Tag Archives: Photographs

88. Midnight on the Arizona Desert: J.B. Priestley’s Writing Hut (and the Grand Canyon)

Yorkshire inspired J.B. Priestley’s best writing, but he also loved Arizona.  This week we visit his writing hut at the Remuda Ranch in Wickenburg.  The hut was less than 12 feet by 10, made of unpainted boards, and contained very little: a table with his typewriter, some books and tobacco things on shelves, and a small tin stove.

Detail from front cover of J.B. Priestley, Midnight on the Desert, Heinemann, 1937.

J.B. Priestley’s writing hut in Arizona, amongst cacti, hills and stars. Detail from front of dustjacket Midnight on the Desert, Heinemann, 1937.

Priestley first saw Arizona in 1934, when he was sent by Ealing Studios to investigate the possibilities of a film for Gracie Fields.  He fell in love with the landscape, “the clear bright winter mornings and the blaze of stars at midnight, the glittering desert floor with its promise of precious stones, the hillside of giant saguaros, the amethyst peaks and the red-gold fortresses of rock, and, not least, the air so pure, it seems magical”.

J.B. Priestley in a rocking chair, Wickenburg, Arizona, about 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/7.

J.B. Priestley in a rocking chair, Wickenburg, Arizona, about 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/7.

Priestley, his wife Jane and their children spent two winters at the Ranch during the late 1930s, the dry climate being better for Jane’s health.   The family remembered these as times of fun and freedom, though Priestley himself continued to write, to work on US productions of his plays, and to give lectures.

The Priestley family dressed as cowboys, Arizona, 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/5.

The Priestley family dressed as cowboys, Arizona, 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/5.

Priestley wrote most memorably about Arizona in Midnight on the Desert (1937).  In this, and its 1939 companion Rain upon Godshill, Priestley created a kind of descriptive autobiography, “packing reminiscence and discourse into a long reverie”.   This format suited his ability to write engagingly about his own experiences, whether being comically grumpy about the inconveniences of travel, sharing profound emotions, or exploring ideas.

He gave the two narratives shape by beginning and ending “at a certain time in a definite place” and concentrating on the “events, opinions, thoughts” of the previous year or so. In Midnight Priestley is writing in London on a dark, wet Monday, but his mind is back in Arizona, one late night in the hut towards the end of his stay.  He was having a clear-out, burning in the little stove an “accumulated litter of letters and odd papers” and chapters of writing that he felt had failed.

J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom, Coronado, California, Spring 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/10

J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom, Coronado, California, Spring 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/10

He reflects on this visit to the United States, and, with frequent returns to his sorting in the hut, tells us about his travels and his thoughts, sharing his views on the state of publishing, his experience of journalists in the USA, memories of his father Jonathan, Hollywood, giving lectures, American railways and much more.  Above all, he ponders the great mysteries of human consciousness and of time.  As we have already seen, he had just discovered and been thrilled by the possibilities of the writings of Dunne and Ouspensky and they were much on his mind that year.

The climax of the book is Priestley’s famous description of a visit to the Grand Canyon, a sight which astounded him no matter how many times he saw it.  Priestley walks out of his overheated hotel in a snowstorm; the Canyon is hidden by mist.  Then, suddenly the fog clears …

Priestley shares his sense of wonder and revelation as he looks at the Canyon – the changing weathers, the sheer scale, the colours.  Above all he feels it gave a view of deep time, a fourth dimension to the landscape.   Priestley realises that he dreamed of the Canyon long ago: maybe that dreaming self had made some Ouspenskian connection with the self now seeing the Canyon.

Midnight ends with Priestley finishing his work in the hut to go out into the cold starlit winter night.  He is sorry to leave Arizona but he knows he can always recapture a place through his imagination, be in London in Arizona or Arizona in London: “I must try to put some of this in a book …”.  Which he did!

Note on sources.  The long quotation in the second paragraph is from an article, “Arizona Revisited” (archive ref PRI 5/7/7: we think it was published in Travel & Leisure Magazine 1974).  Other quotations are from Midnight itself, Margin Released, and Instead of the Trees.   The latter, published in 1977, was a very belated finale to the trilogy of descriptive autobiographies.   The Priestley Companion includes several key pieces from Midnight, including the first part of The Grand Canyon, and is probably easier to get hold of through libraries.


