SOME OF MY REGULAR readers will know that recently I published a short book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Her photographic creations, which she produced mainly between 1863 and 1875, differed significantly from those of her contemporaries. At the time that she was taking pictures, most other photographers concentrated on using their cameras to produce slavishly accurate renderings of their subject matter – often portraiture. In contrast, Julia experimented with her focussing, film processing, and other aspects of creating photographic images, to create imaginative artworks, often achieving effects that had been hitherto impossible for painters to produce. She used the camera not to reproduce nature but to produce often expressionistic or impressionistic renderings of her subject matter. For her, the camera was not merely a method of mirroring reality, but a pathway to creating works of art.
Today, the 23rd of May 2023, I visited the Waddington Custot gallery on London’s Cork Street. My wife and I enjoyed viewing an exhibition, “Picture This: Photorealism 1966-1985” – Photorealism was a term created by Louis K Meisel in 1969. The show continues until the 24th of June 2023. At first sight the pictures on display seem to be enlarged, well-focussed photographs. Soon, you will notice that these fabulous pictures of scenes in the USA are not photographs, but paintings created using oil and acrylic paints. One of the gallery staff explained that some of them are not images of actual places, but scenes imagined by the artists. Furthermore, he made an interesting point about them. He remarked that the artists have not painted the scenes as they would have appeared to the naked eye, but instead they have painted them how they would have looked if the images of them had been created using photographic techniques. In addition, by making their paintings of often imagined scenes in this way, the viewer is forced into questioning the assumption that photographs capture the truth.
After seeing the exhibition, it occurred to me that whereas Julia Margaret Cameron was using her camera to create art, the Photorealists were doing quite a different thing – creating artworks that imitate what can be achieved by accurate photography.
THE NATIONAL TRUST (‘NT’) maintains many buildings of great historic interest, and makes them accessible to the public. Most of the properties under the care of the NT are places where the well-off and the famous lived. Visitors to these homes and gardens can see finely decorated rooms. Often, the servant’s quarters are also displayed. This May (2023), we visited an unusual NT property in Nottinghamshire. Its distinctiveness lies in the fact that the buildings housed not the rich but the very poorest in society. Located at Southwell near Nottingham, it is the Southwell Workhouse.
The Workhouse was built in 1824 to house (usually temporarily) the poorest and most infirm people in the 49 parishes that made up Nottinghamshire’s Southwell Union, which financed the institution. Some of these people were impoverished during the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. For example, many households in the area made a living by making knitwear in their homes. When factories opened with industrial knitting machines, many of these artisans were left without work and income.
The Southwell Workhouse admitted people following assessment of their condition by a parish’s local Relieving Officer. The rather bleak Workhouse was divided into several separated sections: for women with children less than two years old; for women, both abled and disabled; for men, both able and disabled; boys aged 7 to 15; girls aged 7 to 15; and for other children, aged between 2 and 7 years. The children received elementary schooling in the Workhouse classroom; this improved their chances of obtaining employment. There was no mixing between men and women. Women worked mainly in the kitchens, which are in the cellars of the building. To avoid contact with men, who worked in the institution’s vegetable gardens, produce required for cooking was passed into the kitchens through hatches.
Except for the extremely infirm, the idea was to make the Workhouse as uncomfortable as possible so that the able-bodied inmates had an incentive to leave as soon as they felt able. Consequently, the food provided was dull and meagre. All able-bodied inmates had to work. Some of this work was either meaningless, like breaking stones, or physically difficult, like picking oakum. The maintenance of the institution was also carried out by the inmates. The Workhouse was designed to provide food and shelter for the most destitute, but not to make it so comfortable that they had no incentive to leave. By pooling their resources, the parishes in the Southwell Union saved money because without the workhouse each parish would have had to conform to legal requirements to set up their own facilities for looking after those at the bottom of the social pile. The Southwell Workhouse was an example of an economy of scale.
The Southwell Workhouse was the brainchild of the Reverend John Thomas Becher (1770-1848). A friend of Lord Byron, who wrote poems to him, Becher not only established the Workhouse, but four years later wrote a pamphlet, “The Antipauper System”. In this publication, he explained how successful the Workhouse was in reducing the “poor rates” by 75%. His work led to the establishment of other similar wirkhouses in the country following the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (‘The New Poor Law’).
With the establishment of the NHS in 1948, the Workhouse became an institution run by a local authority and many things relating to the care of the poor changed in Britain. Until the 1970s, the Workhouse, re-named Greet House (after the River Greet), housed the poor, but ins slightly more comfortable conditions than were available to its earlier inmates. The NT has done a beautiful job of restoring the Southwell Workhouse. Arrows guide the visitor though the whole building. All along the route, NT volunteers greet you and explain what each room was used for and provide other fascinating background information. Although the Workhouse is a fairly grim looking place, a visit to it is extremely interesting and a dramatic contrast to the often-glittering, resplendent places that can be seen in the majority of NT properties.
