Should they have wanted to, Edward Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret could have lain in bed on a Sunday morning, opened the curtains and looked out to the Anglican Cathedral as its bells called the faithful to prayer. In the grandeur of 20th century Rodney Street, he was the most fashionable photographer in Liverpool.

Hardman House, at 59 Rodney Street, is run by the National Trust as a museum and time capsule of the studio and life of the celebrated photographer.

Born in Dublin in the twilight of the nineteenth century, Chambré Hardman would define the look and feel of urban and landscape photography in the following century. His famous shot, ‘The Birth of the Ark Royal’, taken in Holt Road in Birkenhead in 1950 illustrates his use of light to illuminate.

The Anglican Cathedral was just being completed when Chambré Hardman and Margaret moved to Rodney Street in 1948. Their previous studio on Bold Street had been outgrown and they had lived in Barnston during the blitz years of the Second World War. They moved to the large, stylish address in the heart of bustling, artisan Liverpool.

Preserved in its 1950s style, Hardman House is testament to a flourishing creative business in the city. While he loved his landscape pictures, he is best known as a portrait photographer and it would the grand hall, with the sweeping staircase in front of it, that those waiting to have their picture taken would enter. Ivor Novello, Margot Fonteyn, servicemen and women, young socialites, families and children, all sat for Chambré Hardman.

To the left is the waiting room, at the front of the house, looking as it did when sitters would come to discuss the portrait their wanted. Stylishly furnished it mimicked the decor of the front parlour of the upmarket crowd he would photograph. In the corner, a glass fronted bookcase carries the tomes that belonged to the couple; books on Russia, India, a history of English hamlets, a subscription to poetry quarterly.

Upstairs is the studio. A voice recording inside captures the recollection of how, as a sixteen year old sitting for a portrait, she stood looking up the staircase in the ballgown she would wear for the picture. A backdrop would be chosen, the pillars positioned and the light would flood and surround the sitter, while Chambre Hardman amiably chatted and out them at their ease. She was, she said, thrilled to be photographed by a professional photographer.

From the studio we go up another flight of stairs (Georgian houses are good for the calves) to the dark room. With opera playing quietly we can imagine Edward and Margaret silently working on their prints. Adding light and shade to the negative, slowly developing the pictures they've taken. At every corner in Hardman House is a reminder that this is a home, as well as a studio, underneath the developing trays Margaret has stored jars of preserved fruit.

And a home this was. While the front of the house is for customers and clients, the back is the home of the couple. A kitchen with the wartime dried goods kept in the store cupboard, a sitting room with piles of papers next to the wireless, stockings drying in the morning light and a record player softly turning. The bedroom behind it, with that view of the anglican Cathedral, filled with the clothes Margaret herself made. A portrait of her hangs on the wall. She died in 1969 and he would continue to live in the house, alongside her things in the home they made together, until his own death in 1988.

Yet it is easy to imagine the bustle amidst the straight staircases of the Georgian House. Edward is perhaps in the studio, Margaret in the office downstairs, staff are looking after a guest in the waiting room. Another is in the back, mounting the portraits getting ready to send them to a client. The stories from those who worked with Chambré Hardman reveal it to be a happy place. They would work long hours at Christmas, one story tells, yet they’d all go for a Chinese meal to celebrate the festive season.

In a cupboard in the bedroom, one of the volunteer guides says, are a collection of the love letters Edward and Margaret wrote to each other over their lives. Tied in ribbon, the letters are too delicate to be opened. But they are one small sample of the lives preserved at 59 Rodney Street, not just of a celebrated photographer but a husband, a boss, an artist and lover of Liverpool.

Find out more and book your own visit here

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