61. J.B. at the JBPL: The Opening of the J.B. Priestley Library, 18 October 1975

On 18 October 1975, J.B. Priestley opened the Library that bears his name at the University of Bradford.  We know a great deal about the opening ceremony thanks to files in the University Archive and this week’s Object, an album of photographs taken on the day and presented to Priestley as a memento.   This later returned to the University as part of Priestley’s Archive.

Presentation slip in album commemorating opening of J.B. Priestley Library 1975Proceedings began the night before with a small dinner party in “one of the private dining rooms” in the main building.  The menu survives: Florida Cocktail or Spring Vegetable Soup, then sole, lamb, and Cherry Cheese Cake.  Harold Wilson, the University’s first Chancellor and Prime Minister at the time, wrote to Vice-Chancellor Ted Edwards that “the warmth of the occasion surpassed even the high quality of the cuisine”.

Priestley and Harold Wilson looking at book by shelves in new J.B. Priestley Library

Priestley and Harold Wilson looking at book by shelves in new J.B. Priestley Library

On the day, the Chancellor and Priestley spoke, Priestley unveiled a plaque, then the party toured the new building and had a buffet lunch before the University car whizzed the Priestleys back to their home in Stratford.  The event was planned to the last detail, including the whereabouts of umbrellas and keeping the lift free for Priestley to use (he was then over eighty).

Harold Wilson and J.B. Priestley, with pipes

Harold Wilson and J.B. Priestley, with pipes

The new Library building (which was supplemented by an extension in the 1990s) was five levels high, one floor occupied by the Computer Centre.   The publicity campaign emphasised what was described as a “whole phalanx of mechanical and electronic aids to ease the paths of users” of both services.  The rapid expansion of the University from the Bradford Institute of Technology had put considerable pressure on library services.  The new building transformed what was possible for staff and students.   From the 1959 situation of two rooms crammed with 9,000 out of date books (which could not be browsed) staffed by two assistants, 1975 offered students over 200,000 volumes, 53 professional and support staff and a pioneering system of subject librarians offering specialist help.

Brochure for J.B. Priestley Library and Computer Centre 1975

Brochure for J.B. Priestley Library and Computer Centre 1975

This year the GLEE building project is transforming the upper floors of the Library.  J.B.’s album (along with our other archives) records these areas as they were imagined at the time, as impressive modern facilities which aimed to provide the best possible environment and services for students: we hope to do the same today with the new facilities.

51. “The Story of My Trip to Russia”: Notebook from an Independent Labour Party Visit to the Soviet Union, 1932

This week’s Object tells the story of a trip to the Soviet Union in 1932.  The visit was organised by the Independent Labour Party and included “doctors, economists, technicians.  French professor – a Bolton mill girl – an army officer and his wife and an MP”.  They travelled out on the Cooperitza, “one of the six ships of the Five Year Plan”: their packed itinerary covered Leningrad, Kiev and Moscow and incorporated visits to museums, a prison, a workers’ club, a pioneer camp and factories.

The trip is brought to life for us thanks to a notebook put together by one of the party.  It contains  jottings, photographs, press cuttings and postcards.  Here we see the ship and life on board.

Cooperitza at Hay's Wharf, book stall, talks on board  (ref RUS p.2)

Cooperitza at Hay’s Wharf, book stall, talks on board (ref RUS p.2)

The writer is fascinated both by the communist regime and by the region’s history, experiencing for example Catherine the Great’s palace, where they see the famous Amber Room, “One room was all amber – priceless walls, floors, ornaments – casecaskets – all amber – like a huge jewelled casket turned inside out … I have never seen such wealth”.

Tsarskoe Seloe (Catherine the Great's palace) (RUS p.15)

Tsarskoe Seloe (Catherine the Great’s palace) (RUS p.15)

The writer frequently compares old and new uses of buildings, as here with the Smolny, boarding school turned government building.

The Smolny and Lenin statue (RUS p. 17 detail)

The Smolny and Lenin statue (RUS p. 17 detail)

Much of the notebook is concerned with the practicalities of travel (“Bugs!”) and food e.g. on the train to Kiev, “Our supplies of food went with us.  We were told to drink no water on the way & were given 28 bottles of soda water, 14 long loaves of black bread, 14 tins fish, 14 tins meat – no butter”.   The author carefully records details of the new Soviet systems e.g. the prison regime, or how marriages and divorces worked. They also note problems such as poverty, their guide’s fear of photography and the danger of bandits on the Kiev train.

