I’ve always been rather intrigued by those Victorian gentlemen who used to go around saving lost souls. I have never aspired to provide salvation to that degree, but give me a sad and wanting old photograph, and I will grab the Photoshop Bible and get down to my devotions along with the most pious amongst us.
This tiny old photograph fell from the back of an old photographic album belonging to my Great Uncle, Fowler Beanland. Whether she was a relative, a friend, or a lover, I know not, but she didn’t deserve to be lost. Having found her, and smartened her up a little, I present her to posterity. She will now live forever more out in cyberspace, looking back at the world she once knew.
It’s a strange lockdown world we live in where dog grooming is classed as an essential service but the human equivalent is not. The result is that our dog is today walking around like a well-coiffured matinee idol, whilst I look like an over-enthusiastic kitchen mop. It would be nice to think that my abundant whiskers were as well cared for as those of this unknown sitter for a little Carte de Visite from the Barnsley studio of Warner Gothard – but, alas, they are not.
Warner Gothard was a great example of those nineteenth century pioneers of commercial studio photography. He started his first studio along with his brother in 1852 in Grimsby and later moved to Wakefield and then, in1893, to Barnsley. Several of his twelve children followed him into the photography business and, in addition to studio photography, the family specialised in postcard production. Warner Gothard is particularly remembered for his “montage postcards” of the early twentieth century, which commemorated major events and disasters. In the first two decades of the twentieth century there was hardly a coal mining disaster taking place, or a ship sinking off the coast of Britain, without a Warner Gothard commemorative postcard being produced. Perhaps this strange world we live in pre-dates the lockdown after all.
I still can’t make my mind up about AI. Artificial intelligence (AI) colourising programmes are all the rage: smart little apps where you can feed a monochrome image in at one end, and a beautifully realistic full-colour rendition emerges from the other end. To be honest, sometimes it is beautiful, sometimes realistic and sometimes it is colourful, but rarely all three. And sometimes it has the look of the kind of thing a three-year old, fed too much chocolate and given too many coloured crayons, would produce. I get to thinking that the old, faded, and bleached-out vision of faces from a bygone era is more lifelike than some daisy-fresh technicolour dream. And then I feed another old Victorian pasteboard photo into the AI machine and see life emerge, and it takes me back to the thrill I used to get when black and white images would slowly emerge from a dish of developer solution. As I say, I can’t make my mind up about AI. I will spend the day with these two colourful Victorian girls and see what they say about artificial intelligence.
Some people say that photographs today are as cheap as chips. This is untrue, as anyone who has been to a fish and chip shop recently will know: a bag of chips can set you back the best part of £2. Photographs, captured on smart phones and shared with friends are essentially free goods, and like all free goods, we tend to take them for granted. We can snap a selfie, and if it doesn’t hold up to our glorified self-image, we can dump it quicker than a political adviser.
Go back 150 years, and that was not the case; photographs were a rare thing, something you had to save up for, pose for, and frown for. Nobody was willing to pass up their one chance of immortality in exchange for a cheap grin or a cheeky gesture. If you go back thirty or so years ago, however, back to the late pre-digital age, it was the era of the photo booths. You could put a coin in a machine and produce four portrait poses: one serious one for your passport or driving licence, and three silly ones just for the fun of it.
So how would our perceptions of the Victorians be changed if they had coin-in-the-slot Photo-Me booths? Perhaps we would be left with more than endless portraits of serious and unsmiling faces. Modern technology helps us to test these theories out, so here is our Victorian lady relaxing in front of the Photo-Me camera …. with a little help from Photoshop’s new Neural filters!
Consider the journey, if you will. This beautiful photograph of a young woman was taken at the studios of P & H Koch in the city of Crefeld (now Krefeld), just north of Dusseldorf in Germany. The reverse of the Carte de Visite makes reference to the Koch studio having won medals at a photographic exhibition in Dusseldorf in 1896, so that probably dates this portrait to around the turn of the twentieth century. How did this young lady get from pre-Great War Germany to a box at the end of my desk?
