Finishing the Stanley Opie archaeology collection

In March we blogged about our progress with the Stanley Opie archaeology collection. It is a wonderful collection of 1001 photographs, mainly glass negatives, covering archaeological and cultural subjects across Cornwall from the late 1920s to late 1930s. The project was kindly funded by Cornwall Heritage Trust.

We are pleased to announce that we have now digitised the entire collection and it is available to browse and search.

All of the negatives have been conserved and repackaged, going from rows like this:

To digitised files with the negatives packaged like this:

The conservation work on the negatives and their new packaging will ensure that each photograph will be in the best possible condition for many years to come. Each negative is now within its own acid free ‘enclosure’ – a slim box – and then 35 or so of these in a row in a larger archive box. This removes any pressure on the negatives themselves.

The digitised files will be more accessible and reduce or even remove the need to handle the originals other than for condition checks. Our digitised master scans of each of the photographs contain enough detail to resolve the film grain on the negative, ensuring that we have captured all of the detail. This is true of all our digitisation activities.

Extract at 100{defc6c7fbd01d59d7a37bb232e5984102f59d6325dfae2b611b202327c53c2bb} from the corner of a photograph showing the original film grain.

Extract at 100{defc6c7fbd01d59d7a37bb232e5984102f59d6325dfae2b611b202327c53c2bb} from the corner of a photograph showing the original film grain.

There is still work to be done, not least updating the catalogue entries, many of which are brief in the extreme. We will also be editing the “scan masters” to create copies which have been cropped and enhanced. This will be done over the coming months and we ask anyone with extra information about any of the photographs to get in touch with us.

The photographs themselves are fantastic; a real insight into the archaeology of Cornwall in the 20s and 30s. Here are some of the highlights:

Excavation team, Magor Farm Roman Villa

Excavation, Magor Farm Roman Villa, 1932


Excavation team, Magor Farm Roman Villa, 1932


The gateway at Chûn Castle

The gateway at Chûn Castle, 1930s


Excavations at Tintagel, 1930s (O.193)

Excavations at Tintagel, 1930s (O.193)


The Towednack Gold Hoard as discovered in December 1931 (O.58).

The Towednack Gold Hoard as discovered in December 1931 (O.58)


O.510 Is this Stanley Opie?

Selfies aren’t as recent a phenomena as we may think. Is this Stanley Opie taking his own photograph? (O.510)

You can view and browse all photos from the Stanley Opie Archaeology Collection and search them on our Photographic Archive catalogue.

The Morrab Library would like to extend great thanks to Cornwall Heritage Trust for funding this project.

Cleaning and repackaging the Stanley Opie archaeology collection

Back in November we announced that we had received a grant from Cornwall Heritage Trust to begin a programme of conservation, digitisation and dissemination of the Stanley Opie collection of archaeology photographs. After a delay while we awaited restocking and delivery of the necessary materials from our conservation supplier, the project has now begun.

Repackaging glass negatives

Repackaging glass negatives

The collection of about 1,000 quarter-plate glass negatives (plus a few acetate negatives and positive prints) is being cleaned and repackaged in batches of 50. Each glass plate must first be removed from the old folded card slip, then be inspected. If in a stable condition the glass side is then cleaned with distilled water and a conservation-grade microfibre cloth, before being lightly brushed to remove any loose dust on the emulsion side. Most of the slides are fairly dirty (residue from development, mould from storage), and the difference before and after cleaning is significant. This will mean clearer digitised images, and provide more stability for long term storage of the negative.

The cleaned negative is then placed into a new cruciform negative enclosure. These arrive flat and we must first number and fold them in batches before cleaning commences. The negative in its new enclosure is then placed into a larger box that can accommodate forty of them. The box is then labelled with the collection name and number range contained within.

Each box of negatives is then carefully digitised and the scan is attached to the corresponding record in our photographic database.

This database will soon be available online, and you will be able to browse Stanley Opie’s wonderful and largely unseen photos of Cornwall’s heritage as seen from the 1920s-50s. We plan on releasing regular updates to the database, adding recently digitised images to their catalogue entries.

We are very grateful to Cornwall Heritage Trust for enabling us to undertake this project.

The old cardboard slips and a new glass negative enclosure

The old cardboard slips and a new glass negative enclosure

Morrab Library receives grant to digitise archaeological photo collection

The first Gorsedh Kernow in 1928 with Grand Bard, Henry Jenner

The first Gorsedh Kernow in 1928 with Grand Bard, Henry Jenner

The Morrab Library has been awarded a grant of £3000 from Cornwall Heritage Trust to digitise an important collection of photographs relating to the archaeology of Cornwall.

The Stanley Opie collection consists of 1,001 glass negatives, covering topics such as the first Cornish Gorsedd in 1928 at Boscawen-ûn, standing stones, excavations, buildings, crosses, settlements, historic landscapes and more. They are, on the whole, beautifully taken photographs which deserve to be seen.

The grant will allow the Library to place its Photographic Archive database online, along with access copies of all photos scanned to date. The Stanley Opie negatives will then be scanned, placed into conservation grade four-flap envelopes, boxed, and finally placed online as a dedicated collection for all to see.

