Britain from Abobe, New Exhibition at the RAF Museum

FA Cup Final Wembley Stadium (Empire Stadium), Wembley Park, London, 27 April 1935. ( © English Heritage. Aerofilms Collection)
FA Cup Final Wembley Stadium (Empire Stadium), Wembley Park, London, 27 April 1935. ( © English Heritage. Aerofilms Collection)
FA Cup Final Wembley Stadium (Empire Stadium), Wembley Park, London, 27 April 1935. ( © English Heritage. Aerofilms Collection)

PRESS RELEASE -In 1919, in the area where the RAF Museum now stands in Hendon, North London, the world’s first firm of commercial aerial photographers – Aerofilms – was established.Aerofilms was founded by two pioneers who married the fledgling technology of flight with the discipline of photography- Claude Grahame-White and Francis Lewis Wills For the next 80 years Aerofilms captured Britain’s villages, towns, cities and landmarks from the air which provided unique and stunning views of the development of Britain’s rural and urban landscape throughout the 20th century.

 At the outset of World War II the company was requisitioned by the Air Ministry, with its aerial interpretation skills making an invaluable contribution to the war effort as part of the highly successful Central Interpretation Unit at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire. Iconic aircraft such as the Spitfire – featured in this exhibition – proved invaluable for this purpose. After the war, Aerofilms once again took to the skies, photographing the rapidly changing face of Britain’s urban centres and rural landscapes.

 The Aerofilms Collection was acquired for the nation in 2007 by English Heritage and its partners the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Scotland – over 1 million oblique aerial images of Britain were acquired. In 2010 funding was secured from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Foyle Foundation to help conserve, digitise, catalogue and make accessible the earliest part of the Aerofilms collection under the banner of Britain from Above. The Britain from Above project has ensured that this unique and enthralling picture of Britain in the 20th century has been saved and made accessible to the public for the first time. Over 95,000 images dating from 1919 to 1953 are available to explore online at the project’s dedicated, interactive website www.britainfromabove.org.uk

Francis Lewis Wills, Jerry Shaw and Claude Friese-Greene in a DH9B biplane, July 1919. ( © English Heritage. Aerofilms Collection)
Francis Lewis Wills, Jerry Shaw and Claude Friese-Greene in a DH9B biplane, July 1919. ( © English Heritage. Aerofilms Collection)

The Exhibition:

The completion of the Britain from Above project will be celebrated this year with a series of exhibitions across England, Wales and Scotland. The RAF Museum is host to the first English exhibition, jointly curated with English Heritage. Members of the public can trace the history of this landmark company and see the changing face of Britain in the 20th century through Aerofilms’  unique aerial archive.As well as the images, the exhibition also includes aerial cameras, a Spitfire and Aerofilms’ own A5 Autograph machine. This machine – the first ever to be brought to England – was imported by Aerofilms in 1938. The A5 Autograph is an instrument designed and built by the Swiss firm Wild (pronounced “Vilt”) to take accurate measurements from photographs in order to produce maps. Aerofilms’ use of the A5 during World War II was revolutionary. The machine’s excellent magnification and measurement accuracy meant that it was possible to make valuable interpretations from small-scale images that otherwise were useless to the Air Ministry.

English Heritage, in association with the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales and Scotland, has published a book to accompany the exhibition: Aerofilms: A History of Britain From Above by James Crawford, Katy Whitaker and Allan Williams.As well as including 200 fascinating images from the Aerofilms collection – many of which are previously unpublished – the book allows plenty of space to tell the compelling human stories behind the Aerofilms company, at the same time providing an authoritative record of rapid social, industrial and architectural changes in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century.

“It is wonderful to be working with English Heritage on this exhibition. The RAF Museum is the perfect setting for this exhibition as like us, Aerofilms was established on the site of the London Aerodrome. Our shared history also extends to our collection – with the Spitfire being one of the most successful  aircraft for photo- reconnaissance” said  Andy Renwick, Curator of Photographs, RAF Museum.

 Mike Evans, Head of Archive at English Heritage  commented “I am delighted that we are able to bring this nationally important collection back to Hendon where the firm was founded in 1919. The Aerofilms Collection embodies all that is exciting about aerial photography. Between 1919 and 1953, there was vast and rapid change to the social, architectural and industrial fabric of Britain, and Aerofilms provides a unique and at times unparalleled perspective on this upheaval. We hope that people today will be able to immerse themselves in the past through the Britain from Above website, adding their own thoughts and memories to this remarkable collection.”

 “Britain from Above” will open on 20th February at the RAF Museum in London  and is available for viewing Monday to Sunday between 1000am – 6.00pm with free admission to all.

For more information visit the RAF Museum‘s website.

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