Friday, February 17, 2012

Gnome Pixie Flex

It may not have been the most sophisticated piece of machinery ever constructed but the Gnome Pixie Flex was that rarest of optical beasts: a Welsh camera. Manufactured in Cardiff circa 1951 it was a pseudo TLR camera with fixed focus and fixed aperture. It had a crinkled black enamelled metallic body with chromed front edges. Variants included the Gnome Pixie and the Baby Pixie. But who exactly were Gnome?

The Welsh company actually had its roots in pre-war Stuttgart. It was there that Heinrich Loebstein set up a small factory that produced photographic equipment. His enlargers, viewers and projectors were of fine quality and exported to various parts of the world, including Cardiff.

The rise of the Nazi regime in Germany meant that Loebstein, a jew, was subject to punitive anti-semitic measures and faced the prospect of life in a concentration camp. In 1938 he fled, bringing his family to south Wales where he had previously established strong business contacts.

His arrival in Wales coincided with the setting up of Britain's first industrial estate at Treforest. The Treforest complex was meant to encourage new types of industries to south Wales which was still suffering the harsh economic blight of Depression. Gnome was one of the very first companies to establish itself there.

Eighteen months after the outbreak of WW2 the Ministry of Aircraft Production took over his new factory at Treforest and Gnome relocated to Cardiff. There they produced enlargers for the Admiralty for use in aerial reconnaissance. It must have been satisfying for Loebstein to contribute to the fight against fascism in such a positive way, using technology he had begun to develop in Germany.

After the war Gnome moved into new premises on Caerphilly Road, Cardiff, which became their home for many years to come. They continued to manufacture enlargers and projectors, taking out various patents along the way. In fact Loebstein helped to popularise photography in the UK. Hitherto enlargers had been expensive but in 1948 he revolutionised the industry by introducing large batch production. This brought the unit price down from an average of £40 to £11 – well within the financial grasp of the amateur.

By 1960 80% of enlargers sold in the UK were produced by Gnome. They exported their goods to 72 different countries. Also in 1960 they became a public company issuing 400,000 shares. By this time Loebstein had repossessed his old factory in Stuttgart but nothing was produced there – it was used instead as warehouse for Gnome’s exports to Germany. Heinrich Loebstein lived in Cyncoed.