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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Seventy years ago this month, what is still considered one of the best ghost photographs of all time was taken at Raynham Hall, Norfolk. Ever since, it has been held up as convincing evidence for the existence of spectral forms but, as Alan Murdie discovered, long-forgotten files on the case point to a different conclusion.

The photograph known as 'The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall' is probably the most famous picture of a ghost ever taken. Captured on 19 September 1936 by two photographers, the picture shows a curious transparent image, suggestive of a hooded figure, apparently descending a wooden staircase in Raynham Hall, Norfolk.

The photograph is visually impressive and has been reproduced in numerous books and articles since the 1960s, and more recently on television and websites as photographic proof of the existence of ghosts. However, a file which has been in the possession of the Society for Psychical Research for some 70 years reveals that the Brown Lady picture is not all that it seems and that there is, in all probability, a mundane explanation for it. [1] Rather than proving the existence of ghosts, it raises interesting questions about the status of anomalous photographs and the very process of perception itself.

The story of the photograph is well established: It was taken at Raynham Hall in Norfolk on the afternoon of 19 September 1936 at about 4 pm by two London photographers, Captain Provand and Mr Indre Shira. Raynham Hall was the seat of the Townshend family and traditionally haunted by the apparition of the 'Brown Lady', a woman in a brown brocade dress. In life, she was believed to be Dorothy Walpole, second wife of Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, who died in 1729. Provand and Shira were working on a commission for the magazine Country Life, taking pictures of the interior of the hall. They were about to finish their series of photographs when Shira said he could see a figure descending the stairs and urged Provand to take a picture. Although he was unable to see anything unusual, Provand exposed the plate – and the resultant image showed a strange, luminous shape on the staircase. The photograph was published in Country Life on 26 December 1936, and in the December edition of Life magazine in the USA.

Various books have stated that the original is contained in the archives of Country Life; on contacting the magazine, I was told that it had, in fact, always been owned by Time-Life and Getty Images.

This version of events was confirmed to me by the late Dennis Bardens (1911–2004), the veteran author and journalist best remembered today as the founder of Panorama in 1952. As a young Daily Express reporter, Bardens had visited Raynham Hall and interviewed the parties involved. He considered Provand reputable and purchased a print of the picture and a negative from Shira. However, he did not bother to draw upon this material for nearly a quarter of a century – until 1960, when he used the photograph for an article in Soldier magazine [2] and later in his 1965 book Ghosts and Hauntings. This had a wide circulation, going through 10 editions, and was responsible for making the picture widely known once again. To the end of his life, Dennis considered that the photograph constituted some of the best physical evidence for the reality of ghosts. Since he had been there in 1936 and I had not, I wasn’t inclined to argue.

The SPR file and the Herbert investigation


It was therefore fascinating to discover within the Manuscripts Department of the University of Cambridge Library a long-forgotten file on the photograph compiled by the investigations officer for the Society for Psychical Research, Mr CVC Herbert. The file consists of over 40 notes, documents, pieces of correspondence, press cuttings and photographs compiled by Herbert and two other investigators, American psychoanalyst Dr Nandor Fodor and the famed psychical researcher Harry Price, for the International Institute for Psychical Research. [3] It is from this material that an explanation for the Brown Lady picture begins to emerge.

The key document in understanding the photograph is a typed report by Herbert, dated 14 January 1937. It appears that, alerted by the press coverage, he interviewed both Shira and Provand. He considered them truthful witnesses, although he thought Shira of a nervous and superstitious nature. He also reveals that Indra Shira was a pseudonym, but does not identify him beyond his being a Scotsman. Herbert believed Shira to be the business brain of the pair, possessing little knowledge or skill in photography.

Crucially, Herbert also examined the camera and suggested that the image might have been caused by equipment failure. He wrote:

“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?) [My italics] 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. (See “Country Life” block).

“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.”

