Mary Evans Picture Library

Tranquil Vale, SE3

I have been passing this odd and rather beautiful building for some time now, wondering what on earth who Mary Evans was, and what a picture library bearing her name is doing in Blackheath.

In my head I had images of some doughty Edwardian lady, somewhere along the lines of an Emily Pankhurst or a Gertrude Jekyll. Perhaps she was a writer – a Sitwell – or a painter – a Gwen John. In my fertile imagination she had grown up playing in the fields around Blackheath, learning to love every blade of grass, every leaf of tree – the butcher’s boy’s whistle, the postman’s cheery greeting. That extraordinary house had been commissioned by her slightly bohemian parents in the style of that nice Mr Morris down the road at Bexleyheath and now she lived in it, the collection of paintings she had amassed with care and sensitivity visited by members of the fashionable London Set, her name as a woman of taste and elegance assured right through until the 1920s, by which time she had created a bit of a New York scandal by being painted in the nude by John Singer Sargent at the rip old age of 87. She was, of course, a spinster – a beautiful bluestocking who scared off a multitude of suitors with an acidly-accurate tongue, her only true love her painting collection…

I guess I could have been more wrong, but it’s safe to say I couldn’t have been much more wrong…

The Mary Evans Picture Library is, at least, the brainchild of a Blackheath woman of taste. But rather than grand paintings housed in the strange Arts & Crafts (? – as regular readers will know my knowledge of architecture isn’t always spot-on) ‘cottage’ at the top of Tranquil Vale, it is a collection of images ranging from the great and powerful – international events and famous people – to small, seemingly insignificant pictures that enrich our lives and decorate everything from TV programmes to newspaper articles.

They’re just over 40 years old as a company – and it’s a family-run business. So much for my sturdy Edwardian spinster. Mary and Hilary Evans started it in 1964 and have recently been joined by their daughter Valentine. There’s a great photo on the website from the early years of the three of them in front of the filing cabinets where the images were (and possible still are) stored, little Valentine merely playing with the bottom drawer. It was, like all great businesses which last, founded on a personal passion, Mary’s vast collection of prints, engravings, drawings and photos.

It’s a commercial collection, so unless I pose as a picture researcher for some magazine, it’s unlikely I’ll get to see inside this amazing-looking building (there is a very small pic of the inside on the website, the lovely, simple lines of the staircase and the splendid circular window in nearly-full view) but there is a service where private customers can buy online prints for framing in their homes, many of which are local. I have not seen most of them before.

They claim to have over 200,000 images online and be adding pictures at a rate of 500 a week. No wonder they need a staff of 20. They don’t say when they moved to the fabulous building they inhabit now, or what it was originally built as – if you know or, indeed are, anyone who works there, I’d love to know more.

So another of my own personal mysteries cleared up. Shame about my Edwardian spinster fantasy but hey – the truth is just as fascinating.

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