Grove Hardy ~ Requiem for a Lab

Grove_Hardy_1_NegativeGrove Hardy was a photographic lab established in the heyday of photo-journalism after WW2. A partnership between Bert Hardy, the famous ‘Picture Post’ photographer, and Gerry Grove, a top printer who wanted independence, for half a century it dispensed brisk dev+contact & enlarging at the best prices in town. Gerry Grove died in the 1970’s and for a while the survival of the lab was in the balance, but there was never difficulty in attracting good printers,  including Paul Knight & Townley Cooke. The lab continued in precisely the same vein right through the 80’s & 90’s, a time when the more prima donna printers established labs, strutted, and then folded their tents again.
Bert Hardy died in 1995, but his wife Sheila continued to operate the laboratory, and retitled it ‘The Bert Hardy Darkroom’.
In 2007 it finally closed when ‘Chas’, Charles Keeble, the sole remaining printer, retired. The market for traditional B&W work had receded to the point it wasn’t worth continuing any more. These are a few poignant snaps taken after the doors closed for the last time, and before the premises were converted into maisonettes.

Grove_Hardy_4Sheila Hardy & Charles Keeble outside The Bert Hardy Darkroom,
2 Burrows Mews in 2007

 

 

 

 

 

Bert_Hardy_DeskBert Hardy’s desk at 2 Burrows Mews.

 

 

 

 

 


Bert Hardy

Bert_Hardy_MylifeBert Hardy’s career as a photo-journalist is well documented, including his own autobiography – out of print, but usually available as used copies from Amazon.

 

 

 

61dgg891SxL._SY466_BO1,204,203,200_‘Bert Hardy’s Britain’ is a 2013 book by Colin Wilkinson, currently in print.

 

 

 

There are also online biographies of Bert in the Photo Histories series, and ‘The Cockney Eye’ by David Joseph Marcou;

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Grove-Hardy

The premises were tiny for a photographic laboratory, a small speculatively built block at the back of Blackfriars Road, no. 2 Burrows Mews SE1. This area clearly had a calling for Bert, who was brought up literally 100 yards away in a mansion tenement in ‘The Priory’. A lot of London darkrooms from the 70’s & 80’s were knocked up over a weekend, but possibly because they were so constrained Grove Hardy made every inch count, each function had just barely enough space to make it work.

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The start of the working day. ‘Dev & contact’ was the lifeblood of the custom darkroom industry, and produced a core income that sustained the sometimes loss-making activity of hand enlarging. When the flow of film began to seriously falter around the year 2000 many labs called it a day, those that survived cut staff & tightened their belts. Grove Hardy had always run on tight overheads, and managed a few more years.

Grove Hardy had allocated the film processing darkroom about the same space as a phone box. The dry bench for loading was on one side, and turning round was the wet bench with a small sink for developer & fix in 3 gallon deep tanks. In this tiny room hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of films saw the light of day. There wasn’t enough room for a stopbath tank, a running rinse was used. Everything shows wear, but was kept  clean enough.

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Spinning around, the dry bench, which was as small an area as could be envisaged for loading up a stainless steel cage with maybe 40 stainless steel spirals. Learning to load these spirals, especially the one’s for 120 film, is a rite of passage in a darkroom, and anyone given the important task of processing a basket of film would probably have earned their spurs first.

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Behind a stud partition wall separating it from the finishing area, the printing darkroom. Grove Hardy was perhaps one of the more claustrophobic darkrooms of it’s time thanks to the low ceiling height & limited floorspace. Most of the throughput went through just two Leitz multi-format enlargers. Beautifully made workhorses, there could have been no better advertisement for Leitz than this lab. One enlarger was purchased when the lab was newly established, another in 1960, and they were both still in use when the darkroom closed in 2007.
A large format De Vere enlarger for sheet film got occasional use, and was essential for making ‘enlarged contacts’, a misnomer if there ever was one – the practice of enlarging an entire cut film up to 12×16″ & 16×20″ so that it can be viewed more easily.

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The downside with staying with the old Leitz enlargers was that during their working life individually graded papers gradually dwindled away. Variable contrast papers took over most of the commercial photo printing market, led by Ilford with their Multigrade paper, and there is no easy way to convert these Leitz enlargers to the dial-in filtration required. By the 2000’s Grove Hardy were probably the only lab in London still using graded paper, and Ilford were making it primarily for them and a handful of other labs worldwide.

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Opposite the dry bench with the enlargers, the wet bench for print processing. It wasn’t just the bench that was wet, either. Perhaps typical of darkrooms from an earlier era, not many people would be comfortable with a darkroom working environment like that today.

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After processing, prints were moved out into the front finishing area and given their final wash in a couple of old stainless steel circulatory washers. Dating back to the mid-20th century, this type of SS soft soldered washer injects water from all 4 corners to get a rotary swirling action going. They work very efficiently, especially with smaller prints.

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The Kodak 24″ glazing machine, as in all labs of this era, was the public face of the operation, a grinding & gurgling mill that kept turning throughout the working day.
The end of the production line, wet prints were drained and fed onto the canvas blanket. As they emerged hot & dry around the other side they fell with gentle whispers into the tray ready for trimming.

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For reasons that will probably remain unknown, Wednesday August 22’rd 2007 was the last day.


Sheila converted the premises into two smart modern flats, one of which she uses when she visits London.
Charles died a few years ago.

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