Photo © Harris Museum and Art Gallery, used with permission.
Like any beer writer, I get asked reasonably often what my favourite beer is – and, as I’ve said before, there are two general answers. One is the official one; the house tripel from Staminee de Garre in Bruges. The other; whatever beer that has shone through the clouds recently, and really made an impression (such Bad Seed Saison, the other week). Every now and again I also get asked what my favourite pub is, and this is trickier, as it all depends on my mood, the weather, what I want to drink, and – of course – where I am. There is another question, though, one that I’ve never been asked. What’s my favourite beer photo? Well, there’s no contest; it’s the one above.
There are many reasons why I love this picture. Its title is simply ‘Unknown men, drinking (1890)’, and it was taken in my hometown of Preston, so there’s an immediate connection there. The photograph itself comes from the archives of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in the city, and was sent as a postcard by my Mum, back in the days when the BeerCast podcasts were still going strong. What we did, back then, was sit around a table drinking and talking about beer – something exactly like the Unknown Men were doing in the picture (albeit we were inside).
The photograph raises so many questions, which is another reason why I find it so compelling. Firstly, and most obviously, is who the men actually were. Were they close friends? Had they known each other for years? Where did they do their drinking? Whose house were they in, at the time? (I like to think it was the house of the man second from right, as he has the biggest chair – but that could just be co-incidence after the seats were dragged out into the garden). I’m also guessing one of them was a photographer, maybe the man on the left, having set the shutter and returned to his seat to pose for his own camera.
At the risk of descending into pseud’s corner – this kind of image is timeless, which is another reason why I find it so fascinating. Like a group of men today watching Sky Sports at each other’s houses, sat on the sofa. Like another group of men sitting in a coaching inn, wearing tri-cornered hats and hose. What did these four men talk about? The recent death of Vincent van Gogh? The first ever County Cricket match? Or, probably more likely, Preston North End having just won the Football League for the second time? Maybe instead of Sky Sports, they caught up from local newssheets.
Looking more closely, I have thought for a while that the picture looks posed, and planned. Does the pose of the second man from the left look like an ‘oh, hi!’ moment to you? The rakish combination of angled cap and cravat possibly give it away; unless he was a genuine Lancashire dandy, of course. So if the picture wasn’t spontaneous, what was the reason behind it? To mark a moment in time? To send to someone else, another member of the group? And, finally, the last unanswerable question – just what are they drinking?
Just as I was finishing this post off, I received an email from Emma Heslewood, the Curator of History for Preston City Council – apparently the photo was posed, and was actually one in a series (another featured the same four men dressed in top-hats, playing cards). This revelation hasn’t lessened my feelings about the photo; although it confirmed my thought that it had been staged, it’s still a fantastic recording of the styles and customs of the time, as was presumably intended. As both the identities of the men and the reasons behind its taking are still unknown, it hasn’t dented the photograph’s mystery.