Alvin Langdon Coburn – His life and photography in Wales

Alvin Langdon Coburn was an American photographer who eventually chose to settle in England, where much of his innovative work was done. This included abstraction, vortography and enhanced developing/printing techniques. Ultimately he chose North Wales as his homeland.


Coburn Self Portrait 1905 – from thispublicaddress.com

Wikipedia tells us that “Alvin Langdon Coburn (June 11, 1882 – November 23, 1966) was an early 20th century photographer who became a key figure in the development of American pictorialism. He became the first major photographer to emphasize the visual potential of elevated viewpoints.”

Coburn worked by the use of natural light. Artificial light was only used where it was offered, such as in photographs showing city scenes at night. His work involved the use of Cristoid film, a quite unknown brand but one that was clearly invaluable to those photographers who were aware of its excellent properties.

Alvin Langdon Coburn feature in Amateur Photographer 2 June 2012

Coburn was fortunate enough at such a young age to become a member of the noted photography group known as the Linked Ring. Wikipedia tells us that this was “an association of artistic photographers which was considered at that time to be the highest authority for photographic aesthetics.” The Ring included George Davidson (managing director of Kodak), Frederick H. Evans, Alfred Stieglitz, Gertrude Kasebier, Alfred Horsley Hinton and others. George Davidson retired in 1907 and made Harlech his home. His mansion, Wern Fawr, built in 1906 just a short distance from the famous castle, was sold in 1924 and became Coleg Harlech by 1927.

Both Coburn and Davidson featured in a prominent American photo-journal ‘Plantinum Print.’ Did George Davidson’s composition of the beach at Harlech as featured in the photo-journal Platinum Print #3 (March 1914) entice Coburn into visiting North Wales? The Americans didnt know how to spell Snowdonia, being spelt as Sodonia!

Davidson’s photograph in Platinum Print #3 (March 1914)

It is not known how early on Coburn visited Snowdonia but it is clear that in 1916 Coburn had been to George Davidson’s Harlech home, where he was introduced to religious mysticism. By 1919 Coburn’s involvement in freemasonry increased considerably although photography was still his major work.


Frontspiece of Coburn’s Book of Harlech (1920)

Coburn moved to North Wales in 1920 where his own book on photographs around Harlech was published by D.H. Parry. That year Coburn built two homes in the town, one for himself and one for visitors. Their home was called Cae Besi (Elizabeth’s Field) and offered excellent views of Harlech beach, Tremadoc bay and Snowdonia.

The Coburns became locally known as Mr and Mrs Tiddywinks. By 1923 Coburn became increasingly serious in freemasonry and photography took a back stage. By the 1930’s over 15,000 negatives of his hard work had been destroyed. His excuse was that there was a clear choice between being a photographer and religious mysticism and the latter was his calling.

One plausible reason for the decline in photography (apart from some who say it was the death of his mother) may be to do with the film that was available. “For printing his positives, Coburn mainly used the following photographic processes: platinum prints, gum-platinum prints, gelatin silver developing-out papers and photogravures.” He stood by Cristoid film and the gum-platinum printing process but to his regret platinum paper’s availability declined after the end of the first world war. Until then he had been a master of creativity but perhaps he sensed this was being lost.


Coburn – self portrait Harlech 19 May 1922 – image from Wikipedia.

Coburn was made an honorary member of the Welsh Gorsedd in 1927, and took on the name Mab-y-Tiroedd which means Son of the Triads (Wikipedia says Maby-y-Trioedd.) Having forsaken photography as a career, he become fully immersed in the Gorsedd, and ultimately became its secretary.

After the 1930’s Coburn’s photographs were now made using the more usual black and white/bromage papers. Several sources claim he ceased photography altogether. This is not true, indeed he remained a prolific photographer, but purely as a hobby. He returned to doing some commissions later in life.

Coburn was made a lay reader in 1935 under license from the Diocese of Bangor, and he worked in many of the local churches around the Harlech and Conwy areas.


