A window to the past

The private collection of photographer Alan Spearman Evans reveals an exceptional photographic record of an average middle-class couple celebrating their life in suburban Sydney in the early to mid 20th century.

Uniquely ordinary

Alan Evans (1902-1963) had a passion for photography that inspired him to capture images of house designs, garden landscapes, streetscapes and industrial workplaces, with a particular emphasis on domestic interiors. The legacy of this passion is almost 2000 negatives and silver gelatine prints, unique in their level of detail and interpretation of 'ordinariness', known as the Evans Collection.

Hampered by the limited number of amateur photographs of house interiors prior to the 1960s, current house history publications have relied on magazine images for much of their depictions of the 1920s-50s. The Evans Collection, held by the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, is a rich source of material and an extraordinarily detailed, well-documented and valuable original resource.

Alan Evans married his childhood sweetheart, Sylvia Winifred Henderson (1902-1995), in 1927, and they built their first home, a California bungalow in Arncliffe, south-west Sydney. The house nameplate 'Alwyn', is an amalgamation of their names Al (Alan) and Wyn (short for Winifred). Photographing the construc­tion of the house from its earliest stages, Alan initiated a routine of documenting the homes of his family and friends that would continue over the next 30 years.

Documenting the details

With the move into Alwyn, the newlyweds set about purchasing furniture and electrical appliances. Many of these items, photographed by Alan, have been identified in major department store trade catalogues from the time. The Hecia heater, seen warming Sylvia in the library in one of Alan's photographs, featured in a W W Campbell catalogue of 1929, while the upholstered three-seater lounge and single armchair in the lounge room, hybrids of the Elizabethan Hide and Cromwell suites, appeared in a 1927 Grace Bros catalogue.

Revelling in their newly decked-out home, Alan undertook a room-by-room photographic documentation, allowing us to linger over, admire and wonder at images that summon up a more simplistic life than that of today. In the bedroom, the leadlight bay window provides light for the triplex-mirrored, kidney-shaped dressing table. Draped with net casement curtains, the window creates a well-lit private reading space on the long wooden seat fitted neatly below in the curve of the wall. In the lounge room the carved cupid light fittings hold twisted glass torches that illuminate a small library encased behind a leadlight glass shelf. Photographs of the garden depict the ornamental fountain, fish pond, air-raid shelter and, framed in shade, Sylvia reading in a deep seagrass garden chair. These images reveal the lifestyle of a period that placed great importance on home ownership and the home as a place of leisure.

A meticulous eye

Alan's dedication to photography extended to recording in black type on small beige-coloured envelopes the photographic detail of individual negatives. This record includes the caption, date, film type, exposure and light conditions. Alan was an accountant with Davis Gelatine Co Pty Ltd, and this level of detailed record keeping was an extension of his daily work. His meticulousness, technical skill and artistic eye have resulted in an invaluable historical record of not only the content of the photographs but also their documentation.

Submitting many of his images to photographic competitions run by the Australasian Photo-Review, Alan entered into the realm of photographic art. In 1940, during a visit to the formal rooftop garden of Feltex House, head office of Felt and Textiles of Australia Ltd, Alan photographed the manicured garden in hazy sunlight, with the building mirrored in an ornamental gazing globe. This rare documentation of a demolished garden in Sydney's CBD featured in the Museum of Sydney's 2008 exhibition Lost Gardens of Sydney.

During his employment at Davis Gelatine, Alan was appointed principal photographer for the company newsletter, the Davis Gelatine Review. The factory, located on 20 hectares at Botany, manufactured an array of adhesive, paint, photographic and food gelatine products. Alan photographed not only the landmark industrial garden, complete with bowling green, but also took artistic shots of test tubes stoppered with cotton wads and collections of unusually shaped glass beakers in the company laboratories.

Everyday history

In 1933 the Cockatoo Island dockyard in Sydney was leased by the Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Company under the chairmanship of George Davis. During this period Alan photographed the ship-building industry on the island, encapsulating the grime of the industrial workshops. In a detailed image of the shipyard foundry, Alan captured an image of molten metal flowing from a furnace. From this white light and heat, parts were created for the construction and maintenance of the Royal Australian Navy's warships and submarines.

Special events, from the construction to the launch of these ships, were celebrated with a sense of awe, achievement and national pride. Alan photographed the champagne spray on a ship's keel, which signalled the release of a newly christened destroyer from its scaffolding cradle. Superstructures of human creation, these ships simultaneously dwarfed and elevated humankind in their splendour.

It is these evocative images that make the Evans Collection a significant resource of film photography, as well as a photographic documentation of suburban Sydney life in the early 1920s to mid 1950s. Alan and Sylvia's personal journey in pictures - now publicly accessible via a finding aid and through our Pictures Catalogue - is a valuable social and historical record and a fascinating glimpse into the everyday moments in their lives.

This article was written by Tracey Gibbons, a special projects librarian employed to research, organise and describe the Alan Evans Collection. It first appeared in Insites in Autumn 2009.

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