Between 1966 and 2006, Libby Hall collected old photographs of dogs, amassing many thousands to assemble what is possibly the largest number of canine pictures ever gathered by any single person. Libby began collecting casually when the photographs were of negligible value, but by the end she had published four books and been priced out of the market. Yet through her actions Libby rescued an entire canon of photography from the scrap heap, seeing the poetry and sophistication in images that were previously dismissed as merely sentimental. And today, we are the beneficiaries of her visionary endeavour.
A joyful iconoclast by nature who has recently had, “Stop! Do not resuscitate, living will extant,”tattooed on her chest – Libby Hall is a born and bred New Yorker originating from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who moved into her house in Clapton in 1967 with her husband the newspaper cartoonist, Tony Hall, and has stayed ever since.
Contrary to our expectations and in spite of the multiple signs in a plethora of languages warning us to beware of the dog, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Martin Usborne and I found Libby without any canine company when we paid her a visit recently. “I’ve never lived without a dog before,”she confessed, revealing that her beloved dog Pembury had died just a few weeks previously on the couch in the front room, “there is a stillness and the place does seem incredibly quiet.”
We spent an enjoyable summer’s afternoon with Libby in the cool of her old house, studying the pages of proofs of dog photographs that line the walls, while she regaled us with the story of how it all began.
“My husband Tony and I used to go to Kingsland Waste, where we had a friend who did house clearances, and in those days they sold old photo albums and threw away the pictures. So I used to rescue them and I began sorting out the dogs – because I always liked dogs – and it became a collection. Then I started collecting properly, looking for them at car boot sales and auctions. And eventually a publisher offered me an advance of two thousand pounds for a book of them, which was fantastic, and when each of my books was published I just used the royalties to buy more and more photographs. I had a network of dealers looking out for things for me and they would send me pictures on approval. They were nineteenth century mostly and I only collected up until 1940, because I didn’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. Noboby was interested until my first book was published in 2000, and afterwards people said I had shot myself in the foot because everybody started collecting them and they became very expensive, but by then I had between five and six thousand photographs of dogs.
Dogs have always been powerfully important to me, I’ve lived with dogs since the beginning of my days. There’s a photo of my father holding me as baby in one arm and a dog in the other – dog’s faces were imprinted upon my consciousness as early as humans, and I’ve always lived with dogs until six weeks ago when my dog Pembury died. For the last month, friends have been ringing my bell and there’s only silence because he doesn’t come and I open the door to find them in tears. It was an intense relationship because it was just the two of us, Pembury and me, and as he got older he depended on me greatly. So it is good to have my freedom now but only for a little while. At one point, we had three dogs and four cats in this house. We even had a dog and a cat that used to sleep together, during the day they’d do all the usual challenging and chasing but at night they’d curl up in a basket.
When I was eleven, I wanted a dog of my own desperately, I’d been campaigning for five years and I wanted a cocker spaniel. My father contacted a dog rescue shelter in Chester, Connecticut, and they said they had one. But as we walked past the chain link fence, there was a dog barking and we were told that it was going to be put down the next morning. Of course, we took that dog, even though he wasn’t a cocker spaniel. We wondered if they always told people this, but Chester and I were inseparable ever after.”
With touching generosity of spirit, Libby confided to me that her greatest delight is to share her collection of pictures. “What matters to me is others seeing them, I never made any money from my books because I spent it all on buying more photographs.” she said.
These photographs grow ever more compelling upon contemplation because there is always a tension between the dog and the human in each picture. The presence of the animal can unlock the emotional quality of an image of people who might otherwise appear withheld, and the evocation of such intimacy in pictures of the long dead, who are mostly un-named, carries a soulful poetry that is all its own. Bridging the gap of time in a way that photographs solely of humans do not, Libby’s extraordinary collection constitutes an extended mediation upon mortality and the fragility of tender emotions.
“I put my heart and soul into it, and it was very hard giving up collecting, but my fourth book was the ultimate book, and it coincided with the realisation that my husband Tony was dying, so I realised that it was the end of a period of my life.” Libby concluded with a melancholy smile, sitting upon the couch where Pembury expired and casting her eyes thoughtfully around the pictures of dogs lining the walls. I asked Libby how she felt now that her collection is housed elsewhere. “I’ve got the books,” she reminded me, placing her hand upon them protectively, “I have no visual memory at all, so I keep going back to look at them.”
Libby Hall plans to get a new dog in the autumn.
The two stripes on this soldier’s sleeve meant he had been wounded twice and was probably on leave recovering from the second wound when this photograph was taken.
HRH the Princess of Wales with her favourite dogs on board the royal yacht Osborne.
John Brown 1871. The dogs are Corran, Dacho, Rochie and Sharp, who was Queen Victoria’s favourite.
George Alexander, Actor/Manager, with his wife Florence.
This photograph of Mick came with the collar he is wearing.
Queen Victoria and Sharp (pictured above with John Brown) at Balmoral in 1867.
Charles Dickens with his devoted dog Turk.
Libby’s recently deceased dog Pembury wearing the vest that was essential in his last days.
Libby on the couch where Pembury died six weeks ago.
One of Libby’s six dog dolls’ houses. – “I think dolls’ houses with dolls are rather scary but dolls’ houses with dogs are ok.”
Libby Hall – “I put my heart and soul into it.”
Portraits of Libby Hall copyright © Martin Usborne
Dog photographs copyright © The Libby Hall Collection at the Bishopsgate Institute
Updated in December 2012 – Libby Hall with her new dog Pip.
Libby Hall selected these favourite dog photographs from her books – Prince and Others, Prince and Other Dogs II, Postcard Dogs, Postcard Cats and These Were Our Dogs, all published by Bloomsbury.
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