Did she dance at balls in Rhineland-Westphalia and shop on the elegant boulevards of Dusseldorf? Did she lose a lover or a son in the mud-caked trenches of the Great War? Did she scrape for food during the Great Inflation and the depression years that followed? Did she hide in the shadows, or cheer in the streets, during the rise and fall of Hitler? Did she survive to see hope and prosperity again?
Her secrets are hidden deep within the pasteboard, at rest – and at peace – in the box at the end of my desk.
I am not sure if I was attracted to this little Victorian portrait by the look in the eye of the sitter or because in was taken in the studios of Sydney Barton in New Brighton. I remember New Brighton well from childhood seaside trips (the name “New Brighton” was a triumph for positively-spun nomenclature second only to the island of “Greenland”). Barton was listed in the 1901 census as living at 95 Victoria Road, New Brighton along with his wife, three children and a live-in maid. His occupation was that most trendy of late-Victorian occupations – “photographer”. It always amazes me how a bit of pasteboard, just four inch by two and a half, can have so much history stuck to it.
If Shakespeare had been around in the days of Brexit, he might have written a play called Two Gentlemen Of Brighouse, in which two friends, Herbert and Wilfred, travelled to Bradford in pursuit of the same girl, Ethel. This lovely little Victorian photo from the studio of the Brighouse photographer, Martin Manley, would have made a perfect illustration for such a play.
The career of Martin Manley traces the rise and fall of the Victorian studio photography craze. Born in Brighouse in 1850, he was the son of a family of moderate means who owned land and houses in the Bonegate area of the town. In the 1871 census, he is listed as “living from income derived from homes and land“, but by 1881 he is listed as being a photographer. This little Carte de Visite must date from the 1880s or 1890s and he is now listing himself as an “Artist in Photography, Miniature and Portrait Painter Etc“. By the time of the 1901 census the boom years for Victorian studio photographers are beginning to fade, and Manley is now listed as an “optician and photographer“, and ten years later all reference to photography are dropped.
Irrespective of his career path, Martin Manley appears to have remained a keen photographer all his life. He was one of the founder members of the Brighouse Photographic Society, and as early as 1874 there are newspaper reports of him exhibiting his photographs of members of the Royal Family and “famous views of London” at local gatherings.
My research into the life and times of Edward Gregson, photographer, of Halifax and Blackpool is both illogical and unstructured: flitting between odd facts and unrelated times, and punctuated by portraits of anonymous Victorian worthies. It is a journey of discovery in which gazing out of the window and enjoying the scenery is far more important than any promised destination. Today, it takes me back 150 years to January 1869, when Edward appears to have branched out from his core photographic business, to supplying everything from ear drops to book slides, from tooth brushes to toilet soaps.
An advert in the Halifax Courier of the 7th January 1869 gives notice of the type of sale that has been a familiar feature of markets, fairgrounds, and auction houses over the centuries; a sale of surplus, damaged or delayed stock, which promises the type of bargain that you cannot afford to miss. If we take the description of the items in the sale as being “surplus stock” which has been delayed – by those familiarly unreliable railway companies – with a pinch of salt (one of the few items not being sold at the sale), we get the impression of Edward Gregson as an entrepreneur who is branching out far beyond the confines of his photographic studios, into all manner of fancy goods. The musical boxes, watch stands, china ornaments and mechanical toys might well have sold well in the Blackpool studios of Edward Gregson, and he may have seen the opportunity of making them available to the Halifax public.
If nothing else, it shows that by as early as 1869, Gregson – still in his thirties – already had a well established photographic business in both Halifax and Blackpool, and was confident enough to describe himself as a “photographer and dealer in fancy goods“.
This little Carte de Visite from Gregson’s studio probably dates from a few years after the sale of fancy goods mentioned above. Nevertheless, could this rather stern-looking lady, captured by E Gregson the photographer, be wearing a necklace and bracelet supplied by E Gregson the fancy goods merchant?