing how each floor was laid out to receive, inspect, stamp, bail and despatch the fabric.

The other large collection I acquired was that of Stavert Zigomala. This company was incredibly old, dating back to the 1810 period and had links with the Jute trade in Dundee, the cotton trade in Glasgow and the wool trade in Bradford. They exported to Central and Southern America and their complete company archive plus collection of 2,500 stamps and fabric samples were kept at the private house of the last descendent of the family who owned the firm. He was in his 80’s but I spent every Saturday morning visiting this character, who told me how his father owned the company, yet he still had to spend years working his way up from the bottom of the firm so he could learn all aspects of it. He knew everything and loved the fact I was trying to preserve the history, ultimately giving his version of it to me on audio tape. Every week I would take a box of the dirty stamps from his cellar, wash them and feed the wood linseed oil, then take a paper print of the design. The merchant’s goal was to have the collection on display at a museum and he entrusted my help in finding a suitable home for the collection. The Museum of Science & Industry was selected and approved by the merchant but they did not want to take the whole collection because of cost and preservation issues. Unfortunately, the merchant died before I could complete the cleaning of all the stamps and the Museum completely bypassed me in making a selection of which stamps they wanted to acquire. Maybe they thought I would be biased and only suggest to them stamps which I didn’t want but for whatever reason, they made a selection which was far from ideal. I bought the remainder of the the collection from the merchant’s sons and found that I had one color stamps which matched up with corresponding color stamps the museum had picked. The museum had also not realized that some stamps they left behind were of great importance due to their age, the type of image or the maker.

It was a sad end to a long process but I thought it was right to make a selection of stamps which completed the museum’s and let them acquire those from me. The merchant’s sons were so upset at the way the museum acted that they refused to donate the company archives in protest.

This story seems bitter/sweet but I had to contend with a lot of unfortunate circumstances, great finds and intersting characters while I was collecting.

There was Frank, the Asia House janitor, who would hoard any stamps he found in a large cabinet in the sub-basement and hated if I got any before he got to them. There were the demo guys who would risk getting fired by stealing lead and copper from construction sites but would throw out all those historic items and jackhammer ornate tiles off walls without thinking twice. There were the countless times that I was “2 weeks late” and all the stamps had been burnt or sent to the dump. The saddest of these was at Star Vale bleachworks in Horwich, near Manchester. I had already been there and done some rough prints off their stamps but they had about 10 typeface chests about 6 feet high, each containing about 30 trays of handmade lettering stamps. All of it was thrown on a bonfire when the bleachworks closed. There were people who helped me collect and there were others who would rather throw things in a dumpster rather than let me have it – presuming I was some kind of dealer who would make a fortune out of them. There were the staff of ETP, the last packing firm in Manchester, who were so happy that someone was going to photograph their skills before they shut their business. There was even the last stampmaker who excitedly told me at his home how artists at  Shaw & Latham learned their skills and made the stamps.

The reality is that I had a golden age of collecting these objects from 1987 until 1995 when everything was gone from the warehouses. I collected a lot and missed saving a lot but have never sold a single stamp. The collection is unique and I am glad that all those hours spent rummaging around in sooty old buildings and talking to anyone who wanted to tell me about their lives in the Manchester fabric trade has led to me being able to retell and illustrate their stories and achievements. The collection was once dismissed as irrelevent “commercial art” by someone who I showed the tickets to at Manchester City Art Gallery. I believe that Manchester textile merchants used the biggest variety of ethnic art ever amassed in their day to day business. It may have been used commercially but is certainly was Art. The Manchester City Art Gallery now has a set of shipper’s tickets on display, though of course they are misdescribed as “Bale Labels” and are by the famous poster artist E McKnight Kauffer, rather  than one of the unnamed Manchester artists but at least its a start….

Oh, and here’s an E McKnight Kauffer ticket of my own, plus another 2 from unknown Manchester artists.

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