Obituary: John P Ward (29 July 1940–9 April 2023)
John Ward, who has died aged 82 years, was a Science Museum curator and a key figure at the centre of a network of British photography collections and collectors between the 1970s and 1990s.
John was born in 1940 and attended Manchester Grammar School between 1952 and 1960. He started at the Science Museum in an established post as Museum Assistant in the Chemistry Department in June 1969, following six months in a temporary role of the same kind. By 1973, he had gained promotion to Senior Museum Assistant then Research Assistant in the following year, within the same department which, for historical reasons, was home of the photography collection. From 1969, he worked under Dr David B Thomas (1928–2010) as the latter moved between Chemistry, Museum Services and, from 1978, to become Keeper in the department of Physics. Both men had a strong interest in photography and Dr Thomas had published a small booklet on the camera collection in 1966 and, in 1973, a booklet on the origins of the motion picture (Thomas, 1964; 1966). In 1969 The Science Museum Photography Collection was published under Thomas’s name, possibly incorporating research work from John (Thomas, 1969). John would later produce an updated edition The Science Museum Camera Collection (1981) when the Arthur Frank collection of 650 cameras and 850 other items was acquired, although he expressed disappointment noting that the catalogue had largely been produced to satisfy the donor.
The period from 1968 until the move of the photography collections from London to the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (NMPFT, opened in 1983, now the Science and Media Museum) was significant, with John’s own role growing into a curatorial one from 1974. The Science Museum through Dr Thomas and John was part of a close network of photography collections which included the Kodak Museum under Brian Coe, the Royal Photographic Society with Arthur Gill and Margaret Harker, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fox Talbot Museum led by Bob Lassam; private collections such as the Barnes Museum of Cinematography and Fenton Museum of Photography, and individual collectors such as Bernard Howarth-Loomes, Cyril Permutt, and others. Those inter-institution and personal connections led to acquisitions and loans, at a time when collections’ management was less formalised than now (Pritchard, 2018). That with Howarth-Loomes (1931–2003) was particularly strong.
The connection with the Kodak Museum and Brian Coe (1930–2007) was especially productive with Coe producing salted paper prints from over 600 negatives in the Science Museum’s Talbot collection for an exhibition Sun Pictures marking the centenary of Talbot’s death in 1977. The exhibition showed at the Science Museum and toured internationally. In the catalogue John wrote of the value of the association between a national museum collection and a private museum with laboratory and research facilities (Pritchard, 2008). By the early 1980s the Science Museum was showing Kodak Ltd exhibitions, including Twelve Points of View in 1981 and the groundbreaking The Living Body in 1986, which subsequently toured.
John was responsible under Thomas’s (probably quite remote) supervision for the Science Museum’s new photography and cinematography galleries, which opened on 10 April 1979. Despite the fact that it was originally conceived as a temporary exhibition, it remained open until the end of 2005. This would be a good lifetime for one of the Museum’s ‘permanent’ galleries, and it is remarkable in view of the fact that the NMPFT was the main centre for the photography and cinematography collections for 85 per cent of its time on display. Internally designed, probably by the Museum’s Head of Design Roger Mummery, it cunningly inserted a figure of eight made of two circles of 17 standard Science Museum KD cases into the large rectangular gallery space of the then new ‘infill block’, one each for the still and moving image technologies. This allowed for a substantial display of the technical history of both technologies through the Museum’s significant collections, supplemented by a noteworthy loan of early case photographs, photographic jewellery and stereographs from Howarth-Loomes. It was said to contain ‘probably the most comprehensive collection of photographic cameras to be seen anywhere’. The photographic half included at its centre a striking reconstruction of the 1841 daguerreotype studio of Richard Beard at the Polytechnic in Regent Street (Report…, 1979).
John’s time at the Museum was indelibly marked by the setting up of the NMPFT in Bradford, in 1983. This included the transfer of the Science Museum’s photography and cinematography collections from London. Although John was offered a move to Bradford, he declined and remained sceptical of the project, although he remained supportive of colleagues and continued to be professionally engaged with its activities. He wrote a chapter for the Museum’s book commemorating the transfer and opening of the Kodak Museum collection at the NMPFT in 1989 (Ward, 1989).
The launch and expansion of the NMPFT meant that John’s role as London photography curator was discontinued, although he had a temporary role researching and cataloguing the Museum’s Talbot collection (Photographica World, 1989). During the collection’s transition to Bradford, John remained closely involved with photography, especially early British photography. This resulted in perhaps his most significant achievement, with Sara Stevenson, the exhibition and book Printed Light: the scientific art of William Henry Fox Talbot (1984), which opened at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1984 and brought together 100 of the Science Museum’s Talbot prints and objects.