WE HAD INTENDED to drive along the A1 directly from London to Stamford in Lincolnshire. The A1 follows the route of the old Great North Road, but tends to bypass the small towns through which the older road ran. After driving northwards for about 1 hour and 40 minutes, I spotted a brown and white direction sign pointing towards a tourist attraction, the historic town of Buckden. We left the A1 and soon found ourselves in the village of Buckden. With its three old coaching inns, it was once a stopping place for travellers on the old Great North Road. As soon as we entered the place, we spotted some impressive, mainly brick, Tudor buildings behind crenelated boundary walls. A sign by an entrance to the grounds bore the words “Claret Centre”. We entered to discover that a sale of garden plants was being set up. We were invited to wanderin around the remains of a Tudor Palace and the knot garden next to it.
The Claret Centre is housed in the extensive remains of Buckden Palace – once a property owned by the Bishops of Lincoln. In the Domesday Book of 1086, the manor of Buckden belonged to the Bishop of Lincoln. By the time that St Hugh was Bishop of Lincoln (he had that position from 1186 to 1200), there was already a Bishop’s house in Buckden. St Hugh was by all accounts a remarkable man. Amongst his many virtues, he protected some of the Jewish people of the city of Lincoln from massacre in the 1190s. Albert Hyamson wrote in his “A History of the Jews in England”: “At Lincoln, the Jews saved themselves by taking refuge in the castle. They were befriended by the Bishop Saint Hugh, whose death ten years later was very sincerely mourned by the local community.”
The bishop’s residence at Buckden was rebuilt several times before that which can seen today was constructed in the late 15th century. With two brief interludes, the bishop’s home and grounds remained as church property until 1870, when the property was bought by James Marshall of the firm Marshall and Snelgrove. In 1919, Dr Robert Holmes Edleston bought the by then dilapidated Buckden Palace. Keenly interested in history, Edleston extensively restored the Tudor buildings. He was an admirer of Napoleon III, and wrote two books about him. He planned to open a museum of the Frenchman’s relics at Buckden Palace and in anticipation of this project, which was never realised, inserted a commemorative plaque to Napoleon III in a wall facing the palace’s courtyard. Thanks to Edleston, there are substantial remains of the Tudor structures including an impressive square tower. This overlooks a beautifully restored knot garden, now named Queen Katherine’s Garden.
After the marriage of Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536) and King Henry VIII was annulled in May 1533, Katherine was housed in various places around England. One of these was Buckden Palace, where she was held/housed between July 1533 until 1534, when she was transferred to nearby Kimbolton Castle, where she spent the rest of her life. In December 1533, when Henry VIII sent the Duke of Suffolk to move Katherine to a more secure place, the men of Buckden resisted this and the duke had to abandon the attempt. Katherine was not the only noteworthy person to have stayed at Buckden. After her death, Henry VIII stayed there with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard in 1541. Other celebrities who visited included Thomas Wolsely, James I, Samuel Pepys, and the Prince Regent (later King George IV).
During WW2, Buckden Palace was home to refugees from the London Blitz. In 1956, Bishop Leo Parker (1887-1975), Roman Catholic Bishop of Northampton, arranged for Buckden Palace to come into possession of the Claretian Missionaries. Hence, its current name – The Claret Centre. The Claretians were founded by St Anthony Mary Claret (1807-1870) in Vich (Spain) in 1849. His followers grew widely in the Spanish-speaking world, and the movement came to Britain in 1912. After founding the first Claretian community in Hayes (Middlesex), others were established at Gorseinon (Wales), Langley Park (Durham), and Buckden.
Had it not been for the sign on the A1, I am not sure that we would have ever visited, or even known about, Buckden Palace. We were lucky to find the grounds accessible because of the flower market that was being arranged when we turned up. I am not sure that it is always possible to wander about the place as freely as we did on other days. Buckden has an attractive parish church as well as the three inns already mentioned. There is a high-end boutique hotel in the George Inn. Nearby, there is also an excellent hairdresser. Even if the palace is not open, Buckden is a charming place to rest a while on a journey along the frequently busy A1.
SLEAFORD IS A SMALL town in Lincolnshire. I do not think it is on many tourists’ itineraries, and I am not sure that I would recommend it highly. However, on a positive note, everyone we met there was extremely friendly. Southgate Street is a vibrant shopping district with plenty of charity shops and places to eat and drink. At the south end of this thoroughfare, there is a gothic revival monument that towers over its surroundings. Shaped a bit like an Eleanor Cross or a shabby version of London’s Albert Memorial, it commemorates Henry Handley (1797-1846).
Henry was the son of a local banker and attorney, Benjamin Handley. He was educated at Charterhouse, Eton, Oxford, and Lincolns Inn. He married Caroline Edwardes, daughter of William Edwardes, 2nd Baron Kensington in 1825. He neither graduated at Oxford nor practised as a barrister. Three years later, he inherited his father’s estate. He served as a Whig Member of Parliament for Heylesbury in Wiltshire from 1820 to 1826. In 1826, he left Parliament and became a gentleman farmer near Sleaford. So far so good, but why does Sleaford have such an imposing monument to remember him?
