MEMORY LANE: 1933 to 1950 the work of photographer John Topham
The TopFoto Gallery is a new space hosting regular photographic and visual image exhibitions of international, national and local interest. Opening the gallery is a superb, long-unseen exhibition of the work of the late John Topham, originally shown at the Impressions Gallery of Photography in York (1982) and then in the USA.
Based in Edenbridge, Kent (45 minutes direct train from London Bridge) the TopFoto Gallery includes The Eden Valley Gallery for local exhibitions, as well as rare historic displays from the archives of House of Jaques, sports and games manufacturer since 1795 and still in the original family’s ownership and whose building houses the gallery.
The Gallery is the initiative of TopFoto, a family-owned image library which began with John Topham’s collection, drawn from a lifetime of photographing the everyday life of Britain.
Photographer John Topham (1908-1992), known as Top, left a legacy of an incredible 121,228 negatives, of which the first 20,000 or so are glass plates. He worked continually from 1931 to 1973, photographing the ‘little things of life – the way it really was’.
It was during the Second World War that Top came into his own.
By that time he was an established freelancer living in Sidcup, where much of the early air action took place. "It was a matter of going – or trying to go – where the trouble was," he recalled. "The nationals would ring up and say, ‘we hear there’s terrible damage at such and such a place. We can’t get there: can you?’"
Topham, who also by this time had a contract with Life magazine, captured the mood and experiences of the civilian population. One extraordinary image - of children gazing up at the Battle of Britain from a trench dug to protect them in the hopfields of Kent - has been called "one of the most enduring images of the Second World War". It was used in a propaganda campaign that helped to convince millions of Americans to join the war against Nazi Germany.
This picture is the lead image in the Imperial War Museum’s major exhibition this summer, Outbreak, commemorating 70 years since the start of World War 2.
One of the children in the image, Eastender Terry Irish, recalled sixty years later, "I can remember the fighter planes crossing each other in the sky. There were vapour trails and black smoke where a couple of Germans were hit. When I tell people I am one of the children in it [at the lower right, mouth open], they can’t believe it".
Topham’s images of ordinary people are justly famous. He was there to capture the magic moment when the men digging under the Thames at Dartford from opposite ends met, throwing their hard hats in the air and cheering for joy. Images of landgirls, Blitz survivors, farmers and working people are instantly recognisable.
In 1941 Topham joined the RAF as a photographer, but was soon drafted into Intelligence. After the war, he chose to resume freelance work, turning down several staff job offers.
"Top once out-waited a truculent and uncooperative Churchill, who’d burnt his hand on his cigar; getting both the scoop and Winnie’s signature on the print"
Top did have some close shaves. Camera in hand, he was arrested and jailed in Cuba as a ‘spy’, and was apprehended in Russia for taking unapproved photographs. At a major house fire at a stately home in Foots Cray, Kent, he arrived even before the fire brigade – and was suspected of arson.
In 1992, Top died aged 84. In true Top style, he was on the spot right to the end, publishing his final copy in the Daily Telegraph obits: "Thanks everybody for a wonderful life, John."
The original Memory Lane exhibition has been carefully preserved by TopFoto (formerly The John Topham Picture Library) for 27 years. The original frames and prints have been kept safe in their custom-made wooden touring exhibition boxes, until this moment of creating a new space to show great photography.
The Exhibition opens 15 july 2009