Herbert also obtained a signed statement from the developer who confirmed that the image had been present on the original negative and had not been tampered with. However, close examination of the picture in conjunction with Herbert’s report shows that something has gone very wrong indeed.

Anomalies in the picture become apparent when a light and uncropped copy of the Brown Lady photograph is examined. The anomalies do not centre upon the figure – upon which the eye naturally concentrates – but what is going on in the foreground and background. On the left hand side as the viewer sees the picture, (i.e. on the Brown Lady’s right hand side) hangs a framed picture on the wall. Immediately beneath, seemingly hovering in the air, is a duplicate image of this picture. Equally, when one looks at the length of the banisters, they do not connect, and the angles suggest that the camera has been shaken and the staircase accidentally photographed twice. Several luminous patches are also visible which suggest a doubling of the image throughout. The copy which best demonstrates the effect is that held in the Harry Price Library in the University of London (reproduced in Anthony Hippesley Coxe’s 1973 book Haunted Britain) and copies of Shira’s original print. However, many reproductions in ghost books have used a darkened version of the print, giving the impression it was taken at night, rather than at 4 pm. Cropping of the sides of the picture has also been used to disguise the accidental doubling of images. Curiously, in no ghost book published since 1937 does an author – whether a sceptic or a believer – appear to have commented upon the defects immediately spotted by Herbert. This suggests that the assessment of anomalous images may not be a neutral act.

The Fodor and Price Investigation

A fortean maxim holds that for every expert there is an equal and opposite expert. Almost simultaneously with Herbert’s investigation, Dr Fodor visited Raynham Hall with Mr Arthur Kingston, a camera maker. Over 8–9 January 1937, they tried to reproduce the picture without success. Having identified the staircase, Fodor stated that he had no difficulty in reproducing the circumstances of the picture but with no corresponding anomalous image appearing. After photographing a living person on the stairs and comparing it with the image on the plate, he considered: “The size of the latter is about right for a shorter female figure.” Although he thought the picture genuine, he did notice a discrepancy in the accounts of the photographers, wondering whether Provand could have placed a plate in the camera if he had been under the black cloth. It appears another expert for the IIPR, a Mr Leon Isaacs, also examined the negative and considered the photograph genuine.

Fodor also interviewed Lady Townshend, who was happy to cooperate. Part of the reason for their rapport may have been that they had both contributed the previous year to a book of ghost stories, which had appeared just six weeks before the Brown Lady photograph had been taken. This was Madam ffoulkes Ghost Book, and it contained several chapters relating to the Townshend family and Raynham Hall written by the Marchioness. Obviously, this raises suspicions that the photograph was a publicity stunt for the book. However, this is contradicted by statements from the Marchioness of Townshend, who did not believe the figure to be the Brown Lady and did not want Raynham Hall “ridiculed”. Indeed, although she thought the picture spiritual in nature she did not think it was the celebrated Brown Lady. Lady Townshend recalled that Shira had arrived at the hall and hoped to photograph a ghost and wondered why the two men had not then told her they had photographed a ghost the very same day – although as the picture had not been developed at that point and Provand had seen nothing this is perhaps not so surprising. Nandor Fodor later declared his belief in the photograph, stating: “We found nothing that could normally explain Mr Indre Shira’s result”. [4]

Similarly, Harry Price turned in a favourable report: “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”. [5]

Aftermath

That both Fodor and Price were believers in psychic phenomena may, of course, have shaped their views. Price was something of a photographer himself (indeed, he himself claimed he had first tried to photograph a ghost on a mansion’s staircase at the age of 15). He was also a skilled conjuror, but his reputation has suffered greatly since his death, with allegations that he colluded in photographic fakery. Equally, the sceptical view of Herbert reflected the prevailing view of members of the Society for Psychical Research on apparitions. Then, as now, the Society had no corporate opinions, but from the 1890s onwards most investigators were convinced that apparitions were essentially hallucinatory phenomena, incapable of being photographed. Following Herbert’s report on the picture, the Society ignored it. [6]

Indeed, it seems that not only was the Brown Lady photograph ignored by psychical researchers, it was forgotten rather quickly by the public too, there being many other psychic marvels such as Borley Rectory and the ‘talking mongoose’ of the Isle of Man to attract its attention. Furthermore, during this period psychic photography was viewed as a technique to expose psychic fraud as much as a method of securing proof of psychic phenomena.

