One of Le Prince’s film sequences, Roundhay Garden Scene, contains a macabre timestamp. Le Prince’s mother-in-law, Sarah Whitley, who appeared in it, died on 24th October 1888, less than two weeks after the sequence was shot.
Roundhay Garden can be found online quite easily and although the animated images only play for around two seconds, additional frames showing the subjects in different positions tell us that the original film was longer. And yet despite its brevity, it manages to be a charming piece infused with a subtle sense of mischief. Four figures are seen in the grounds of the Whitley residence, Roundhay Cottage. In the centre of the group stand two women, Annie Hartley and Sarah, while two men, Le Prince’s son, Adolphe and father-in-law, Joseph Whitley, walk around them. This detail is telling: it is likely that the two men were asked to tread circular paths designed to keep them in shot at all times in order to show off as much motion as possible without losing anyone off to the sides of the screen. It means that Le Prince, ever the consummate artist, wasn’t simply capturing these images but directing them as well.
Spend time with this captured moment and you begin to see more (I am lucky enough to have a relatively clear copy from the National Science and Media Museum to look at). Adolphe takes enthusiastic strides as he arcs across the front of the shot, obviously keen to be part of his father’s great experiment; Annie Hartley hovers slightly, amused and self-conscious in equal parts, before turning away from the camera; Sarah wobbles gamely while Joseph has entered into the spirit of things and is swinging his arms and mock-stomping. In the two seconds left to us, he seems to walk on the spot for an instant, possibly even taking a step backwards as he passes his wife. The contrived symmetry of the scene (two central figures circled by two others) is broken, to my mind at least, by the fact that Sarah Whitley is slightly to the right, closer to her husband as he passes round her. We have them (almost) at the moment of their crossing and even in that faded instant, that half-an-instant, there is an intimacy as they share the ridiculousness of their roles.
Sarah and her husband are buried together in the grounds of Roundhay St. John’s Church in Leeds, about a mile from where the Whitleys lived and where Garden Scene was shot (the tile work set into the wall behind their grave was designed by Le Prince himself.)
The Church was consecrated in 1826. The graves that lie amidst the lightly wooded area around it include those of former Lord Mayors; members of the illustrious Lupton family (descendants of the Duchess of Cambridge); members of the Kitson family, (who were at the heart of Leeds’ industrial history and provided several Lord Mayors of their own); the Whitleys and the fallen of two World Wars who are honoured by a large mosaic of saints positioned at the east end of the church either side of the altar. And while it was the story of Le Prince that brought me here to this place, it is the stories of all those linked to the church as it was then and is now that led me to write this particular post.
Roundhay St. John’s currently exists on the picturesque edges of ruin. It is quite beautiful in its emptiness and disarray but it will not remain so for long unless it is helped – should things continue to decline, that decline might possibly be given as a reason for selling the land, purchased for £1, beneath it.
I mention in the video (above) that these updates would be a series of digressions, and the ultimate purpose of this page is indeed to show you tangential discoveries and in the process, to try and persuade you to support my book (please support this book!) but the digressions often lead somewhere unexpected and in this case, they lead to the page of Friends of Roundhay St. John’s Church at http://www.roundhayfriends.com/index.html
And so, to anyone interested in English Heritage, Leeds history and the preservation of the stories and stones that abide in at St. John's, please take a moment to find out more about this beautiful place and the dedicated people who are campaigning on its behalf.
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