The day Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s Chinese Room disappeared, was the day I first realised that places, like people, can change.
To my childhood self, the idea that a place wasn’t fixed, that it wouldn’t necessarily always be the same and might even vanish, came as a shock.
The room, which may actually have been a hall, was a favourite of mine whenever we visited the museum. I don’t recall many details about the space, but I liked its ambience a lot. I remember it being large, with walls of deep red; there may also have been some big white and blue, bell-shaped, decorated ceramic pots, or ornamental vases, inside. What I remember most vividly is that above a doorway hung a pair of golden Chinese Dragons. Or at least they did, until one day, when I must have been 8 or 9, I discovered that the room and its contents had gone.
Where the Chinese room went I never knew. Packed up and sent to the storerooms I suppose. I can’t say what exactly it was about that space that had so captured my young imagination, but its disappearance left me bereft.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it was around this time that I first began to feel another nagging sense of place related loss, in this instance not concerning anywhere I knew, but a place I felt that I had missed: Bristol as it had once been, or as it once may have been.
This longing for a lost, alternative version of Bristol was fuelled by my habit of looking at books filled with old photographs of the city. The majority of these books, which I avidly thumbed through at home, or in Mum and Dad’s bookshop, had been compiled by a local writer and photographer called Reece Winstone.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s Winstone published a popular series of books featuring historic images of Bristol at various periods of its past, such as, Bristol As It Was 1914-1900, Bristol Blitzed, Bristol’s Suburbs Long Ago.
Many of these photographs depicted Victorian and early Twentieth century buildings and street scenes, with people either absent, or incidental to the images. As a result, some of the featured buildings seemed at once more imposing and dramatic than those I was used to seeing in real life, but also less solid and rather dreamlike.
Some shots did include people, but changes in fashion and the fact the photographs were black and white, lent their subjects a certain remoteness, as various Bristolians of the past stood ramrod straight, or tools-down, leant against walls with thumbs jammed beneath braces, pipes rammed into mouths, faces half hidden beneath strange tall hats, bonnets, whiskers or scowls (their wearers perhaps wary of the camera pointed at them). Nevertheless, I’d pore over these albums, enraptured, staring at page after page of buildings and streets and people, which had long since been demolished, or were dead.
As I flicked through the images, I began to build up a fractured vision of a city that had never quite existed. Although each individual block, house, or corner photographed had once stood somewhere in Bristol, many had never been there at the same time. Yet, in my head, I conflated every scene and every vista, telescoping years and decades together.
When I went out I’d superimpose imaginary negatives over the roads and parks and alleys of 1980s Bristol. As I was reluctantly doing the shopping for my parents on Gloucester Road, trudging its length to school, walking the dogs, or ambling about in town, multiple tall masted ships, horse drawn omnibuses, or busy coaching inns would sometimes slip into place, all generated through the alchemy of old photographs and raw imagination.
However, this urban fantasy of mine was not so much haunted by architectural ghosts, as made eerie by their absence. In an odd kind of reversal – an atmospheric negative if you like – my spectres were the gaps and spaces where historic sites had once been. In some instances these had been replaced by later buildings, in others new road schemes and thin air. So rather than tapping into visions of higgledy-piggledy medieval buildings, still tottering up the course of steep hills, I somehow felt their emptied outline, like a tangible hole. To my mind these lost spaces were simultaneously there and not there.
Inevitably, by comparison, the solid ground of contemporary Bristol was a disappointment; at times the city then seemed a drab, broken promise of a place, somewhere that – if blitzes and developers and time hadn’t intervened – could and should have been grander, more interesting and more magical.
Thinking of Bristol, or its general perception, now and how its confident 21st century identity has flourished since the 1990s, the above might seem a strange thing to say. Bear in mind, this was a decade or so before the music and art that was to kick-start Bristol’s reincarnation as the West of England’s laid-back, green, mild-mild metropolis of graffiti covered cool, properly took off.
Before the Wild Bunch birthed Massive Attack, before Tricky, Roni Size, Martina Topley-Bird, Portishead and Banksy amongst others found national and international acclaim, early 80s Bristol was a little less shiny, a little less scrubbed. Shoestring and The Flatmates alone weren’t going to bring on the boom times.
That the period of my peak interest in these images, between about the ages of 10-15, mostly coincided with my time at secondary school, (Monks Park, an uninspiring, blocky collection of post-war buildings at the edge of Filton in the North of the city, where I was picked on for being diffident, nerdy and bookish), is perhaps no coincidence.