Coburn’s headed paper – used for masonic work.

In his own words Coburn relates his masonic work in North Wales: “I became Inspector General, Thirty-Third Degree, for North Wales, of the Ancient and Accepted Rite on 9th May 1946; Provincial Grand Master of the Mark Degree for North wales on4th January 1952; and a Grand Officer in the Craft (P.A.G.D.C.) on 27th April 1960.I have delivered about twenty lectures on Freemasonry and related subjects, which will be found in the Transactions of the Manchester Association for Masonic research, The Merseyside Association, and other publications…”


Cae Besi today. Image from walescymru.com

The Coburn’s home, Cae Besi, built during the early 1920’s, is in Ffordd Newydd, Harlech. Its a grade II listed building offering self catering accommodation: www.caebesi.com/

The Coburns also worked for the Red Cross during World War II. They often participated in local fundraising events, dressing in traditional or other dress for the occasions. Coburn himself is seen in medieval dress outside Harlech Castle in a number of images.


Awen – The Coburn’s former home in Rhos-on-sea

Again in Coburn’s words: “I… acted as Honorary Secretary of the Joint War organisation of the Red cross and the Order of St.John for the duration of the hostilities. My wife was Commandant of the Harlech Detachment of the Red Cross and ran a small hospital for evacuated children with skin troubles in one of our own houses. As a result of her over-strenuous activities she became afflicted with serious heart trouble. Harlech was too hilly for her, so in 1945 we moved to Colwyn Bay, which is flatter.”

Notes on Coburn and his Welsh Photography – with links:


Photographs from the early 1930’s show Coburn regularly ascended Snowdon and the Glyders with friends, one of whom was George Bernard Shaw. Snowdon featured in several of Coburn’s pictures, including the ascent and at Bwlch Glas admiring the view. The distant summit with its shanty buildings can be seen in many views clearly taken prior to 1935. Even the railway up the mountain is featured. My favourite is the shot taken of what appears to be locomotive No. 2 Enid by the summit station’s starting signals. This was probably taken around 1922.

Photographs in the George Eastman archives do show that Coburn took quite a number of compositions at local fairs and gatherings in Wales, these were probably taken as part of his travels for the Welsh Gorsedd.

Commissions of noted Welshmen were taken around Llyn Llydaw and the Ogwen Falls. A number of images were taken around Llandudno, Colwyn bay and the Conwy valley in the 1960’s.

In 1945, due to his wife’s ill health, he and Edith moved to Ebberstone Road East, Rhos on Sea. The house was called Awen (‘Inspiration’) and sited on the corner of Ebberstone and Kenelm Roads, Rhos, LL28. It was quite a splendid house sited just a short walk from the sea. Later photographs show his compositions of various locations around Conwy, but Coburn still made trips to Snowdonia both to work in it’s churches and photography commission work. Shrewsbury, Whittington Castle and locations nearby in the Chirk valley were also made, including around Llanarmon D.C. In 1964 the sea froze over at Colwyn Bay and Coburn took pictures of this.


Picture of Frozen sea at Colwyn Bay 1964 – from P136 of Alvin Langdon Coburn Photographer – An Autobiography. 1966

Coburn tells us of his later life at Awen: It “really much too big now for only two people, my housekeeper Mrs Sarah Riddle and myself, but I have over five thousand books, mostly on mystical subjects and Freemasonry. They line the walls from floor to ceiling in many of the rooms, and could not be accommodated in a flat.”


Helmut & Alison Gernsheim’s book on Coburn.

Coburn, as a photographer, was virtually un-recognised from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. In 1962 Professor Donald Gordon of the University of Reading decided to stage an exhibition of Coburn’s work. Gordon was surprised to find Coburn still around, so he phoned Coburn at his home in Rhos and enlisted him with autobiographical contribution towards the exhibition. This offered valuable information and insight into Coburn’s work. Much of this was collated into a new book by Helmut & Alison Gernsheim.
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Clwyd Council book on Coburn 1994

Coburn’s final exhibition of his work took place at Colwyn Bay library in 1966. The exhibition opened on 23rd November of that year. Just thirteeen days after the opening Coburn passed away.