Wayside station, Moscow travel, station Leningrad (RUS p.18)

Wayside station, Moscow travel, station Leningrad (RUS p.18)

The notebook’s creator acknowledges that “One cannot presume to tell the truth about Russia after seeing 3 of its great cities and from long train journeys across its flat surfaces”.  However, “I can record certain things which I saw and tell the story of my trip to Russia”: the notebook with its rich detail and visual appeal certainly does that very effectively.

Tantalisingly, we do not know the identity of the writer.  The notebook was given to the University long ago by Bradford Libraries (who had it from someone who had it from someone who was a friend of the author, but the letter we have does not include that crucial detail).   Parts of the text read formally as if intended for public consumption and there is evidence of editing; others are purely notes.  It would be a fascinating task for a researcher to try to work out the writer’s identity and to find out more about the journey.  Please contact Special Collections if you already have ideas about the writer’s identity or are interested in exploring this further.

40. Citizens of a New Age: Dimitrije Mitrinovic and his followers


This week’s Object is a photograph of an intriguing individual: Dimitrije Mitrinović, a utopian philosopher who made his home in England and gathered a group of followers  who wished to learn how to become citizens of a new society.  Mitrinović held that there was a need for a new stage in human development, transcending individualism to form a collective consciousness.  To support such change, he believed it was essential to draw on the wisdom of the past by researching the history of religion, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the arts.

These researches and the many connections he and his followers had with others active in politics and culture can be explored via their library and archive.  We already encountered the library in Object 17.  It is rich in rare books and pamphlets on politics, philosophy, religions, the occult, and social thought, gathered to help the groups draw on past wisdom.  We are exploring ways to fund the proper cataloguing of the archive, which will offer a fantastic resource for research on the interwar period.

Mitrinović was born in 1887 in Herzegovina.  As a young man he was active in the Young Bosnia movement opposing the Austro-Hungarian empire  and, while at Munich University, was linked with Kandinsky and the Blaue Reiter group.  He moved to London in 1914 to avoid conscription (he was also at risk because of his politics).  There he formed links with other exiled Yugoslavs and gave classes in philosophy and other subjects.  In 1920 he began a famous series of articles about his ideas in the New Age (edited by A.R. Orage): World Affairs by “M.M. Cosmoi”.

Mitrinovic with members of the New Europe Group, 1930s

Mitrinović’s charisma, new ideas and deeply “idiosyncratic and eccentric” prose attracted followers including H.C. Rutherford, Violet MacDermot, Valerie Cooper, Ellen Mayne, Philip Mairet, David Shillan, Nobel prize-winner Frederick Soddy, and (a link to later counter-cultures) Alan Watts.  He and his followers formed or were active in various groups notably the Chandos Group, New Europe Group and the New Britain Movement.

After his death in 1953, Mitrinović’s followers formed the New Atlantis Foundation (recently renamed the Mitrinović Foundation) to continue and promote his ideas.  The Foundation is still active and continues to support our work at Bradford.

(Credits: Quotations are from Andrew Rigby’s biography “Dimitrije Mitrinović” (Sessions, 2006), to which, along with his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, I am indebted for help with understanding Mitrinović’s often obscure writings).

29. Wild Nature’s Ways: the Kearton Brothers and the Stuffed Ox

Shouldering the Imitation OxOur next object illustrates the story of two brothers from Yorkshire who found new ways to photograph the natural world.  These photos show an ox-hide, which was placed over a wooden frame to hide the photographer and enable him to capture better images of wild birds and their nests.  The “Stuffed Ox” was one of many methods that Richard and Cherry Kearton developed in their pioneering photographic careers.

The stuffed ox in operation

The brothers were from Swaledale: born in Thwaite, educated in Muker.  Richard published his first book, Birds’ Nests, Eggs and Egg Collecting, in 1890.  After Cherry took the first ever photograph of a bird’s nest with eggs, in 1892, the two worked together on British Birds’ Nests (1895), the first such book fully illustrated with photos.

Richard published many more books, including his autobiography, A Naturalists’ Pilgrimage.  He became a sought-after public speaker, illustrating his nature talks with lantern slides.