Looking at some of these photographs now, or similar ones, I no longer feel quite the same level of awe, but there remains a degree of the fascination they once held for me. In part this may reflect my childhood sense of wonder having become a little battered, faded and jaded over time.
Another difference between then and now, the knowledge of which has changed the way I see some of these images, would be that as a pre-teen I had no idea about the role the slave trade had played in Bristol’s historic wealth and growth. A trade the Corporation of Bristol and the society of Merchant Venturers described as ‘the great support of our people at home, and the foundation of our trade abroad.’ According to Derek Robinson in ‘A shocking history of Bristol’, “by 1709, fifty-seven slave ships were sailing from Bristol; twenty years later the number was up to eighty or ninety.”
Many Bristolians, such as merchants, mayors, alderman and others – including Tory MP Edward Colston – made a fortune from the inhuman horrors of the triangle trade. Knowing this aspect of the city’s history, it is hard to look at certain images of grand old buildings, graceful crescents and prosperous quarters with quite the same regard.
And yet, many of these old photographs had a profound impact on my younger self. Looking at some of them again – this time with an added filter of age – I’ve tried to understand what it was about the pictures that so intrigued and delighted me. Why did they mean so much? What about them gripped my attention so forcefully?
Due to copyright I haven’t replicated any of the Reece Winstone photographs here, but thanks to the Bristol archive I have included examples of similar ones. In the case of the Dutch House and Steep Street I’m pretty certain I saw other photographs of these buildings in Winstone books. I’ll describe a few examples below.
One photograph of Temple Gate, included in Reece Winstone’s Bristol Old and New, 1974, taken in the late nineteenth century, provides an example of a spot that would now be utterly unrecognisable. This shot is typical of the scenes that used to fascinate me.
Today, if you arrive in Bristol by train at Temple Meads and exit the station on foot by the main front entrance, on your way to the centre you’ll see a dual carriageway and ongoing roadworks in a space near a stretch where a concrete flyover used to run. Opposite the crossing in front of the station forecourt, is a fairly unprepossessing concrete slab of an office building.
In 1892 in more or less the same space, there was a row of small, old cottages, some converted into shops. To the right, a newsagent called Mapstones is covered with advertising and notices. At the other end of the row, a long gone pub promises ‘Best Old & Mild Beers’. At night a lone gaslight would have glowed faintly over the cobbled street below.
That sort of contrast used to blow my young mind. Even more dramatic in terms of transformation is a photograph of Bishopston’s Elton Road in 1884. Where now late Victorian terraces march in tight lines, with the occasional hedge out front, but more often a driveway and cars parked nose to nose, was once a small cottage in front of a wood.
In the photograph a small stone-walled yard abuts a little cottage. On another low wall sits the slumped figure of a local Blacksmith, known as ‘Black Harry’ said to have withdrawn into himself after having been jilted. Behind the cottage, a great tree – perhaps an ash – signals the edge of what was once Duggard’s Wood. A rough path runs in front of the dwelling and into the trees. I used to pass the modern sites of such scenes and marvel that what seemed so firmly suburban in character, could once have had the look of deep country.
Of all the photographs reproduced here, I think it was a similar view of Steep Street, above, that once had me (and still does to a degree) longing to push through the frame and run off into the winding 19th century remnants of medieval Bristol. The twisted timbers, and crooked gables, look like they belong in a fairy tale, and yet, once, they were lived in and walked past by real people in my hometown.
Docks images like the one above, were a favourite of mine, as I’d wistfully imagine a port filled with sailing ships and wish that the river still ran so far into the city centre, as it did before the stretch of the Frome seen here was covered over for a road scheme.
I used to take the name of St Mary on The Quay – the classically columned Catholic Church on Colston Avenue – as almost a taunt, the quay of its title having long since been buried beneath the road, when this stretch of river was covered in 1893.
The above photograph of Ashley Down is in some ways the least dramatically different today. Some of the land in the view now forms, I think, though I’m not entirely sure of the angle, Ashley Vale allotments, so the green vista hasn’t disappeared entirely. The large institutional buildings crowning the hill on the horizon belonged to the former Muller Orphanage – where in the 1920s my paternal Grandfather and Great Uncle lived in one of the blocks when they were children. These have now mostly been turned into flats and luxury houses. Unlike many others discussed earlier this image isn’t one that I imaginatively project upon the modern city. It now has the opposite effect, when I look at it I can’t help mentally adding in the rows of streets and houses that now fill those hilly fields beyond that inviting gate.