Edith died in October 1957. Coburn died at Awen on 6th December 1966.

In 1994 ‘A quest for Beauty’ – an exhibition and book by Clwyd Council celebrated Coburn’s work in North Wales.

Quite a number of hours were spent inspecting the Coburn collections under the George Eastman archives. Many are untitled and there is no index around 16,000 images had to be looked through for any relevant to Snowdonia. These compositions are featured as thumbnails as fuller sized pictures cannot be reproduced due to copyright. Clicking on the thumbnails will open the relevant images at the George Eastman collection.

Photographs in the Eastman collection – click on images for external links:

Noted personalities:
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Lloyd George at Criccieth in 1918

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George Bernard Shaw at Bwlch Glas – probably 1930’s

Coburn took quite a few compositions of the Margaret Morris Dancers on Harlech Beach. This was a famous 1920’s dance troupe. The full set is here:

Fred Daniels’ pic of Margaret Morris Dancers on Harlech beach

It appears it was Fred Daniels who was commissioned to photograph the Margaret Morris Dancers – and Coburn came along too. Perhaps Daniels and Coburn knew each other. More of Harlech and other Welsh locations showingFred Daniels’ pictures.

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Joseph J Firebaugh at Llyn Peris

There are other pictures of Firebaugh around Snowdonia, including one taken onwhat could be the Watkin or the Rhyd Ddu Path.

Joseph Jesse Firebaugh is an American. He was professor at various American universities throughout the 50’s and 60’s. He wrote a number of noted essays namely �The Vocabulary of Time Magazine.� American Speech (Oct. 1940): 232-242, and ‘Tietjens and the Tradition.’ The Pacific Spectator 6, no. 1 (Winter 1952): 23-32. The latter item has some relevance in 2012 because the BBC dramtised Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End. The opening credits use Vortographic images. The person who invented Vortography was no less than Alvin Langdon Coburn!

Harlech:

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Cae Besi under construction 1920

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Cae Besi and view of Harlech

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Harlech Castle & fields

Snowdonia:

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Book of Harlech – Snowdon and Glyders from near Harlech

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Devils Kitchen

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Devils Kitchen again

Alvin Coburn took quite a number of pictures around Nant Ffrancon, and from Twll Du, the summit of Glyder Fawr. Tryfan and Ogwen falls feature in a number of shots. Some of his pictures seem to be taken on the Deer path leading from Llyn Idwal up to the Glyders.

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Book of Harlech – Snowdon summit in early 1920’s with full signalling. The locomotive is probably No.2 Enid.

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Unidentified man on SMR at Clogwyn

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Edith Coburn (Tiddywinks) at Bwlch Glas

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Snowdon from Nant Gwynant

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Llyn Peris looking north

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Tryfan from Capel Curig side

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Ffestiniog railway at Tan-y-Grisiau

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Tan-y-Grisiau

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Roman Steps

LLandudno/Conwy:

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Awen at Rhos on Sea – Coburn’s last residency.

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Unidentified country fair early 1960’s with Little Orme in the background.

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Colwyn Bay from Penmaen 1960’s.

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Unidentified family at West Parade, Llandudno, 1960’s.

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Llanrwst Bridge

The Coburns – Masonry/Red Cross/Welsh costume:

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Alvin Coburn in masonic robes

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Alvin Coburn in Red Cross uniform

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Edith Coburn in Red Cross uniform

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Alvin Coburn in masonic attire

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Edith Coburn in traditional dress – fair at Harlech Castle.

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Alvin Langdon Coburn with film crew in mid 1960’s.

Copyright © 2012 Gwychder y Wyddfa

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