I have a large box of Victorian studio photographs at home, and I am slowly working my way through them: looking at them, scanning them, and seeing where they take me. Today they took me on a fascinating trans-continental journey in the company of John Jabez Edwin Mayall, pioneer photographer, trans-Atlantic entrepreneur, and friend of the rich and famous. If that wasn’t enough he was brought up in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield and for a short time he was landlord of the local Star Inn!
He was born in 1813 in Oldham, just over the border in Lancashire, but the family moved to the Linthwaite and Slaithwaite area of Huddersfield when John was still a young child. His father was a manufacturing chemist who specialised in producing dyes for the textile industry, and young John moved into the business and built up a degree of expertise in chemistry. It is said that by his mid 20s he had made a fortune, and by his early thirties he had lost it. He fell in love with the daughter of the local innkeeper and married her, and eventually took over the running of the inn, but this turned out to be an unsuccessful enterprise as he seems to have directed his energies primarily to teaching his customers mathematics and latin rather than selling pints of ale.
It appears that neither the role of a manufacturing chemist nor that of a publican in the Colne Valley was for him, and writing in his memoirs some years later, the local vicar, Cannon Charles Hulbert, commented: “Slaithwaite was scarcely a sufficient sphere for his genius and he emigrated to the United States, where he took up the then infant Art of Photography; which he much improved by his experiments and discoveries“.
Mayall first went to America in 1842 and for the next few years he seems to have split his time between Britain and America, establishing photographic studios in both Manchester and Philadelphia, and being in the forefront of technological development in the infant science of photography. He lectured, he wrote articles, and he saw himself as both an artist and a photographer, exploring the boundaries between traditional art and the new daguerreotype process. By the end of 1846 he was back in Britain establishing a daguerreotype studio and institute on the Strand in London.
Mayall became a friend of the famous painter, J M W Turner, and they shared an interest in the artistic potential of photography and, in particular, its ability to portray light variations. During the 1850s, he embarked on a series of daguerreotype portraits of the rich and famous (including Charles Dickens) and also began to experiment with the new Carte de Visite format. In 1860 he was invited to photograph the Royal Family, and he was able to publish the first ever series of Carte de Visites featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children.
In 1864, Mayall moved from London to Brighton – leaving the London Studios under the direction of his son – and established a new photographic studio in King’s Road. It is from this period that the small Carte de Visite of an unknown man in a check suit dates. Mayall spent the rest of his life on the South Coast before dying early in 1901 – within a few weeks of the Queen he had famously photographed forty years earlier.
My thanks to the unknown man in the check suit for taking me on such a fascinating journey.