I suppose the powerful emotions unleashed by these old photographs could be described as a kind of nostalgia; although as a child I had never known any of these places and buildings as they once were, so could never really miss them in a direct way connected to personal memories. Perhaps the sight of them triggered in me, what Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida describes as “tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a stilled centre, an erotic or lacerating value buried in myself…” (Barthes in the quoted passage is attempting to understand why it was that some photographs appealed to him, when others left him cold).
Another way to explain my youthful enchantment with these antique pictures may be to use the term ‘hauntology’, a word I’d never have known at the time, but now it touches in part, on what I then felt. Hauntology conveys a sense of yearning for a world, or a present, that never arrived – referred to by the late cultural critic Mark Fisher as being haunted by ‘lost futures’.
The Welsh idea of Hiraeth suggests a similar emotion, beyond simple nostalgia, but more a sense of loss, or homesickness for a place, state, or time that no longer exists.
C S Lewis has also discussed this area, using the German word sehnsucht. This is closer to the idea of classic nostalgia, though less particular to a specific time or place. Where hauntology may see the progressive mind mourning a future state that hasn’t come to pass and hiraeth feels loss for a place or time once known, sehnsucht, is something like a desire for a version of the past that has slipped away, or never really existed at all. In a sense, this is the small c conservative version of nostalgia – the sense of having missed a lost Golden Age – which never actually happened. This feeling Lewis rather flounderingly describes as “the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what.”
These concepts come close, yet neither term quite captures the feeling I had at the time. I certainly wasn’t, at the age of 11 or so, given to wandering about like a junior Prince Charles, decrying the monstrous carbuncles of modern architecture.
While I did long for some of the buildings and places I saw in Winstone’s collections of photographs to come back, or to have never gone in the first place, I also craved the new. I was greedy for it all: I wanted arcades filled with Space Invaders and Dragon’s Lair machines and horse-drawn trams to be passing in the street outside. I loved the Dalek ride in Lewis’s and riding the Debenhams escalators fronted by a tall wall of glass, overlooking Broadmead’s shops below. But I also wanted medieval half-timbered buildings, or the jutting, cake-like layers of the Dutch House to be present as well. Today, gazing at the image of the Dutch House – at the head of this piece – I still find it shocking that such an incredible looking building once stood in central Bristol. For a time, it was supposedly the city’s iconic building, but now long gone, it appears like a lost palace drifted in from a dream.
The more I have thought about this, the more I consider those photographs to have been part – a significant part – of a kind of romance, not with a person, but with a place. In the way that with a new lover, you might giddily share your stories, music, likes and dislikes, chatting late at night as you play favourite tracks, or pull meaningful books off shelves, Bristol shared a glimpse of its past selves with me, reeling me in, hooking me with depth and resonance and evocative looks.
Now, years later, living elsewhere, I look again at those Reece Winstone books and realise that, far from simply alienating and disappointing me, those collections of photographs actually also did something quite different, something I never grasped at the time. I think those old photographs made me fall in love with a city.
Coda: June 2020 update
Since posting this piece last year, the statue of Tory MP Edward Colston, mentioned above in the context of Bristol’s historic involvement in and profiting from the slave trade, has been, justly to my mind, taken down from its pedestal by Black Lives Matters protestors.
Here are links to a couple of articles, which help provide some context to this globally significant event:
If you also want to read people arguing for the statue to have remained, you may go and find your own links. The Spectator, for example, has articles arguing that a man enriched by his involvement in slavery should continue to be celebrated by a public monument.
Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, Vintage, 2000
Robinson, Derek, A Shocking History of Bristol, Abson Books, 1973
Winstone, Reece – Editor, History of Bristol’s Suburbs, Reece Winstone, 1977, written by Frederick C. Jones and W. G. Chown
Winstone, Reece, Bristol Old and New, EP Publishing, 1974.
Bristol Archive Photographs
Many thanks to Bristol Archives for permission to reproduce the photographs used to illustrate this article. Gilbert – REF 26849/PM
Bristol Archive Ref PicBox/2/BSt/55
The Dutch House
Bristol Archive Ref 43207/15/158
Bristol Archive Ref PicBox/7/PBA/33