Friday, September 25, 2009

The multi-talented Cyril Peckham

Due to the inevitable focus on pilots in aviation, the huge range of other talented people involved rarely get a look in. In the middle of the twentieth century, there were numerous great photographers working, including the peerless Charles E Brown and others. One often overlooked is Cyril Peckham, who was multi-skilled as well as talented.

While looking at this rather nice illustration of a Folland racer, I noticed a very small signature at the lower right in the white area: 'Peckham'. Not a usual name, only encountered for the London suburb and the photographer I'd heard of. So a bit more looking produced a camera - the Peckham Wray as well:
Here's the story, from a Christie's auction page.
Peckham Wray camera no. 186
Peckham Wray, England; 5 x 4 inches, black-metal body, the top stamped ADMIRALTY PATTERN NO. 8901, focal-plane shutter and a Wray Lustrar 135mm. f/4.8 lens no. 42294; a Wray Plustrar f/6.3 9 inch lens no. 158117

Lot Notes: Cyril Peckham was a successful and well-known commercial artist and poster designer specialising in aviation subjects during the 1920s and 1930s. He had an active interest in photography and achieved the Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. During the second world war he moved from illustrator to photographer and joined the General Aircraft Company and later the Hawker company. He was active in aerial photography and drew up a list of ten faults with current cameras which led him to design his own.

'When the man who does the job designs the tool for doing it, the result should be something approaching the attainable ideal - from the functional aspect at least'. With this statement the BJPA reviewed the Peckham-Wray camera designed by Cyril Peckham who at the time was Chief Photographer to the Hawker Siddeley group of aircraft companies. The camera was originally designed for air-to-air photography and and was later developed as a press and general purpose camera.

British patent number 728741 was applied for in 1951 and the full specification was filed in November 1952. The specification for the camera addressed those faults that Peckham had identified including light traps, comfortable grip and fingertip controls. After some twelve months use Peckham showed the camera to the Chief of the Admiralty photographic section, Mr F. Wright, who initiated the first production run of fifty cameras from the Wray Optical Works in Bromley. The prototype camera at the RAF Museum in Hendon follows the patent specification closely but the transition from prototype to production negated some of the improvements Peckham had intended.

The prototype achieved most of Peckham's goals, bulk apart it was convenient to hold, the rear shutter release was in an ideal position and the focusing scale and aperture markings easy to use. A gloved operator would have no difficulty and it would seem to have been a first class air-to-air camera. If offered exclusively for this purpose fitted with a 5 x 4 Graphic-pattern back, as some of the production models were, it would have achieved greater success outside of Government circles, in fact the number sold to private users were negligible and it certainly stood no chance of being accepted in the Speed Graphic dominated Fleet Street as a press camera.

Jim Barron, 'Cyril Peckham and the Peckham/Wray Camera' in Photographica World, no. 60, March 1992, pp. 24-25.
Jim Barron, 'Reaching for the Skies' in British Journal of Photography, 19 March 1992, pp. 16-17.
British Journal Photographic Almanac 1956, pp. 232-233.

For those interested in the camera specifically, more here:
... A camera was made for Peckham to his own design, by a local engineering company, and was so successful that he soon found friends and colleagues pressing him to get the camera into some sort of commercial production. Wray got the job, under the promise of a Government contract. Wray’s version of Peckham’s camera did not exactly match the prototype. The 9 x 12cm German shutter mechanism used by Peckham was changed to a 5 x 4-inch English version. The casting was in a denser alloy than the original, the smooth lines of the first camera were not followed and the whole thing was heavier and more cumbersome. ...
How many of our current photographers are experienced graphic artists and have designed a specialised camera that was put into production? Flight, as ever, came up with a pic - here's the man with (presumably) the prototype camera from 19 December 1952.

Another excellent shot is on this interesting blog, presumably again using his own camera.

All very interesting, I think. There also seems to be another
Cyril G Peckham who published "A summary of atmospheric turbulence recorded by NATO aircraft." and was involved with "The Analysis of Sudden-Short-Circuit Oscillograms of Steam-Turbine Generators" - I hope it's not the same man, otherwise he'd clearly be the Leonardo of aeronautics.

Tim Badham adds:
I greatly admire the aviation photographers from that era. Indeed I was fortunate enough in the 1970s to be one of the winners in a competition concerning airshow photography. The photographs were judged by Arthur Gibson (well known for early Red Arrows pics) and that doyen of air-to-air work Charles E. Brown himself. I had the great honour to meet Charles at the award ceremony when winning photographs were exhibited at the RAF Museum. It was a wonderful day. Charles was of diminutive stature and quite frail by then but I was quite over-awed to be introduced to him. Thousands of his early photos were lost in a fire at his premises in the early days of his career. His earliest aviation pics were of balloons.

I never met Cyril Peckham but he too did some great work in the days when film was expensive, autodrive was not an option and you had to get it right first time!
Not to be forgotten, and we'll return to the great Charles E Brown another time, I'm sure.

1 comment:

  1. He designed more modest items as well. I use a Johnson-Peckham lens hood and filter holder on my Voigtlander Vito B