Donated individually and as collections since the 19th century, the Photographic Archive has grown into a unique collection of 12,000 photographic prints, negatives, glass plates, postcards and cartes de visite covering the whole of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly with particular focus on West Penwith, Penzance and Newlyn. The earliest photos are from the 1850s, right up to the present day. They cover a vast array of subjects covering life and work in the area – agriculture, fishing, farming, mining, street scenes, storms, shipwrecks and shipping (including those of the famous Gibson photographers), and rare glimpses into the social lives of people in early-Victorian Penzance.
The majority of the photographs originate from eight significant collections that document the huge changes in life since the first half of the 19th century. Whilst not an exhaustive list, the principle collections are:
The Richards Collection
The Richards Collection represents the work of one Penzance family of professional photographers over several generations – from the early 1850s until the late 1970s. It consists of several thousand negatives, glass plates and prints, covering everything intrinsic to Cornish life from fishing to flower picking and graphic views of shipwrecks.
The Opie Collection
The Opie Archaeology collection (1000 1/4 plate glass negatives) covers archaeological sites and excavations from the 1920s to 1950s. Taken by Stanley Opie, it covers hillforts, megaliths, ancient villages, artefacts, excavations such as the Roman villa at Magor near Redruth, and Cornish cultural events such as the first Cornish Gorsedh at Boscawen-un in 1928.
The Chown Collection
The Chown Collection is a fascinating portrait of Edwardian family life in the village of Townshend. Beautiful composed photographs of horse-drawn vehicles, the arrival of the motor car, and Edwardian costume are all well-covered.
The Newlyn Collection
The Newlyn Collection, collected and donated by Dr Eric Richards depicts many aspects of life and work in Newlyn between 1880 and 1930. Many of the buildings covered by the collection were demolished in the clearance scheme during the 1930s.
The Collins Collection
The Collins Collection consists of photographic prints of Cornish shipwrecks from the 19th century up to the 1980s.
The Angove Collection
The Angove Collection consists of over 3000 photographic prints. Collected by Dick Angove (1917–1992), a prolific writer on all aspects of Cornish life, the collection covers industrial archaeology, farming, fishing, railways, and rural life. He was an avid collector of old photographs, as well as producing his own.
The Ferguson Collection
The Ferguson Collection consists of colour photographs of architectural details from Cornish churches. Taken by Dr Ferguson over a ten year period, it represents an important record of the archaeology of church construction, covering aspects such as monumental masonry and carved bench-ends.
The Orchard Collection
The Orchard Collection documents the town of Penzance from the 1890s, as well as coverage of the wider area. Cyril Orchard (1922–1992) travelled over West Penwith searching for old photographs and postcards, copying many of them onto 35mm slides.
The Morrab Library’s collections often yield surprises from further afield. A recent donation of a photographic album of photos from Cornwall contained, without explanation, a series of rare photographs taken in Iran during the 1880s, covering workers in the fields, streets in Tehran, and the ruins of Persepolis.
The collections cover a fascinating and diverse range of topics with both local and international importance.