Flyer for new nature book by Richard Kearton

Cherry became a wildlife photographer and film-maker, travelling the world to photograph in remote locations.  He also published extensively, with particular intereste in Africa, penguins, and the adventures of his menagerie of animals.

Cherry Kearton and penguin

Cherry Kearton and penguin

Find out more about the Keartons’ lives and works via Watch the Birdie!, by Dr W.R. Mitchell and Direct from Nature, by John Bevis.  Dr Mitchell gathered many of the brothers’ published books and some papers (correspondence and publicity) in researching his book: these are now in Special Collections.

Mounted on the imitation ox

26. Around Yorkshire by Bicycle: Fred Robinson Butterfield’s Photograph Album

The Dales in Winter: Kex Gill Pass, Blubberhouses

That looks chilly! The Dales in Winter: Kex Gill Pass, Blubberhouses

This week’s Object takes us back to the Yorkshire Dales again, this time by bicycle.  As we already saw, Special Collections is rich in archives and rare books about this beautiful part of Britain: the Dales begin close to Bradford and became a place for recreation and escape for the workers of the West Riding away from the crowded and dirty towns.   J.B. Priestley often wrote of the joy he and his friends experienced in the Dales.

Market Place, Settle

Market Place, Settle

Our Object  is the Fred Robinson Butterfield Collection, photographs taken by Mr Butterfield of the Keighley Road Club, who toured the Dales and other Yorkshire beauty spots during the 1920s and 1930s.  He was first Secretary of the Club and later became an honorary member.  The negatives and prints in the Collection show us the wonderful scenery, quiet roads and varying weather of the Dales long ago.

Sheep in the road "Near Newby Head"

Sheep in the road “Near Newby Head”

We recently listed the places covered by the photographs.  This list, and the images themselves, will soon be freely available online for Dales lovers everywhere to share and enjoy.

How the photos look in the album: top of Skipton Castle page

How the photos look in the album: top of Skipton Castle page

19. Remember Eva Smith: The Inspector’s Russian Journey

JB at work in his Moscow hotel

JB at work in his Moscow hotel

J.B. Priestley’s best known play, An Inspector Calls, brought together all the strands of his writing to create a masterpiece: anger at social injustice, affection for the Bradford in which he grew up, fascination with time and dream-like events.  The play was first shown in 1945 in the then Soviet Union, because no London theatre was available at the time. Apparently Priestley’s work was popular in the country; AIC can be read as an anti-capitalist polemic (though there is much more to it than that).   Productions by the  Kamerny Theatre and the Leningrad Theatre were shown in Moscow, followed by a European tour ending at the Old Vic in London.

Later that year Priestley and his wife Jane travelled to the country, as guests of the Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries; he wrote about his experiences for the Sunday Express, reprinted in the pamphlet Russian Journey.  Priestley found the people highly congenial and wrote sympathetically about a country that had recently been Britain’s wartime ally: he admired the attempt to seek equality and the value placed on culture.  Later he was to realise more about the nature of the regime.

The J.B. Priestley Archive includes two intriguing items which illustrate the Russian journeys made by Priestley and his play.

Here is the original poster for the Moscow productions, another personal favourite in the Collections.  The poster was created for a particular purpose, and hence shows what those who first encountered it made of a play that is now so familiar that it is hard to imagine it new.  Unlike later productions which have tended to use the motif of the Inspector in their publicity, this design concentrates on Eva Smith/Daisy Renton, the lost girl at the heart of the story: she is elusive and fragile against the hard lines of the smoky city.  Incidentally, the title on the poster is not a direct translation of An Inspector Calls.  We think it means something like You won’t forget/will remember (her or me?) – any Russian speakers care to comment?

The other object is a souvenir photograph album.  It shows the Priestleys arriving at the Moscow Aerodrome, the sights they visited, productions of AIC, Dangerous Corner and The Cherry Orchard, dinners and other events, and a meeting with a 147-year-old Armenian man (who certainly looks quite leathery!).   Like this one from the Leningrad Theatre production, the photographs in the album are decaying, silvered; we have investigated conservation but all we can do is interleave them with archival tissue to slow down the process and digitise them so something survives.  The decay gives the images a quality of age and mystery, as the figures loom out of the silvery shadows of the past.