nthposition online magazine

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

by Tom Ruffles

[ strangeness - january 09 ]

Part 1: A re-examination

Alan Murdie gave a talk to the 30th conference of the Society for Psychical Research in 2006 on the famous Brown Lady of Raynham Hall photograph [1], and expanded this into an article in Fortean Times. [2] His analysis relies heavily on the file in the SPR archives in Cambridge, particularly the report compiled by the SPR's Research Officer, CVC Herbert. [3] Unfortunately, Herbert's report is not a reliable source.

The story of the photograph's genesis is well known. On 19 September 1936, Indre Shira, of 'court photographers' Indre Shira Ltd, and Captain Hubert C Provand, his 'art director', visited Raynham Hall, seat of the Marquess Townshend, to take photographs of the house. [4] They commenced the task just after 8am, photographing the house and grounds. [5] At about 4pm they were photographing one of the staircases, standing at the bottom of the flight on the ground floor.

According to Shira, whose breathless account of what happened was published with the photograph in Country Life on 26 December 1936, Provand had taken a photograph while Shira manually triggered a flashgun. As Provand was preparing for another exposure with his head under the black cloth, Shira looked up the staircase and saw "an ethereal, veiled form coming slowly down the stairs." [6] He called out that there was something on the stairs and Provand uncapped the lens while Shira again triggered the flash. Afterwards Provand claimed not to have seen anything, to the extent that, as Shira told it, Provand wagered 5 that there would be nothing untoward on the negative. Since its appearance in Country Life, the photograph has appeared in a number of books on ghosts in various states of murkiness which obscure the fine detail of the scene.

Herbert's interview with the pair threw up useful technical information but also unhelpful supposition. He identifies the camera as an "old stand camera" with faulty bellows; the film used was Kodak SS Ortho (ie orthochromatic), the lens of the RR (ie Rapid-Rectilinear) type. Provand's exposure was 'about 6 seconds', supplemented by a large Sasha flashbulb. This is fine so far, but Herbert then states that the ghost image was "shaken in a vertical plane, causing doubling of all horizontal lines (or else is two exposures?)", caused by vibration. For some reason Provand did not dispute this assertion, merely saying that he had not noticed it, which implies a wish not to engage in debate. Herbert found Shira nervous but considered him sincere, and both Shira and Provand honest.

Following Herbert's assessment that shaking had occurred during the lengthy exposure, Murdie identifies 'anomalies' which he says have been hitherto overlooked:
"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." [7]

The photograph as we normally see it in reproductions is very dark and it is difficult to see what is happening on either edge of the image. However, even a casual glance at the supposed duplicate painting directly beneath the one on the wall shows that it looks entirely different; the picture frame above is smooth and without protuberances, whereas the one below has raised corners. But a lack of similarity between the painting and its mysterious counterpart is not the only problem with this interpretation. If the lower square shape were a duplicate caused by vertical shaking, everything in the photograph would be repeated (as well as blurred by movement), whereas the edges of the stairs show that there was no vertical movement at all, despite the camera not being secured firmly while the lengthy exposure was made (and if there had been any movement it would more likely have been horizontal as the camera swivelled on its base).

Unfortunately, the two prints of the ghost photograph originally included in the SPR file have vanished. There are however, four other photographs of the staircase in the file, and one of these easily disposes of the mystery of the duplicate 'painting' and the unconnected banisters. The first photograph is of the staircase taken by Provand immediately prior to the one with the 'ghost', and as Herbert pointed out, it is underexposed and too dark to make out the relevant details. However, Nandor Fodor, Research Officer of the International Institute for Psychical Research (IIPR), visited Raynham Hall with his wife and daughter and camera expert Arthur Kingston to investigate the case. [8] They took a number of photographs around the house and there are three of the staircase. One is a small (4x6) print, rather dark, of Fodor standing on the staircase in the position occupied by the ghost; another is a contact print of the empty staircase, again too small to see the details clearly, but the one which shows beautifully what is happening features Mrs Fodor in the same position, on the 13th step (this is the photograph which Murdie, following Herbert, refers to merely as of "a living person".) [9] Despite being slightly out of focus, it is taken with flash and is nicely exposed, showing a great deal more detail than Provand's efforts. It is taken slightly further to the right than Provand's and the wider-angle lens used shows a little more of the staircase and surroundings.

