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  Columnist: Matt Forde

Image credit: (PD)

The camera never lies ?

Posted on Monday, 31 May, 2010 | 16 comments
Columnist: Matt Forde

A regular entry of ‘top 10 ghost photographs’ lists, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall remains a perennial favourite among students of the paranormal. For those that aren’t au fait with this particular spectral snap I provide an overview below. Sightings of the Brown Lady have been reported at Norfolk’s Raynham Hall since the early 18th century, one even by a fearful King George IV (the Prince Regent, of the time). So when in September 1936 Country Life magazine commissioned two photographers, Captain Provand and Mr. Indre Shira to visit the ancestral seat of the Townshends and document some of the Hall’s features, they perhaps got more than they bargained for.

Towards the end of their photographic session, after viewing much of the historic house and gardens, the two men set up their camera to snap the impressive staircase. It was around 4pm and Provand had just taken an initial shot and was under the black cloth, adjusting the camera to take a second frame, when suddenly Shira insisted that he could see an apparition descending the staircase “a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman” and he implored Provand to take the photograph, which, despite being unable to see anything unusual himself through the viewfinder, he did. Provand thought Shira had seen an optical illusion caused by a nearby mirror, or even the flash of the photograph he had taken shortly before and doubted Shira's claim of ghostly goings-on. Shira made a five pound bet with Provand that the spectral image would manifest on the photograph. Upon returning to their London studio and enlisting a Mr. Benjamin Jones as a witness they developed their plates and were astounded to discover that they seemed to have caught the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall on film.

Shira had won the bet.

The Brown Lady’s story reaches back two hundred years. Thirteen years after they had married, Lord and Lady Townshend were parted when Lady Dorothy Townshend (née Walpole, daughter of Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain), supposedly passed away. Before Lady Dorothy’s death, a rift between the couple had been opened when she, it is said, became engaged in an affair with the rakish Philip Wharton. Upon learning of this supposed betrayal Lord Townshend locked his wife in her rooms at Raynham Hall, forbidding her even to see her own children until, on the 29th of March, 1726 she expired from Smallpox. Myth hints that her death may actually have been caused by falling (or perhaps even being pushed) down the great staircase and breaking her neck. The legend goes deeper, as some say that Dorothy’s funeral was an elaborately staged affair and that she was in fact still living, locked up in a secret room in the house. Accounts of Dorothy’s spectre, dressed in brown brocade, and wandering the Hall have been reported throughout the centuries.

Country Life published Provand and Shira’s photograph in December, 1936 along with their account of the event. The image and story also crossed the Atlantic Ocean making it into Life magazine. All this press coverage soon drew the attention of the Society for Psychical Research, and their investigator - a Mr. C.V.C. Herbert- discovered some interesting, and possibly telling details. He began by interviewing Provand and Shira. Shira, a ‘nervous and superstitious Scotsman’, was not in fact a very able photographer, instead he was more the ‘business brain of the pair’ and curiously, he was using a pseudonym, although it is not revealed why this was so, or what his real name was. During a later interview, the Lady Townshend of the time recalled that Mr. Shira had arrived at the hall with the hope of photographing a ghost.

Captain Provand talked to Herbert mainly of his camera. According to Provand, the bellows on it were faulty and ‘he was always afraid that light might get in’, something which Herbert marked out as being significant. Also, upon examining an un-cropped facsimile of the spectral snap, Herbert found anomalies towards the edges of the frame. A picture frame on the wall was duplicated, its ghosted image suspended in the air, the balusters didn't connect perfectly to each other and ‘the angles suggesting that the camera had been shaken and the staircase accidentally photographed twice’. Provand stated that the camera had been placed on a slightly unsteady marble table and that he had removed the lens cap hurriedly, which could explain the shakiness of the exposure.

Alan Murdie, former chairman of the Ghost Club uncovered Herbert’s actual report. In it Herbert outlines some of the technical data:

“Film: Kodak S.S. Ortho

“Lens: “R>R> type, symmetrical doublet. Approx f/8.

“Camera: old stand camera. Provand said that the bellows were faulty, and that he was always afraid that light might get in. This is significant.

“I saw the negatives (cut films) of both exposures. The 1st (before the ‘ghost’ appeared) was much under-exposed. Exposure in each case was by daylight (high lights on stairs, etc) assisted by Sasha bulb (large size, one in each case).

“The second film (both were in one dark slide) i.e. the one with the “ghost” is obviously shaken in a vertical plane, causing doubling of all horizontal lines (or else is two exposures?). Provand said he had noticed this, which surprised me, as it is very obvious even in the process block. Provand says camera was on a marble table or pillar and was not very rigid. He uncapped in a hurry.

“It looks as if exposure due to daylight was doubled by vibration. Flash exposure single.

“Both negatives show a circular marking (not clear in block) which in the second looks like a halo round the figure. This is presumably due to reflection inside the lens mount, either from high window on stairs (blocked at bottom only) or from flash.

“Shira is uncertain about where the figure was when he first saw it. It moved, he says down the stairs. Provand says he did not know that Shira had seen anything queer. He hurriedly uncapped when Shira called out, thinking that some sightseers, who were going round the house, were coming. Both Shira and Provand seemed to me to be honest. Provand says the lens was uncapped for about 6 seconds.”

Other experts interviewed the two ghost-captors and were satisfied of their honesty. Some camera specialists even recreated the shooting conditions in attempts to reproduce the photograph to no avail. The noted Harry Price also investigated, returned a result favouring Provand and Shira, and stated: "I will say at once I was impressed. I was told a perfectly simple story: Mr Indre Shira saw the apparition descending the stairs at the precise moment when Captain Provand’s head was under the black cloth. A shout – and the cap was off and the flashbulb fired, with the results which we now see. I could not shake their story, and I had no right to disbelieve them. Only collusion between the two men would account for the ghost if it is a fake. The negative is entirely innocent of any faking".

Despite Herbert’s sceptical report (which was itself largely ignored by the SPR and also subsequent writers on the subject), the photograph is now seemingly ubiquitous, and is thus regarded as one of the most famous of them all. Sceptics might argue that it is revealing that no spectral activity has been reported at the Hall since the photograph was taken.

Article Copyright© Matt Forde - reproduced with permission.

Some of Matt's other articles can be found - here.

  Other articles by Matt Forde

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