However, it is interesting to speculate why the defects in the Brown Lady picture have not been highlighted since. Of course, many people must have examined the picture and made an instant judgement as to its likely authenticity, depending upon their point of view. But, one suspects, these defects largely go unnoticed by the casual viewer, who is not actually looking for them and hasn’t had their existence pointed out beforehand. One of the reasons for this is that the image is so striking that the viewer’s attention focuses inevitably upon the alleged ghost, to the exclusion of anything else. It seems the very act of perceiving the picture may be shaped by existing unconscious wishes and desires.

This problem was identified as long ago as 1875 by the medium and investigator Stainton Moses who – while a convinced spiritualist – was sceptical of psychic photography. Having seen as many 600 alleged spirit photographs he declared: “Some people would recognise anything. A broom and a sheet are quite enough for some wild enthusiasts who go with the figure in their eye and see what they wish to see… I have had pictures that might be anything in this or any other world gravely claimed as recognised portraits.” [7]

Over 130 years later, and 70 years from the appearance of this classic ghost photo, it must be said that photographic evidence for apparitions remains very weak. Although thousands of alleged ghost photographs are in circulation, very few show anything other than streaks of light, blotches, mists or spots which might be anything. Precious few are ever taken at the moment of seeing a ghost, and almost none show anything resembling the complex and often detailed apparitional forms reported by witnesses who see a ghost with the naked eye. It could well be that it is no more possible to photograph ghosts than many other forms of sensory perception – sensations such as taste, smell, touch or subjective mental experiences such as dreams and visions, even thought itself. This does not mean that apparitions do not exist; rather that they may exist at a level of reality that cannot be recorded by instrumentation.

Of course, if we assume Shira and Provand to be honest, it is a remarkable coincidence that at the very moment one person thought he saw a ghost an exposed plate of that very spot generates what is held up as one of the best ghost photographs ever taken. However, even hailing the picture as such perhaps reveals that photography is a depressingly crude method for recording ghosts. This is apparent when the luminous blur in the picture is compared to witness descriptions of the Brown Lady reported in the 19th and 20th century. These were used to produce an artist’s impression for illustrations intended for the now defunct East Anglian Magazine in 1961. [8]

Witness descriptions were sufficient for a detailed drawing to be produced, since observers described a far more life-like and complex form than the luminous blur in the photograph taken by Provand and Shira.

Certainly, the implications for our understanding of ghosts would be immense if it could be established that apparitions interact in some way with the electromagnetic spectrum, either affecting the chemicals on photographic plates or the generation of digital images. Unfortunately, little serious thought has been given to the physics potentially involved.

Many people claiming to possess a ghost photograph perhaps simply want it as a prop for their own faith in the existence of a spiritual or psychic realm. The tendency of the eye to see what it wants to perceive in a photograph is further confirmed by one of Lady Townshend’s comments on the picture to Nandor Fodor. She felt that Raynham Hall’s ghosts were a far more serious business than any strange image on a photo. Indeed, Lady Townshend did not consider the picture to be of the Brown Lady at all. A strongly religious woman, she believed it was the Virgin Mary. [9]


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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
Image: Stewart Evans
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The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
The Raynham Hall photograph taken by Captain Provand and Indre Shira on 19 September 1936
  The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
Image: Stewart Evans
 
Author Biography
Alan Murdie is a barrister working in intellectual property rights and a keen investigator of claims of the paranormal. He is former chairman of the Ghost Club and co-author of The Cambridge Ghost Book.
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