Portraits of the past – my family history in photographs

Last year I came into possession of a large collection of family photographs.  I am the last person standing on that side of the family, so on the death of the last of the previous generation is all passed to me.  We’re not talking a few albums here – the collection completely filled the back of an SUV!  Most of the albums were in poor condition and had been stored in damp or dusty places, so a priority was to remove all the photographs (copying the annotations onto the back of the photos where appropriate) and throw away the wreckage of the albums.  There were also a lot of loose photographs, as well as some in frames (many with broken glass).

Eventually, I was able to group them into rough families, eras and locations.  There were a huge number of duplicates, so the first edit was to choose the best of the duplicates, again copying any annotations, and put aside duplicates for cousins in America if they were likely to be of any interest to them.  Then, I went through each group of photographs, weeding out any which were of no particular family history interest, or where the features were blurred, or choosing one from a series of almost identical shots (there were lots of these, especially 1950s landscapes.  It was apparently a thing in Scandinavia to take many photographs of the back of people standing in a field gazing at distant hills…).

After many evenings and weekends of going through photographs, peering through a magnifying glass at blurry faces, and getting very dusty, I have now whittled the collection down to a single crate, all divided into acid-free archival envelopes labelled with details of the contents (pre-war Holland, Helsinki Olympics 1952, holiday to Wales July 1961, etc).  I also started a notebook, with a page for each year, so that I could track the events and movements relating to the various strands of the family.  One wet Sunday afternoon this winter I plan to create a timeline from the notebook, which colour coding for each branch of the family, for the whole of the 20th century (and also scanning the most interesting ones of shared ancestors to send to my American cousins).

This side of my family is Dutch (via military service in the Dutch East Indies and internment in Japanese camps during WWII), with various members emigrating to America, Finland and Britain.  It has been a fascinating – and occasionally harrowing – exercise to follow individuals from newborns, through rites of passage, family memories, pets and holidays, to ageing, and in one case, death (it seems it was the fashion to take open casket photographs in 1940s America).

I have glimpsed the interiors of Dutch colonial houses of the 1930s, Scandinavian holiday shacks in the 1950s, and American ranches in the 1970s.  I have found that some of the stories I was told as a child were true, and others were not, while still others have got garbled in the telling.  I have been saddened by the toll that WWII took on my grandfather (he was in his 60s when I was born, so I never knew him as anything other than old).  I have been moved by how much my teenage grandparents were obviously in love, in photographs from their courting days which I had never seen.  I have seen my own features and expressions looking out at me from the faces of long-dead relatives.  And I now have a much clearer sense of who I am, and where I have come from.

Why Three Hares?

Why, you may well be asking, have I chosen ‘The Three Hares’ as the title for this blog?  I confess, it’s a bit of a self-indulgence.  It has to be called something, so it may as well be something I’m passionate about!

The motif of the three hares has fascinated me ever since I first encountered it, and I have been intrigued by its mysterious history and ambiguous meaning.  The motif consists of three hares (or possibly rabbits, in some cases) running in a circle, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, with each hare having two ears – but there are only three ears in total.  The ears form a triangle at the centre of the design (very occasionally, there are four hares sharing four ears, which form a square at the centre).

I first came across them in Devon, where there are nearly 20 examples of medieval roof bosses featuring the three hares in churches across the county.  (They are sometimes called “Tinners’ Rabbits” in the Dartmoor area, but this seems to be a bit of a red herring, as the origins of the motif are much older).

So, first, the history:  the earliest examples have been found in caves in China, which are believed to be early 6th century.  The theory is that the motif travelled west along the Silk Road, appearing in southern Russia, Iran, eastern Europe, Germany, France, Switzerland, and finally crossing the Channel to England and Wales in the early 14th century.  The hares transcend religious traditions, from Buddhism, through the Islamic world (where the motif appears on metalwork, glass, ceramics and textiles), Judaism (18th century synagogues in Germany have the motif, alongside the riddle “Three hares sharing three ears, yet everyone one of them has two”) to Christianity (they feature in churches across Western Europe).

The meaning is much more mysterious than the history.  Hares have had many associations, including as a symbol for resurrection in Chinese mythology.  The hare was the animal associated with the pagan goddess Oestara, along with the moon, possibly because the hare was believed (erroneously!) to have a gestation period of 28 days.  This association may account for the naming of the female cycle (oestrus) and the principal female hormone (oestrogen).  This female imagery may be the reason that the three hares are often found juxtaposed with the Green Man in English examples.  In another legend, the hare was believed to have laid the Cosmic Egg, which may be the precursor of the idea of the Easter Bunny, and Easter eggs!  And latterly, the three hares were believed to be a symbol of the Christian Trinity.

I leave you with my own interpretation, in a linocut print, of the three hares and moon motif, which is the logo for this blog, and some links to articles which have informed my understanding of the three hares and which you may find interesting.  If you are really lucky, you may manage to track down a copy of The Three Hares: A curiosity worth regarding by Tom Greeves, Chris Chapman and Sue Andrew, published by Skerryvore Productions but now sadly out of print – if you do, can I please borrow it?!

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The Three Hares Project

Legendary Dartmoor

Wikipedia article

New Scientist article

The Three Hares Trail, Dartmoor

An artist’s blog about the three hares

The three hares as a Chines puzzle