Stanley Opie was born in 1912 and took up photography, and gained a passion for archaeology, at quite an early age. He gained a diploma in Anthropology from the University of Oxford and took part in many archaeological excavations during the 1930s to 1950s. Some of his photographs depict the excavation of a Roman villa at Magor Farm near Camborne, others are of excavations and sites yet to be identified.

It is hoped that by publishing Stanley’s photographs online that we may improve their descriptions and identify excavations and sites through comments and suggestions received through the website.

The Morrab Library is grateful to Cornwall Heritage Trust for their generous support.

It is all in the detail…

One of the important aspects of digitising the thousands of pictures held in The Morrab Library Photographic Archive is the scanning of the original print or negative. We carefully check the scan has captured all the detail within the image, at a high enough resolution that it can then be reproduced as a print .

It is at this point we often discover interesting details which aren’t always spotted with the naked eye.

The photograph below is of the French Schooner ‘Marie Celine’, which ran aground in Gerrans Bay on the south coast of the Roseland Peninsular, in January 1901. It’s an iconic and dramatic image, with the elegant masts clearly defined against the sky and the receding, rugged headland.


However, once you look a little closer other details appear… In the centre in front of the boat is a man, standing tall and looking into the camera. To the left of him is a blurred figure, possibly a child running over the rocks, and to the left of them beneath the large anchor chain is a small figure.

It made me laugh out loud when I first saw this childs cheeky face beneath his cap, peering over what appears to be something like a small cabin door. Immediately I assumed he’d plundered the ship and this was his treasure he was holding up as a trophy! Who knows if this in fact was the case but I hope that it was.



Photographic Archive now open Tuesday mornings

Great news! From 1st September the Photographic Archive will be open Tuesday mornings , as well as the usual Thursday mornings.

Run by a team of volunteers, it is open to the general public, at no charge, every Tuesday & Thursday morning from 10am until 1pm. Come and browse the extensive photographic collection and check out the progress on our digitisation project.

For more information on the Photo Archive please visit the Photo Archive page on our website.


Every Photograph Tells a Story

My name is Anna and a few months ago I began volunteering in the Morrab Library Photographic Archive. I was invited to choose a collection I would like to work with and selected the “Collins Collection of Shipwrecks”. I began the slow process of scanning the images and creating a digital record for each precious photograph. Amongst the first of these records was an unassuming and possibly at first glance a rather uninspiring image of a fairly modern yacht. It had a broken mast and some damage, but nothing too dramatic to a non-sailing eye. It had been salvaged and towed in to Penzance Harbour. There wasn’t any additional information in decipherable handwriting on the back of the print, as many of them have, and I moved on to the next record.

A couple of weeks later I was listening to the end of The Archers on BBC Radio 4 (my guilty pleasure) whilst baking on a Sunday morning, and an episode of ‘The Reunion’ came on. I stopped what I was doing and listened as a group of men and women discussed their own personal experiences during the Fastnet Race that took place in August 1979, the worst disaster in the history of ocean racing.

It was an incredibly moving and poignant account, which included the story of those aboard the ‘Ariadne’, the little yacht in my picture.


‘Ariadne’. (Morrab Library accession number: COLLINS.16)

Four of the Ariadne’s six crew members died. Fifteen yachtsmen died in total as the tragic events unfolded on the seas between Land’s End and Fastnet.

I was 10 years old in 1979, living in land-locked Surrey; oblivious to, and ignorant of the disaster.

As I look at, and work through only a small part of the amazing collection of prints at The Morrab Library it strikes me that although there are some which feature the most dramatic and impressive tall ships of the 19th Century wrecked in full sail on menacing black Cornish rocks – the fictional stereotype of a wreck, it is the photographs which initially appear to be the least interesting which may have the most significant stories to tell.

The yacht’s mainsail was ripped in half as the wind began to get up – and after hearing a weather forecast announcing an imminent Force 9 severe gale on Monday night, the skipper decided to retire from the competition. Ariadne raced downwind before the storm towards the Irish coast and the hope of refuge. But like so many other boats, the yacht was capsized by a rogue wave. Some in the crew were injured and they decided to abandon ship and take to their life raft. The next morning a German freighter approached and prepared to rescue them. But just before it came alongside in still-huge seas, the raft capsized. The German ship made three attempts to rescue the five crewmen. One managed to grab hold of the ship’s boarding ladder as it passed the raft on the first attempt. He made it aboard. On the second pass, the yacht’s skipper lunged for the ladder and missed. He fell into the sea and was never seen again. On the third pass, one crewman got aboard the merchant ship. The man following him also made it on to the ladder, but had forgotten to detach his safety line from the raft. He was dragged back into the sea with the last remaining crewman still on the raft. Both disappeared into the wash of the ship.

An extract from the article ‘Hell and high water: The Fastnet disaster’
The Independent Saturday 18th July 2009

The Reunion episode ‘The Fastnet Race Disaster’ – available to listen to now BBC Radio 4