“ Over the top and under the radar.”

Mark Haworth-Booth once wrote “ It has been remarked that Noah was the first collector—Adam gave names to the animals, but it fell to Noah to collect them.” Well, Janette Rosing certainly had the Noah instinct in spades. She made collecting things in various fields her life’s work, and saw it as in some way akin to the rewards of having a family, with each member looked after by being carefully preserved and immaculately annotated in her tiny pencil script.

She began collecting photographs in the early 1980s, although she had before then been a collector of and dealer in postcards. She continued to collect postcards right up to the end, accumulating an impressive collection of some fifteen thousand cards.  The majority were topographical real photographic cards, almost all of scenes in England. She collected what we would call “picturesque” scenes, of old village streets, children outside the post office, ancient crosses and wells, and views that preferably no longer existed. She researched details about the local photographer whose work was printed in small quantities for sale in the local shop. To Janette these photographs in postcard form were just as valid and important as the work of topographical masters such as Roger Fenton or Peter Henry Emerson.

So from postcards she moved to large format nineteenth-century photographs, and was soon a regular at the specialist photography auctions in London. She would spend hours, not only viewing the mass of material then available, but keeping an eye on others who were potential bidders. If she spotted a new or unfamiliar face she would make enquiries, either directly or by asking around. As far as possible bidders at the actual auction would be noted down for future reference. She needed to know who was in the market. One of her betes noires was the amount of material from the London auctions that went abroad, and she was particularly hostile to US buyers (apologies, American readers, but she was!).

Janette Rosing at the London Photograph Fair 1990. Photo by Ian Sumner, courtesy of Richard Meara.

Janette attended the London Photograph Fair from its earliest days—it began in 1982—initially to roam the stands, and soon as a stall holder. If she wanted something she would fume at the “unreasonable” price the stall holder was asking, and purchase with a promise of future payment was not unknown. The photograph accompanying this piece shows Janette at a London Photograph Fair in 1990, in typical attire, carrying her ever present Christie’s or Sotheby’s bag, with a substantial album under her arm.

She was able to collect in what were, in many ways, the glory years of the 1980s and early 1990s, when Christie’s and Sotheby’s each held three auctions a year, predominantly of 19th-century material, supplemented by specialist sales at Phillips and Bonhams. But her special weapon was her coverage of provincial auctions. Those were the days before the internet. Janette religiously went through the auction listings pages in the Antiques Trade Gazette every week, telephoning every auction house and interrogating the hapless person at the end of the line. Were there any photographs in the sale, would they go through them in detail? One auctioneer remembers a regular hour-long phone conversation before each sale. But her obsessive approach paid off, and if alerted to a likely sounding lot, she would travel down by public transport to out of the way places, and more often than not succeed in bagging the prize. From her purchases she kept the desirable items for her collection and sold on the rest. In that way she made enough money to live on (just). Other ways of making a living included buying as an agent on commission for overseas buyers who rightly relied on her expert judgement; and also offering a service to split album pages for dealers and collectors, where good images were stuck back to back. Her technique was to use a scalpel to split the thin album page in half; or to skim the print from one side of the page. Both methods involved hours of concentration and painstaking work. She even attempted it with mammoth plate images, with complete success.

What did she collect? The core of her photograph collection was 19th-century topographical and architectural images. She had little interest in photographs of native peoples except as bystanders in a scene. She admired but did not collect what might be called art photography by the canon of 19th-century greats. She collected most countries in the world except, I think, Japan. No one, as far as I am aware, saw the full gamut of her collection in her lifetime, but I have been shown stunning examples of early Italian photography by McPherson, Alinari, Altobelli and Molins and others. Janette gathered a comprehensive collection of views of India by Samuel Bourne, particularly his Himalayan series, as well as one of the best collections of Singapore views in existence. She regularly telephoned before fairs to ask what new items you had in her areas of special interest, which seemed to grow exponentially, and certainly included most ports and harbours in the world. She collected English topographical views that spoke to her antiquarian interests, and in particular amassed an impressive group of views of Cornwall. Her collection of shipwreck images by Gibson of Penzance is probably the best outside the county. Her knowledge of Cornwall came from frequent visits in her earlier years, when she would scramble over rocky cliff paths to remote coves.

In fact, it was an early visit to Hartland Quay in Cornwall that first stimulated her interest in early topographical photographs. Staying in the Hartland Quay Hotel she noticed photographs of the old pier head that had been destroyed in a storm in 1887. Wanting to find earlier images she began searching, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Her topographical interests extended to stereoscopic views on glass, and again she built up a wide ranging collection of locations in this medium.

Janette’s collecting mania did not stop with photographs. She amassed good collections of mineral specimens, and also of vinyl records, the collectable value of which is increasingly recognised.

So what drove her to collect what became a major and important assemblage of 19th-century topographical photography? Janette was a woman by her own admission born out of time. She claimed in all seriousness that she wished she had lived 100 years before she was born. She used her photographs in part to commune with this lost world. I have witnessed her pressing her black gloved fingers to the surface of a print seeking to imagine living in the world she saw. When I pointed out that she would quite likely have died from typhoid if she had really lived then, Janette brushed away such dull logic with disdain.

Hers was not a conventional life. She lived off –grid, outside the ken of the officialdom that most of us have to deal with. In earlier years she had led a raffish life, using her striking looks to cut a swathe through London’s fringes. A colleague remembers a friend of his, a “true Irish gentleman” in Janette’s words, who rescued her in a lively London public house from the attentions of a group of well-oiled Irishmen who began fighting over who should be the one to chat her up. But she also enjoyed ballet at Covent Garden, accompanied by her girl friends. She spoke fondly of parading in their finery around the streets by the opera house in opposite directions to each other in the intervals, simply in order to make elaborate gestures of greeting to one another with their fans and evening parasols. She claimed they gathered at the stage door to meet their “friend” Darcey Bussell.

When I heard of Janette’s passing I was reminded of Talleyrand, the 19th-century French diplomat. Talleyrand’s great rival was Prince Metternich of Austria, who said on hearing of the Frenchman’s death; “I wonder what he meant by that?”

To paraphrase Metternich, “What did she mean by that?” Metternich’s comment implies that everything, even death, has a hidden meaning. But there is nothing hidden in Janette’s passing. Her message would be clear—continue the good work; search out as many gems of 19th-century photography as you can, even if supply is thinner and the market tougher. Love the search, pursue the research, the re-imagining, with as much passion as you can muster. But above all, COLLECT.