According to the scrawled date on the reverse of this Victorian Cabinet Card, it was taken somewhere around the 11th November 1889. The clothing and the photographic style fits well with this date, and we know that the studio – Brown, Barnes & Bell of Liverpool and London – were active at the time.
The reverse of the card has all the usual flourish of Victorian studio portraits, including an intriguing claim that the studio possessed “Letters patent for artistic improvements”
If only Mssrs Brown, Barnes or Bell had been lucky enough to be around 130 years later, they would have been able to take advantage of the multitude of mobile apps that can perform endless degrees of artistic improvement in this day and age. I conducted a small experiment on their behalf, which, I hope, the original sitter would have been pleased with. Let’s say it is the first portrait from the studio of Brown, Barnes, Bell & Burnett.
This rather stern looking lady was captured by the Heckmondwike studio of John S Shaw. John Shaw was born near Halifax in 1815, and for most of his working life was a farmer in Staffordshire. Only when he was in his sixties to he return to his native West Yorkshire to climb aboard the commercial band-wagon which was studio photography. The last two decades of the nineteenth century was the great age of the popular studio portrait. Production techniques meant that studio portraits were no longer the preserve of the wealthy, and the new age of home photography had not yet arrived. Every town and village needed its photographic studio, and a wide range of men – and a few notable women – were attracted into the profession. They were the computer repair shops, mobile phone case sellers, and Turkish barbers of their day. Unlike all such recent trends, however, they left a lasting legacy which still can be appreciated over one hundred years later.
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?
There is an advert doing the rounds on television at the moment for some new family history database service which is supposed to make tracing your ancestors as easy as sending a Paypal transfer for £100. Just press a computer key and: “Oh goodness, my grandmother was the daughter of the Duke of Beaudung“, says the happy customer, followed by “Well fancy that, my Great Uncle Percy” was with Nelson at Trafalgar“! Those of us who have actually dipped our genealogical toes into the world of old census returns and births, marriages and death notices, know it is never as easy as that. The tangled web we leave when first we practice to deceive, has nothing on the convoluted web that connects us with the past. Take, for example, Edward Gregson.
Edward Gregson was not – as far as I am aware – any relative of mine, but he was a photographer and native of my own home town of Halifax. Over the years, I have managed to collect a small number of his photographs which date from the latter half of the nineteenth century. I have featured several of these in my various blogs, and on the last occasion that I featured one of his Carte de Visites, I recklessly vowed that I was off in search of his story. We know from the studio details printed on his various photographs that he had studios both in Halifax and Blackpool, and several Halifax addresses are associated with his name, including the Central Portrait Rooms, Waterhouse Street, Bedford Street, and Lister Lane. We can’t even be sure of his name – there are referenced to both Edward Gregson and Edgar Gregson, both of whom were Halifax photographers – nor the dates when they were active. Quite clearly we have a photographic dynasty at work, and untangling it is going to be just as difficult as getting your portrait subjects to stand or sit still for long enough for your Victorian shutter to click open and closed.
What I should do, of course, is to lock myself away in a dark room, do lots of research and eventually come back to you with the fruit of my labours in the form of a clear and precise account of E Gregson, photographer and businessman. But that would be boring for me, and probably excruciatingly boring for you. Far better to join me as I dig and delve into whatever I can find out, in no particular order, and with the possibility of no precise conclusions. It is not, perhaps, as satisfying as being told that your Cousin Mabel was a pony driver for Scott’s Expedition to the Antarctic …. but at least it won’t cost you £100.
Let us start with a bit of solid evidence, which is a death notice from the Halifax Courier of 12th January 1889, of one Edward Gregson, photographer of Halifax and Blackpool who died of dropsy at the age of 56. We now have a definite birth year (1833); a death year (1889), and a definite name, Edward Gregson. Let us see where this takes us….. (to be continued …. probably)
This little Victorian Carte de Visite dates from a time when photographs were for special occasions, rather than the result of a selfie-click on a smartphone. Young men or women would have their photographs taken on birthdays and holidays, wearing their very best clothes, and posing against a background of stone antiquities and tree-trunk props (the props really were to prop you up and keep you still to accommodate the lengthy shutter speeds of the Victorian cameras). Every northern mill town would have its fill of photographic studios, and these would often have branches in the seaside towns that were becoming more and more popular for Bank Holiday trips.
Who this young lady is, I have no idea, but she has the look of a woman of strong character, who might just have severed that tree branch all by herself.
Like some latter-day Victorian parson, I occasionally think I am in the business of saving souls. Many of the nineteenth century studio portraits that come into my possession are showing their age: spots of mould eat into the very soul of the image. A little careful renovation makes them fit for another century or two.
This is a Cabinet Card from the studio of Alfred Hughes of 433, The Strand, London. Normally one has no idea of whom the subjects of such portraits are, but here we have been provided with a signature at least – and the Rev W Murray seems set to save some souls of his own.
There is something very distinctive about this Victorian lady, who was photographed by Dupont’s studio in Brussels in 1893. There is a signature on the reverse, but it is indecipherable. It also says the word “Eindhoven” which I assume was where she was from.
The Dupont family had been leading photographers in the Belgian capital since the 1840s, and later went on to open studios in a number of other European cities. At the time that this photograph was taken, the Dupont Studio advertised itself as: “Photographers to the diplomatic corps, to the great bodies of state, the magistrature, the army, the ministries, the public administrations, the world of letters, science and the arts etc” What more can be said?