From this photograph it can be seen perfectly clearly that the duplicate 'painting' is actually part of the panelling that runs down the wall. Rather than the staircase being a straight run from top to bottom, there is a small landing between the 11th and 12th steps, counting from the top, which has more elaborate decoration at that point. The painting has been hung directly above this landing for symmetry. Similarly, on the other side of the staircase, the banisters appear unconnected half way up because for a short length they run horizontally with the ground before ascending once more. The reason this is not clear in the photographs is because of the angle from which they were taken, which foreshortens the staircase and makes it appear to ascend in an uninterrupted progression.

The luminous patches Murdie identifies are reflections on the risers and polished panelling caused by the flash which Provand used. Elsewhere there is flare caused by the lengthy exposure on the lights (there is a naked lightbulb above the stairs which is cropped from the published photograph but clearly visible in the photograph of Mrs Fodor). The confusing appearance of the left hand side of the staircase is compounded by the shiny panelling, which reflects the stairs and makes it more difficult to see where they end. Murdie says that "Curiously, in no ghost book published since 1937 does an author whether sceptic or believer appear to have commented upon the defects immediately spotted by Herbert." [10] This would not appear to be because of a lack of observation but because these defects were not actually present.

Shira's Country Life article was followed by a more general view of spirit photography by Harry Price. [11] He discusses the Raynham Hall photograph in a single paragraph, dryly commenting that "It must be admitted that had the photographer first taken the stairs and, without moving the camera, introduced a draped figure into the picture (by the double exposure method), an identical 'spirit picture' would have been obtained." However, upon meeting Messrs Shira and Provand and examining the negative, he seems to have had any suspicions allayed: "I could not shake their story, and I had no right to disbelieve them", though upon what basis he abrogated his right is not clear. He goes on to suggest that "Only collusion between the two men would account for the 'ghost' if it is a fake. The negative is entirely innocent of any faking." [12] However, he seems keener to plug his new book than subject the photograph to sustained scrutiny. He does not mention shaking as a possible factor, and neither does Fodor anywhere in his reports and correspondence. Price's suggestion that double exposure might have been used is suggestive, but not the method he proposes which would not have allowed such sharpness in the stairs behind the figure. They have been uniformly exposed, which would not have been the case had a portion been occluded for part of the exposure. There is though another way that it could have been done.


Part 2: A possible explanation?

While the SPR file clears up some of the questions posed by the published photograph, it does not help to explain the mysterious shape in the centre. There is a declaration from a chemist, Mr Jones, in the file stating that he saw the negative being fixed, and the figure was present, which might be construed as ruling out anything fraudulent done after the photograph was taken. His statement says that:
"I saw the negative of the Oak (sic) staircase at Raynham Hall, in the hypo bath in your dark room immediately after it had been taken by Captain Provand from the developer.

"I am satisfied that the ethereal figure on the staircase was there when the film was being fixed." [13]

So Mr Jones was not the developer. It is clear that Provand developed the negatives taken at Raynham Hall because he insists on this point in a statement in the SPR file, in which he says of the negatives that prior to development nobody else had had access and that "Even during development I allowed no one else to handle them." [14]

It seems odd that a chemist happened to be in the dark room, and his presence could be considered a device to add weight to Shira's account. How he came to be there is described in the original Country Life article. [15] Provand and Shira were alone in the dark room, and when they saw the figure begin to appear on the negative in the developer Shira immediately ran downstairs to fetch Benjamin Jones, whose premises were underneath his. By the time they arrived back in the dark room, the negative was out of the developer and was being fixed. Unfortunately Jones's statement is essentially worthless as any manipulation could have been done at an earlier stage. It is entirely possible that what the chemist saw was not the original negative being fixed but a rephotographed version of the faked image, done simply to gain his endorsement. In any case, a point omitted by Shira in the Country Life article but contained in Mr Jones's statement, is that Blake, Sandford and Blake were 'Dispensing chemists to Indre Shira Ltd', which hardly makes him an independent witness.

