Local Look: Bill Douglas Volunteer Holly Johnson on the Townly Cooke Collection
One of the many great things about the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is the opportunity it offers for students to get first-hand experience of what it’s like to curate a museum. Volunteer Holly Johnson opened her first exhibition in the museum earlier this year, focusing on a collection of stills and artefacts collated by a man named Townly Cooke. The display offers a treasure trove of insights into silent film culture and rarities from the early twentieth century. I had the opportunity to sit down with Holly, and get a first-hand look at some of the artefacts that she and her fellow volunteer, Beth Ellis, have been working on together.
How did you get involved with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum?
I found out that you can volunteer in second year – I was taking the ‘Adaptations’ module, and Professor Helen Hanson told me that it was an option. So I came in, I talked to [Museum Curator, Phil Wickham] about it and then he had me cataloguing various things – specifically Picturegoer film magazines from the late 40s and early 50s. And then I went away for a year [on a year abroad], and then I came back, and he said ‘okay, I’ve just got this collection, this is yours. You will be cataloguing and you will put it together’. The reason that he gave me this was because I told him I wanted to pursue a career in museums. At this point, I kind of realised, when I went away: ‘oh, this is actually what I want to do’.
So [this collection] is what I’m working on with a fellow volunteer called Beth Ellis. She’s helping me organise some of the more miscellaneous items in the collection. But the majority of what is in this, it was given to us by a gentleman named Townly Cooke, and we were gifted these items in his will. So it’s about twenty boxes-ish, the majority of which is film stills from predominantly the silent era, but there are some extending all the way up to the 1960s, although the majority of it is between the turn of the century and about 1930.
“he got some of them at auction, some on online auction on Ebay, some of them are from the BFI, it’s amazing, the wide variety of sources he got these things from”
Could you tell us about Townly Cooke?
Phil knows a little bit more than I do, but from what Phil has told me he was an artist, but he was also very well known on the silent film scene in London. Either, I guess there was a group of them in London, and they all came together to consume silent film. It seems like his life’s work – it’s so extensive! And the amount of work that he’s put into it, it’s extraordinary. There’s a couple of old school textbooks here and they are jam packed full of notes, and this is extremely helpful to me as well because it means I’m able to identify some of the films that didn’t have a label on them. But this also shows that the extent that he went to acquire some of these items. So he got some of them at auction, some on online auction on Ebay, some of them are from the BFI, it’s amazing, the wide variety of sources he got these things from.
What is the variety of the artefacts like?
So, from the boxes that we have there, they’re separated generally by country. I have five boxes of British film – we have two silent, one on sound, one specifically on stills featuring transportation vehicles, which was a bit of a curveball! And, then we have American so again, American silent and then American sound, and then just under the umbrella term ‘foreign’, so that’s generally from Europe, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and those are luckily all together. And so, I’m slowly working through those. I’m still on Britain at the moment.
Can you describe how you’ve approached assembling your exhibition?
I tried to get a balance between pictures that I think look really interesting, and to be representative of the period, specifically in reference to Hepworth, because there’s a great amount on him, so I wanted to be representative of that. I have a variety of stills and items that are not from Hepworth films that I just think are interesting to look at, so for example we have an item here, it’s from an early biograph film from the US that pictures a man and a woman – she’s dressed like a ballerina and she’s boxing, and I think all the items have a real air of mystery about them because, a lot of the films I’m dealing with are completely lost, we don’t have record of them anymore – these are some of the only surviving records. So to not know the context, not know the exact context, kind of gives them a bit of an air of mystery. […] This one’s from a German film called ‘Hilda Warren and Death’ [she shows me a strange, striking black and white still of the grim reaper and a woman].
The other part of it, as I said, was the Hepworth stuff – we have quite a lot of postcards. I have [also] featured prominently Henry Edwards and Chrissie White [referred to by curator Phil Wickham as ‘the Branjelina of their day’], but then I’ve picked a couple of other film stars of the period, so Lionel Howard, [she shows me an autographed postcard of his]. Violet Hopson was also quite prominent in the period, Anna Mae Wong, which was interesting to see some East Asian representation in the period. I’ve tried to get a mix between stills that I think are really interesting to look at, as well as representing the period that most of these are from.
“it’s specifically British [film that is] not as well regarded in that period of silent film, so I wanted to open people up to think [otherwise]”
What do you hope people will get from coming to see the exhibition?
I wanted to make sure that Townly’s work was well represented which is why I’ve also got a mix of media here – I have the stills but I also have the postcards and the publications. But I wanted to… it’s specifically British [film that is] not as well regarded in that period of silent film, so I wanted to open people up to think [otherwise]. Obviously in the item description they can look up the film, if they wanted to find out a little bit more about that, and then kind of get the ball rolling into any other research that people might want to do, academic or just at a personal level. I just want to show people this period that certainly I didn’t know much about before I started.
It’s kind of a stereotype that a lot of the films in this period were quite stagey – I mean there are photographs in this collection that do represent that, but I kind of left them to the wayside to show that there was a ton of really amazing, creative people working in this industry, and they had the ability to make really striking shots, or just bizarre, bizarre sets or whatnot, rather than just them all being in a room and looking slightly aghast.
The descriptions that I’ve found for some of these films on IMDB, they’re all about murder and adultery, because they all came in before the Hays code, so they had seemingly free reign to discuss various topics, whatever they wanted. So yeah, every time I look up a description it always seems to be about something that’s really quite adult in nature. It’s been quite eye-opening.
You can see the Townly Cooke Collection display from now until September at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, located in the Old Library.