Collection of 548 postcard prints and original photographs depicting airships, dirigibles and zeppelins, ca. 1890 to 1960. Most images 3 x 5 in. or 4 x 6 in., housed in period 4to and tall 4to boards albums, one with spine partially detached. N.p (United Kingdom?), N.d. (ca. 1890 to 1960). (47267)
The golden age of the passenger airship came to an abrupt halt on May 6, 1937 when the Hindenburg scorched the night sky over Lakehurst, New Jersey. Stunned by newsreel footage of the disaster, the public understandably lost faith in the zeppelin as a secure mode of transport. Needless to say (despite occasional rumors of its resuscitation) the dirigible industry has yet to fully recover. But for the first three decades of the 20th century, an extraordinary variety of lighter-than-air craft shared the airways with early airplanes and gliders. F.A. Bernett Books has recently acquired two albums of photographs and postcards that illustrate the history of these curious aerostatic vehicles, both before and after the Hindenburg.
And if the clues we’ve discovered between their covers point in the right direction, it seems the collection may once have belonged to one of the airship’s most passionate advocates. But more on that later.
First, its simply worth taking a moment to marvel at the morphological diversity of these largely forgotten machines.
From the earliest navigable balloons to later blimps and zeppelins, the two albums provide a glimpse of some of the more exotic forms with which airship engineers experimented.
The collection of images also provides extensive views of the passenger and pilot gondolas which affixed to the craft, as well as the structures used to construct and house them between flights.
Given that airships rose to prominence during the first decades of the 20th century, it should be no surprise that much of their development can be linked to military endeavors. All of the great European powers had airship programs, as did the United States. During the first World War, the new technology was put to use on, or rather above, the battlefield.
One of the albums contains a a fascinating set of postcards reproducing a suite of 1918 drawings by Delhumeau depicting the operations of a French military airship crew.
As two of the Delhumeau prints show, even at the miraculous dawn of human air travel, some passengers were more interested than others in the god’s eye view of the landscape afforded by zeppelin flight, the first panel (below) showing a “un passager qui s’intéresse vraiment,” and the second “un passager qui s’intéresse peu.”
The compiler of the albums was clearly quelqu’on qui s’intéresse vraiment, though judging by handwriting in the albums and on the cards, more than likely English, not French.
Although we have no definite information about the individual’s identity, several tantalizing clues suggest that it may have been Arthur Frederick Daubeney Olav Eveleigh-de-Moleyns, better known to the public as Lord Ventry (and simply as ‘Bunny’ to his friends and family.) Several of the cards bear postal messages addressed to him by fellow enthusiasts.
He also appears in a handful of the original photographs contained in the collection.
(Compared with stills from an old British Pathé newsreel, the resemblance of the older gentleman in the center of the group photo, above, is unmistakable.)
Why is this significant? Because Lord Ventry was a pioneer of the British airship industry, and a passionate advocate of the untapped potentials of balloon travel until his death in 1987. According to his online biography at the family’s website, “he served with the Irish Guards from 1917 to 1918 and was wounded before being transferred to the Royal Air Force as Commodore of No. 902 County of London Balloon squadron in the Auxiliary Air Force. He served in 2nd World War 1939 – 1945 as a flight lieutenant in Balloon Command and Intelligence. He was a certified Aeronaut, balloonist and champion of the airship.” He was also “editor of ‘The Airship and Aero History’ [periodical] and chairman of the Airship Club.”
After the second World War, he oversaw construction of a new dirigible called the Bournemouth in Shortstown, Befordshire, from 1949-1951. He was able to enjoy many successful flights in the vehicle before it was scrapped following an accident in 1953. The collection contains at least five images of the Bournemouth in flight or at rest in its hangar. While none of these facts can tell us for certain that it was Lord Ventry himself who compiled the albums, it seems likely that the individual who did so was a member of his circle.
Whomever he was, the person in question certainly assembled an engrossing catalog of man’s efforts to rise above the landscape by means of aerostatic buoyancy rather than aerodynamic lift, including, of course, the magnificent German passenger Zeppelins.
One of the zeppelin cards in the collection bears notes by Lord Ventry on the verso describing their advantage over airplanes, to wit, “no expensive runways are required.”
Another card contains a message describing an enthusiast’s voyage to witness the landing of the Hindenburg at Lakehurst, less than one year prior to its tragic loss.
Chillingly, it recounts the writer’s conversations with Captain Lehman, who would perish aboard the craft as it burned, describing his desire for “more and better weather reports” prior to such landings after long transatlantic voyages.
If only the vessel had drifted safely to its docking station on that fateful night in Lakehurst the following May, would lighter-than-air travel still be a fashionable mode of crossing the Atlantic? Compared with the cramped quarters of modern air travel, one can only dream.
As Lord Ventry clearly did dream.
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FAB Item I.D. # 47267