The figure was unlikely to be caused by a hole in the camera's bellows letting in light, despite Herbert's feeling that Provand's concern that the bellows were faulty was 'significant.' The position in the middle of the stairs, and the human-like shape, seems extremely fortuitous for a random leak; one might expect a less regular shape and loss of detail on the stairs behind the shape. Provand had been taking photographs of the house all day, with presumably no leakage occurring. The photograph of the staircase taken immediately before the ghost one, a print of which is in the SPR file, shows no such problem, a point made by Shira. [16] The idea of a professional photographer working with a damaged bellows appears an odd one.

It would seem likely that if the photograph was a fake, Provand and Shira were in it together. According to both Herbert and Fodor, Shira had little photographic knowledge Herbert: "Shira is obviously no photographer"; Fodor: "He does not understand photography" [17] which would have entailed Provand actually carrying out the procedure. Yet Shira said he had seen the ghost on the stairs, which would make him party to the deception, although he was a little vague on the position of the figure. Fodor's letter to Lady Townshend recounting an interview with Shira and Provand on 12 January 1937 says that Shira had claimed to have seen the figure descend from the third step, which seems extremely precise given the surprise Shira must surely have been experiencing at that moment. [18] Herbert's account of his interview with the pair says that Shira was uncertain where the figure was when he first saw it. [19]

Shira was clearly enjoying the situation, unlike his colleague. Provand's possible discomfort when being quizzed by Herbert, his rather terse and defensive claim that he could not explain the figure [20], and his stated worry unwarranted that the camera was faulty, hint that he was Shira's unwilling partner in the enterprise. As to why the pair were in the house, it seems that they were neither on a commission from Country Life nor working for Lady Townshend:
"According to Lady Townshend, Indra (sic) Shira particularly wanted to photograph the ghost... He wanted to sit up at night. [quoting Lady Townshend:] 'I would not have him for that purpose. But I allowed him and Captain Provand to come on a day when I had the whole Archaeological Society of Norfolk staying on the grounds. Indra (sic) Shira's wife described to me exquisite influences all over the house. She behaved as a psychic.'" [21]

He was not simply a society photographer who happened upon a ghost while recording a grand house. His prior enthusiasm for the ghostly aspects of the house and his wife's behaviour make his comment in Country Life that he was not interested in psychic phenomena somewhat suspect. [22] Ghosts were on Shira's mind, and as Provand's employer he would have had the power to force him to participate, albeit reluctantly.

As to how it might have been done, the answer possibly lies in an old spirit photography technique. The shape of the figure bears a similarity to a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary with a covered head and cloak falling away towards the bottom over a tunic. One method for producing such a figure within the photograph would have used black velvet. In this scenario, Provand would take the photograph of the staircase, then back in the studio he would place a statue in front of a black velvet background. A Madonna might have been selected because Provand and Shira knew that Lady Townshend held very strong religious beliefs, or because it was an easily obtainable statuette. With a strong even light source to reduce modelling, an overexposed photograph would be taken of the statue, leaving little detail but mainly a bright shape. This would produce a negative that was mainly white (thanks to the velvet) with a dark shape on it.

