John Topham: Through the Clearest of Eyes

TopFoto Archive

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EU030121 – A bullock and cart holding up traffic in Sidcup , Kent. 1938

Kent photographer, John Topham, captured extraordinary images which shed light onto a bygone world – and they’re preserved in a leading archive with an equally engaging back-story of its own.

by Fiona Leney, originally published in Kent Life, March April 2021 edition – www.greatbritishlife.co.uk – republished with permission.

Children crouch in a narrow trench, their faces, pale and frightened, turned up to the sky as fierce dog-fights rage overhead. But this isn’t a picture taken in some battlefield in a far corner of the world; it’s a summer’s day in a hop field in Kent and the photographer, John Topham, is capturing the Battle of Britain as seen by his favourite subjects, the ‘ordinary people’ of his home county.

1177395 – Hop pickers’ children in a trench watching the Battle of Britain

His picture 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, and later became the lead image in the Imperial War Museum’s major exhibition in 2009,   commemorating 70 years since the start of World War II.

But just as importantly Topham, or ‘Top’ as he was affectionately known, left behind a priceless archive of pictures documenting everyday life in Kent from the 1930s to his retirement in the 1970s, a period of huge change in the county.  Top died at his home in Edenbridge in 1992 at the age of 84. But his archive has survived and grown into one of the country’s leading photo agencies. Based in Markbeech, it not only lends to exhibitions and museums, but can sell prints to enthusiasts and amateur historians, keeping alive those authentic records of old Kentish life.

Its survival was due to pure luck – and a parish cook book.

Flora Smith, the Managing Partner of TopFoto, as the agency is known today, takes up the story of how her father discovered Top’s archive in 1973:

“My family lived in a huge old Victorian house – Edells – in Markbeech, and my mother was writing a cookery book to raise funds for Markbeech village hall. The book celebrated Kentish recipes so my mother needed a typically Kentish scene to illustrate them,” she says.

Flora’s father, who was a publisher, found just the thing – a photo of hop-pickers by a certain John Topham. He hurriedly rang him for permission to use it.

EU026987 – John Topham 1936

“As it turned out, John lived in Hever and invited my father over for a cup of tea,” says Flora. “They got on like a house on fire and John not only said my father could use the picture, but asked him if he’d like to give a home to almost 130,000 others, too”.

A deal was done and Flora’s father brought the archive back to their rambling house. Flora recounts that both her parents were historians, passionate about the importance of preserving eye-witness accounts of the past.

“My father was looking for a project at the time, and this sparked a passion in him,” she says. “He also took to buying old archives being thrown out as the London newspapers made way for photo digitalisation. He used to walk up and down Fleet Street hearing the smash of glass photography plates being thrown into skips. Those he could save he would bring home and pile under a tarpaulin on the lawn. Mother helped with the cataloguing, writing in her wonderful, neat hand on the back of pictures. It really started small; one phone in the attic and a neighbour who came in to help.”

Flora remembers that her parents were struck by the authenticity of John’s work, of his honest portrayal of ordinary people’s lives.

0029549 – A Kentish coal miner, 1930

“His whole approach was about getting all the details of people’s lives. His work was never sentimental. You could see that he had the eye of an investigator,” Flora recalls.

In fact, before becoming a freelance photographer, Top had had a career in the police force, and this forensic eye for detail comes through in his pictures.

“I made friends with urchins, hot potato sellers … with tramps … I was finding real life for the first time,” he later said, adding that his inspiration was what he called the “ordinary way of life of ordinary people … the little things of life – the way it really was.”

There’s mud and grime in his pictures of Kentish labourers; people’s faces show the toughness of their lives. The picture that made his name, taken in 1927, was of Mary Smith, a “knocker-up” in the East End who would wake those who had to get up early by shooting peas at their windows with her pea shooter.  Mary’s clothes are grubby, and her face is worn, but in Top’s photo her strength and dignity shine through.

EU058004 – Mary Smith, 1927

Another picture, taken in 1938, shows a magnificent pair of bullocks pulling a farm cart. But it isn’t in a chocolate box rural scene, it’s holding up traffic on Sidcup High Street. It was this eye for quirky human detail and the lives of working people at the bottom of the social pile that brought Top success.

He was also dogged in chasing up photo opportunities. He used a police radio set he’d kept in his car from his time in the force to alert him to incidents as soon as they were called in. This once got him more than he bargained for as he arrived at a fire in a stately home before the firefighters, leading to awkward questions from police suspicious that he was the arsonist.

Another time he waited hours to snap a grumpy Winston Churchill at Chartwell. The story goes that an enfuriated Churchill had burnt his hand on his cigar and refused to pose for the press. The other photographers drifted away but Top remained, and eventually Churchill was prevailed upon to pose by his wife, Clemmie. With impressive sang froid, Top then nipped back the next day to get Churchill to autograph the picture. It’s somehow fitting that one of the most famous shots of Britain’s greatest statesman should have been taken by, in effect, a cheeky neighbour.

1210993 – signed picture of Churchill at Chartwell, 1953

That link with Chartwell endures, Flora says, with TopFoto still working closely with Chartwell exhibitions today.

As for the agency’s future plans, Flora says that just as for everyone else, Covid has made these difficult to predict. TopFoto used to have its own gallery, but that has had to close, partly because the agency had to move its archive from Edenbridge town centre to new premises in Markbeech business park. However, Flora believes that the important thing is that the pictures are loved and cared for and will continue to be seen through other galleries and exhibitions.

“The world is changing and there are lots of possibilities around digital exhibitions,” she says.

“An exhibition is about making wonderful material available to as many people as possible, and we now have a curator working with collections to prepare  for exhibitions. The agency also has prints for sale and a curated selection of John Topham’s work is available purchase through the Lucy Bell Gallery in St Leonard’s on Sea.”

TopFoto remains a family business, with Flora living next door to her dad, who still lives in what she calls “the great draughty Victorian family house”  where she grew up.

“He’s the institutional memory of the archive,” she says fondly. Flora herself has happy memories of visits to Top’s house as a four-year-old, and being given rides on the miniature train set he kept in the garden.

“He was a tall man – hugely tall to a four-year-old,” she laughs. “But he himself would fire up the train and ride it round with his long legs sticking out on either side!”

Flora is determined to keep up the precious work that the agency does well into the future, and is delighted that the next generation, in the form of her stepson, is already involved.

She is convinced that the treasures lying in the archive can reach out and connect people to their family and community past.

“People so often contact us after seeing one of our photos to say ‘that’s my great uncle Albert’, or to tell us about their memory of an event that is shown,” she says.

“People always look for things that have meaning for them.”

1182520: Farmer with a shire horse and two heavy greys.
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