A Century of Life-saving Captured on Glass at New Photography Exhibition

Lifeboats News Release

A new exhibition celebrates lifeboating past and present, through unique images captured on glass by pioneering photographers.

A glass plate image of the volunteers of Ilfracombe RNLI - soon to be on show at Poole Museum.

Jack Lowe/ The Lifeboat Station Project

A glass plate image of the volunteers of Ilfracombe RNLI - soon to be on show at Poole Museum.

‘Calm Before the Storm: The Art of Photographing Lifeboats’ will be on display at Poole Museum from January 26 to April 22 2019.

Spread over two floors of the museum, the photography exhibition will take visitors on a journey from the lifeboat builders of the early 20th Century to the faces of the brave volunteers who crew the high-tech lifeboats of today.

On the way, they will discover stories of historic rescues; find out about the lifeboats that went to war, and uncover the alchemy behind glass plate photography.

Although the striking images span over nearly 100 years, they have all been taken on glass plates.

The first floor gallery reveals never-before-seen images taken from the historic archive of the famous Beken family in Cowes, who have been photographing maritime activity on the waters surrounding the Isle of Wight since the turn of the century.

Three generations of Beken men – Frank, Keith, Kenneth – first made their name capturing spectacular yachts racing on the Solent. They modified their cameras to enable them to use them on the water and photographed countless famous vessels, including King George V’s racing yacht Britannia and the Titanic.

Kenneth explains: “My grandfather Frank had to invent his own new style of camera, a twin lens device that enabled him to hold it at arm’s length and absorb all the movement of his boat and the yacht he was photographing.

“He wasn’t the first photographer, but he was a great innovator. He couldn’t fire the shutter with his thumb or fingers, because it jerked the camera, so he built a rubber tube which he put in his mouth, with a big rubber ball on the end that he would bite, and that would fire the shutter. People laughed, but the image of him with his camera became famous at the time.”

The Beken family also photographed lifeboats, many of which were built on the Isle of Wight. The Bekens captured lifeboats at the very start of their working lives, before they went onto to save thousands of lives at stations around the coast – and even on the beaches of Dunkirk during World War Two.

The second floor gallery is also full of beautiful glass plate imagery of lifeboats and lifeboat crews, but from an inspiring modern rel="noopener noreferrer" day odyssey called The Lifeboat Station Project.

The eight-year mission, which is the brainchild of photographer Jack Lowe, began in January 2015. Jack is visiting all 238 RNLI lifeboat stations in the UK and Republic of Ireland to capture them using Wet Plate Collodion, a Victorian process that creates stunning images on glass. The exhibition at Poole Museum is the biggest showing of Jack’s work so far.

Jack, who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, travels in Neena — a decommissioned NHS ambulance purchased on eBay and converted into a mobile darkroom.

Jack makes portraits using a camera made in 1905, and then develops the images in his ambulance. Lifeboat volunteers are able to watch as their portraits appear on the glass plates – an experience Jack says they find fascinating, and sometimes very moving. Visitors to Poole Museum will be able to see 55 images from Jack’s journey, along with glass plates he has made and the camera on which he learnt how to create them.

His ambitious mission is one of the biggest photographic projects ever undertaken and has already attracted national media attention, with Jack appearing in everything from the BBC Countryfile programme to The Times newspaper. It’s also proved extremely popular on social media, with over 35,000 followers.

Jack says he has always had an interest in the history of photography: “The word photography means drawing with light and that is how I think about it still. I adore photography in this very raw, basic form — light falling on chemicals. It really is magical – the final image is always a surprise, even to me.”

Jack’s images include the faces of volunteers from every corner of the RNLI network, from the far distant Shetland Isles to the West Coast of Ireland to those that crew in the lifeboats in Poole, the modern-day home of the life-saving charity.

The exhibition also marks the first showing for a new artwork entitled ‘Lifeboat Slipways 2015-2018’. For this Jack has created a ‘gridded tableau’ of nine all-weather lifeboat slipways from around the coast – a nod to the work of pioneering German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their grouped images of industrial structures.

Jack, grandson of Dad’s Army star Arthur Lowe, is also involved in a wide programme of outreach activities running through 2018 and 2019 that will include talks and workshops. The aim of the programme is to use the Beken archive and glass plate photography to engage communities with the RNLI’s long history.

The exhibition was made possible with the support of both the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and Christopher Andreae and The Scorpion Trust. This backing enabled the RNLI to preserve and digitise the glass plate negatives.

Volunteers were brought into the charity’s headquarters in Poole, Dorset, to clean, scan and repackage the fragile glass plates. They also carried out valuable research on the images, in particular exploring the histories of individual lifeboats.

Nerys Watts, Head of HLF South West, said: “Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players, we’re delighted to support this project which will provide a fascinating glimpse into our maritime heritage – from coastal communities to crews at sea. As well as ensuring the survival of this unique collection, this project will give people of all ages the opportunity to get involved in exploring their heritage.”

'Calm Before the Storm: The Art of Photographing Lifeboats' will be at Poole Museum from 26 January–22 April 2019. Entry is free.

Jack Lowe will be at the museum to give a talk about his work on April 20.

Notes to Editors:

A press event will be held at Poole Museum on 26 January. For details about this or additional information about the exhibition, please contact Joanna Quinn or rel="noopener noreferrer" Dave Riley in the RNLI Press Office: 01202 336789/ [email protected].

More images from the exhibition are also available.

For more information about the Heritage Lottery Fund/ Beken Project go here: https://rnli.org/about-us/our-history/calm-before-the-storm-exhibition

A full press release about The Lifeboat Station Project with downloadable film is available here or go to the Project website here: https://lifeboatstationproject.com/.

For more information about the Beken family go here: https://www.beken.co.uk/


A newly built lifeboat launching in 1938 - one of the images to be shown at Poole Museum.


Frank Beken and his specially designed camera

Jack Lowe/ The Lifeboat Station Project

The women of Clovelly RNLI captured on glass and soon to be seen in a new exhibition.

Jack Lowe/ The Lifeboat Station Project

Aldeburgh RNLI Coxswain Steve Saint

Duncan Davis

Jack Lowe and his glass plate camera

Key facts about the RNLI

The RNLI charity saves lives at sea. Its volunteers provide a 24-hour search and rescue service around the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland coasts. The RNLI operates 238 lifeboat stations in the UK and Ireland and more than 240 lifeguard units on beaches around the UK and Channel Islands. The RNLI is independent of Coastguard and government and depends on voluntary donations and legacies to maintain its rescue service. Since the RNLI was founded in 1824, its lifeboat crews and lifeguards have saved over 142,700 lives.

Learn more about the RNLI

For more information please visit the RNLI website or Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. News releases, videos and photos are available on the News Centre.

Contacting the RNLI - public enquiries

Members of the public may contact the RNLI on 0300 300 9990 (UK) or 1800 991802 (Ireland) or by email.