John’s introductory essay to the volume is an exemplary piece of close empirical historical writing, drawing very substantially on archives held by the Science Museum and the Fox Talbot Museum as well as the nineteenth century periodical press. His catalogue sections, ordered by a light taxonomy of Fox Talbot’s photographic topics, once again drawing on the written archive, takes the reader through the Museum’s important collection in an informed and informative fashion – just as good collections catalogues should (Ward and Stevenson, 1986).
After this, John took on a new role responsible for training, in particular for the graduate trainee scheme that ran for several years in the 1990s. Ben Russell, now Curator of Mechanical Engineering, is one of the graduates of the scheme, he recalls: “I first came to the Museum in April 1999 after applying for a Museum Traineeship, and my first official collision with the organisation was to sit in John’s office for an interview with him – he was training manager and responsible for the trainees. John asked all the questions you’d expect. There was the obligatory moment with a ‘mystery object’ which I talked about, but didn’t know what it was. I remember John saying ‘ah, this is where having a scientific training comes in’ – I’m a historian. I thought I’d blown it, but was amazed to subsequently be offered the job, one of four of us in the final group of museum trainees. I’ve been here 24 years in September, so I was both lucky and grateful that John gave me the chance!”
Outside his professional roles at the Science Museum John was actively involved with the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists trade union (now Prospect) at the Science Museum, which took a lot of his time. It was in that role that many younger colleagues new to the Museum would first encounter this warm, principled and knowledgeable curator. But, as his wife Sue noted, he was a man of principles and integrity and never hesitated to ‘speak truth to power’.
John retired from the Museum in 2000. After retirement he continued to be consulted on early photography and wrote entries for the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography (Routledge, 2007) and for the Encyclopedia of 20th Century Technology (Routledge, 2004).
Quiet and understated, John was not an easy or eloquent orator, but he more than made up for this in the fluency of his written words and in person-to-person contact he was informal and supportive of others. Colin Harding who joined the Science Museum working with John noted “I have great affection for John. He set me on the road to becoming a photohistorian and was always very supportive – although he thought that I was making a big mistake when I decided to take a job in Bradford.” He continues, “[Dr] David Thomas kept a low profile and it was through John that I met such luminaries as Brian Coe, Bernard Howarth-Loomes and Larry Schaaf. My friendship with John meant that I was subsequently able to negotiate the sometimes difficult political landscape between Bradford and South Kensington. John actively encouraged me to research and write.”
Roger Taylor, who was recruited to the NMPFT in 1985 to open the Kodak Museum to Bradford, noted the later support of John, who acted as his advocated with senior management. He says “he fought my corner… and I will always be grateful for his intervention.” For others such as Alison Morrison-Low, then curator at the National Museums of Scotland “it is thanks to him that the Howarth-Loomes collection came to the National Museums of Scotland. He introduced me to Bernard, and also to Brian Coe…I learned a lot.”
And for me, I was at Christie’s in South Kensington from 1986, as a photography specialist and met John when the Museum would buy photography for the collection. I would meet him regularly for lunch at his favourite Italian restaurant just down from the Museum, where he would offer news, advice and share his knowledge. Later, in 2007 when I started a PhD John acted as an advisor and after he had left the Museum we continued to meet and discuss photographic history.
John was a sportsman who ran, particularly cross country, played football, badminton and cricket. He would keep an eye on Chelsea FC while reading a book and possibly dip in and out of an England cricket match, but would be equally happy to stop and watch a village cricket match. He learnt to play the violin at school and picked up the ability to play the piano both with music and by ear. He loved classical music and reading with particularly interests in the history of the World Wars, social history, politics and, of course, photography. John was also a great gardener, sowing seeds and growing plants, particularly vegetables but also annual plants for the garden.
John’s contribution to British photographic history was largely curtailed with the opening of the NMPFT and later acquisition of the Kodak Museum collection. But he remains a significant figure through his work at the Science Museum, and through his wider role engaging with other institutions and individuals during a period of rapid growth in interest in photographic history. Look through many books on British photographic history published during the period 1974–1990s and John is often acknowledged. He was personally supportive of a generation of curators and researchers which has left an enduring legacy.
He leaves Sue, his wife of more than fifty years, and is survived by three sisters. His brother predeceased him.