The two negatives would be put together and when printed, the staircase would show through the other negative, making it appear that the figure was standing on one of the stairs. The size of the figure could be adjusted by moving the camera in front of the statue until it looked the right size in proportion to the stairs, and the negatives could be moved to ensure the correct positioning. The resulting composite would be rephotographed to create a new negative, the only disadvantage being a slight loss of detail, such as what is going on with the panelling and banisters. Shira could say 'Mr Jones, Captain Provand and I vouch for the fact that the negative has not been retouched in any way' in all sincerity as no retouching would be necessary. [23]

Barry Salt describes this process in a filmmaking context, but with a single negative, as used by George Albert Smith (a long-standing member of the SPR and very early film maker) in making The Corsican Brothers (1898): "the ghost effect was simply done by draping the set in black velvet after the main action had been shot, and then re-exposing the negative with the actor playing the ghost going through the actions at the appropriate point..." [24] It seems unlikely that the staircase and statue were photographed onto the same negative because some work would be necessary in order to achieve the correct size and positioning, and a mistake would render the negative useless, whereas Provand would be able to play around with two separate negatives in the darkroom, rephotographing the statue if necessary, until he had achieved the correct balance.

So whether the photograph should be called the Brown Lady (ie Raynham Hall's resident ghost Dorothy Walpole) is open to question. Shira in a letter to Fodor said that 'certain experts' think it is the Madonna, which was probably his preferred interpretation, despite hedging his bets by adding "we have an open mind on the subject". [25] An editorial comment in Country Life specifically states that if it is an apparition it is not regarded as the Brown Lady. [26] The photograph must have held an extra resonance for Lady Townshend because she had a chapel below the staircase (something Shira, having been in the house all day, was likely to know, not least because Fodor notes that she was in the habit of burning incense there). [27] According to his report, Lady Townshend, when asked by Fodor who had first suggested that the shape represented the Madonna and not the Brown Lady, replied that she had, although it appeared to be a different shape to 'Our Lady of Walsingham' whose shrine is close to Raynham Hall. Either way, she certainly seemed inclined to believe that the figure, whoever it was, was genuine, calling it 'that beautiful apparition.' She felt that Shira would not risk the professional reputation of his business by faking the ghost. [28]

Herbert's view was that the shape was caused by light leaking into the camera, although he mused that 'It is, however, certainly very curious that the image should be approximately the right size for a human figure." [29] Jocelyn Pierson, rounding up a significant number of instances of psychical research in general-interest American journals, sniffily dismissed the photograph, which had been reprinted in the US magazine Life, with the verdict that "This picture, accompanied as it is with such meagre corroborating data, would not be worth mentioning except in connection with this sudden outburst of interest in psychic phenomena." [30] As for Fodor, he agreed with Lady Townshend that Shira would be unlikely to risk his professional reputation by fraud, and naively pondered: "There is nothing on the film which would give rise to suspicion', and continued, 'It is an excellent case. To 100% however it can only be proven by a very vigorous character examination." [31] Having done said examination, he concluded of Shira and Provand, as had Herbert, "...they both look honest people..."

There should be original prints still extant in the hands of collectors. Shira told Fodor that because of demand he was selling 8x10 prints for a guinea [32], and there would have been a great deal of interest after the Country Life publication. This financial request clearly annoyed Fodor who protested that research organisations ought to have them free as the benefit to the studio was worth more than that. He added as an inducement that "We [he presumably means the IIPR but may be speaking royally] are willing, after an examination, to back it up." [33] Shira also had a framed copy of the Country Life article and an enlarged image of the ghost photograph outside his premises, causing Fodor to say to Lady Townshend, "Indre Shira is out to make capital out of your ghost." [34] Perhaps an owner of an original print would be kind enough to donate it to the SPR archives for further study.


