Images will live on after museum is finally closed

L-r, Janet Mitchell and Aileen Wilson inside the Clapperton Photographic Studio in Selkirk which holds a collection of photographs, negatives and glass plates from far back as the 1800's.
L-r, Janet Mitchell and Aileen Wilson inside the Clapperton Photographic Studio in Selkirk which holds a collection of photographs, negatives and glass plates from far back as the 1800's.

Almost 150 years of one family’s history will come to an end in April, when the Clapperton Trust closes its small photographic museum in Scott’s Place, Selkirk – but 10,000 snapshots of Selkirk will live on in the town.

The Robert Clapperton Daylight Photographic Studio has been run by five generations of the same family since it began in 1867, but its museum, which was founded in 1989 by Janet and the late Ian Mitchell, has finally succumbed to rising costs and falling visitor numbers.

The decision to close the museum was not taken lightly by the Robert D Clapperton Photographic Trust, but their sadness is tempered by an opportunity to ensure some of the studio equipment and photographic archives can continue to be displayed in the town.

Trustee Janet Mitchell told The Southern: “We don’t want it moved out of the Borders. This chance will only come up once, so we need to grab it. We’re sad: this was Ian’s dream. He’s probably up there jumping up and down, swearing at us.”

Their daughter Aileen Wilson, a fellow trustee and great-great-granddaughter of Robert Clapperton, said: “While the studio is important, the vital thing to preserve is the archive collection of images, including several hundred glass plates dating back to the early 1900s and thousands of plates and negatives from as far back as 1920. We’re told it would take five years to archive it all.

“We have been in discussions with Scottish Borders Council about the opportunity to include some of the studio equipment and a display of images from the collection in the museum space to be created as part of the Sir Walter Scott Courtroom project. As things progress further with this work we look forward to the Clapperton archives being included in the final design.”

The Victorian photographic studio and dark room was constructed by Robert Clapperton in 1867, with one wall and the roof made of glass to utilise available daylight. When he first walked through the door of his newly-completed studio, the Dominion of Canada had just been formed, a search had been launched for missing explorer David Livingstone and the art of photography was just 28 years old.

The main part of the studio has remained almost intact from that first day of business in 1867, but sadly all but a few of Robert’s early glass negatives were destroyed. Trustee Janet Mitchell told us: “Old negatives are on glass, which was expensive, so often they just cleaned it and used it again. But we’re lucky we still have so much.” From 1867, the family photographed the life and times of Souters in the Royal Burgh: next came William Mitchell, his son Willie McLean Mitchell, and then Ian Mitchell and his wife Janet, who founded the Robert Clapperton Trust, and kept the studio and archive active as a working museum.

When Ian died in 2006, his family kept it open, and the roof from leaking, spending up to £2,500 a year on repairs and insurance. Aileen revealed: “The building may have to come down. It needs specialist attention, and there isn’t the money.”

Janet added:“It would have to be taken down to the ground. One supporting beam is shot to pieces. We tried to get money from various sources, but they were not forthcoming, because it is a wooden building. None of us gets paid, and income dropped in the recession: people are buying fewer pictures. We had 17 visitors this summer. It used to be in the hundreds.”

Aileen added: “The number of people doesn’t justify it. We’ve deliberated for five years. We’ve had to make a hard decision. We appreciate the support of those who have tried their best to support us to stay open.”

The museum was saved a few years ago by Selkirk’s Incorporation of Hammermen, who donated cash to rewire the ancient electrics, after Scottish Power condemned it.

The decaying building exhibits and stores up to 10,000 images, from the earliest, depicting Melrose Abbey in 1860 and almost every Common Riding since 1897, through portraits of Tom Scott, Andrew Lang, Sir Harry Lauder and Queen Mary, to Ian’s touchline snapshots of Selkirk rugby.

Aileen assured us: “The trust is also working closely with Scottish Borders Council’s museum and archive services to catalogue both the museum and image collections, after which they will be placed in the care of the council. I hope all the negatives will be preserved – maybe not all the wedding ones. Latterly my grandfather was Mr Wedding Man. If Willie Mitchell took your wedding photographs, you can have them.

“Prior to the studio being closed, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland is making a full photographic record of the studio and the University of Glasgow will be producing 3D imaging of the museum to ensure that it lives on in digital form.”

She concluded: “While we will be sad to see the historic studio close, we are making this decision in the knowledge that the collection will be protected for many more generations to enjoy and that there will still be an exhibition of Clapperton photographic equipment and images available in Selkirk.”