1  'The Best Ghost Photograph Ever Taken? Re-assessing the "Brown Lady of Raynham Hall" Photograph', 30th International Conference, 2006, Liverpool Hope University. Abstract available at http://www.spr.ac.uk/SPRconfabstracts2006.pdf. The Brown Lady photograph was also included in a lecture given to the SPR by Murdie in 2004, see Paranormal Review, Issue 35, July 2005, p25. [Back]
2  'Photographing Phantoms', Fortean Times, No. 215, October 2006, pp.50-53. [Back]
3  File SPR/Research/Psychic Photography 2/14 contains all the material assembled by the SPR on Raynham Hall and the Brown Lady. Herbert's report is dated 14 January 1937, and a large proportion of it is reproduced in Murdie's Fortean Times article. [Back]
4  It has been generally assumed that Shira and Provand were on a commission for Country Life, but the editorial introduction to the Country Life spread ('The Ghost of Raynham Hall: An Astonishing Photograph', p.673) states that they were 'photographing Raynham Hall for Lady Townshend, and not under any special circumstances.' Lady Townshend had a still different version, which is discussed below. [Back]
5  This disposes of the reasonable question why they were recording a fairly unprepossessing part of the house. [Back]
6  Shira, Country Life, p673. [Back]
7  Murdie, Fortean Times, pp51-2 [Back]
8  Fodor's report ('Research Officer's Report of a Visit to Rainham (sic) Hall Norfolk, on January 8th-9th, 1937') indicates that Lady Townshend 'rang up' and invited him down to investigate, but in fact he wrote to her on 6 January 1937 asking if he could come. He travelled down in Kingston's two-seater, his wife and daughter arriving by train later. Despite the dates of the visit given in the title, the report, dated 11January 1937, says that he arrived after 5pm on Saturday 9th. As an aside, it is odd that someone who knew Lady Townshend frequently misspells Raynham. [Back]
9  Murdie, Fortean Times, p52. Herbert's comment is taken from the end of his statement not reprinted in Murdie's article. [Back]
10  Murdie, Fortean Times, p52. [Back]
11  'Photographing the Spirits', Country Life, pp674-5. [Back]
12  This statement by Price is reprinted in an article by Fodor, 'A Letter from England', dated January 1937, in Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 31, 1937, p57. Fodor gives a potted history of the Provand photograph and his weekend visit to Raynham Hall, subtitled 'Unusual Ghost Photograph.' [Back]
13  Statement by B Jones, Manager, Blake, Sandford & Blake dated 18 November 1936. He presumably picked up the word 'ethereal' from Shira. [Back]
14  This document is undated but was clearly written at about the same time as Mr Jones's and it would appear on the same typewriter. They were originally produced for Country Life, and copies sent to Fodor by Shira on 6 January 1937. [Back]
15  Shira, Country Life, p.674. [Back]
16  Letter from Shira to Fodor, 4 February 1937. [Back]
17  Herbert, report 14 January 1937; Fodor, report of visit to Shira's studio 12 January 1937. [Back]
18  Letter from Fodor to Lady Townshend, 13 January 1937. [Back]
19  Herbert report 14 January 1937. Shira's Country Life article is similarly non-committal, saying simply that he saw the form coming slowly down the stairs. [Back]
20  Provand's undated statement. [Back]
21  Fodor's 'Research Officer's Report', 11 January 1937, p2. The presence of Shira's wife has hitherto been entirely unremarked, and it is bizarre that Fodor failed to follow this up when interviewing Shira. [Back]
22  Shira, Country Life, p673. [Back]
23  Shira, Country Life, p674. [Back]
24  Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, London: Starword, 2nd edition, 1992, p35. [Back]
25  Letter from Shira to Fodor, dated 6 January 1936 [ie 1937]. [Back]
26  Country Life, p671 [Back]
27  Fodor's Research Officer's Report, 11 January 1937, p2. [Back]
28  Letter from Lady Townshend to Fodor, 14 January 1937. [Back]
29  Letter from Herbert to Edmond P Gibson, 13 April 1937. [Back]
30  Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 30, December 1936, p374. [Back]
31  Letter from Fodor to Lady Townshend, 13 January 1937. [Back]
32  Letter from Shira to Fodor dated 6 Jan 1936 [ie 1937]. [Back]
33  Letter from Fodor to Shira, 7 January 1937. Fodor got his free copies, acknowledging them in a letter to Shira on 28 January 1937. [Back]
34  Letter from Fodor to Lady Townshend, 13 January 1937. [Back]