Between 1832 and 1841, he was the elected MP for Lincolnshire South. According to an online article in “Lincolnshire World”, during this period:
“Henry, a father of 10, was a budding entrepreneur and his interest in agricultural affairs was always to the fore. During his time as MP for S. Lincolnshire … Henry opposed corn imports, championed steam power, and supported steam railways rather than canals. In 1842, Henry became President of the Royal Agricultural Society.”
So, it appears that Henry worked well for improving the prosperity of Lincolnshire. He proposed and carried out projects that would have helped both the locals and his own agricultural endeavours. In these things, the local people rated him as being so successful that after his death, they raised more than £900 to pay for the construction of his 65-foot-tall memorial in Sleaford. It was designed by the Birmingham architect William Boyle, and it remains a remarkably immodest landmark in a pleasantly modest town.
WHEN I WAS A YOUNG child, I remember going with my parents to south London to visit a Spanish sculptor, who had escaped to Britain as a refugee during the Spanish Civil War. Although we only visited him once, I recall that his name was something like ‘Alberti’. That is all I can remember, and I do not believe that my parents ever spoke about him much since that visit made maybe more than 60 years ago.
Today, the 20th of May 2023, we spent a couple of hours in the Lincolnshire Town of Stamford. This attractive place has several lovely old churches, one of which is St Martins. This edifice contains a chapel filled with glorious funerary monuments of members of the Cecil family, which was of great importance during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and other Tudors.
When we were about to leave the church, I spotted a modern wood carving of the head of a man with a beard and moustache. Although it was not nearly as attractive as the Cecil monuments, I decided to examine it. I do not know why I did, but I am glad that I did.
I was surprised to discover that the carved head was created by Jose Manuel de Alberdi Elorza (1922-2008). Beneath the head there is a notice with the following words written by Alberdi: “A kind of anti-war protest… The face at the moment just when Christ died on the cross … The deed is done. We have killed.”
The sculptor was two years younger than my mother, also a sculptor. All that I can discover about Alberdi on the Internet is that he was Basque and a refugee from the Spanish Civil War. Also, he taught sculpture at the St Martins School of Art in London from 1948 to 1958 , which is where my mother made sculptures during that time.
Although I cannot be certain, I am pretty sure that this head in Stamford was made by the Spanish sculptor we visited in South London so many years ago.
SEVERAL OF OUR FRIENDS born in India came to study accountancy in the UK during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. In those days, studying accountancy had two benefits apart from giving our friends the opportunity to have careers in commerce and finance. First, coming to the UK was an opportunity to live abroad, and, more importantly, because they had to study whilst employed by an accountancy firm, they got income to cover their living expenses. All of them have had successful careers in business and/or banking. Some years earlier (in 1950), Lancelot Ribeiro (1933-2010), born in Bombay, came to the UK to study accountancy. However, he did not complete the course. Instead, he began studying art at London’s St Martins School of Art between 1951 and 1953. At that time, he lived in London’s Chalk Farm with his half-brother, the artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), who was born in Goa. In August 1954, Lancelot was conscripted into the RAF. He was released from this in January 1955. Then, he returned to Bombay.
In Bombay, Lancelot was employed by the Life Insurance Corporation. He remained in this company for four years, by which time his poetry and painting were becoming recognised by Bombay’s artistic community, notably by the poet Nissim Ezekiel, the critic and poet Rajagopal Parthasarathy, the critic Rudolf von Leyden (German born, but lived most of his life in Bombay), and the Tata industrial group (who commissioned some of his works). By 1959, he had decided to make painting his profession. By the early 1960s, he was exhibiting in both group shows and solo exhibitions and was gaining wider, and influential recognition. Lancelot and his wife returned to London at the end of 1962/early 1963.
After living in various parts of London, the Ribeiro’s settled in the Belsize Park area of Hampstead – at Belsize Park Gardens – for a few years. By now, Lancelot’s works, and those of other Indian artists living in England, were being exhibited both in the UK and India. Life in London was not easy even in the late 1970s for people with ‘brown’ skins as Lancelot found out the hard way. Several times, he was attacked in the streets near Swiss Cottage, and once badly injured when attacked outside Hampstead Police Station. In addition, some of his pictures were vandalised when on display at the Swiss Cottage Library in 1986-87. However, none of this subdued his irrepressible creativeness.
Some of his prolific and highly inventive artworks were exhibited in Hampstead’s Burgh House when it held an “Indian Month” in 1980. Although he did not enjoy as much fame as his better-known half-brother, Ribeiro’s work is well worth seeing. An opportunity to do so is currently available at Burgh House until the 17th of December 2023. The well-displayed exhibition, “Lancelot Ribeiro: Finding Joy in a Landscape” can be seen free of charge. The Burgh House website describes it as follows:
“A journey through the changing landscapes of Hampstead-based expressionist poet and painter Lancelot Ribeiro, from his roots in pre-Independence 1930s India to life in mid-20th century Britain.
Ribeiro experimented with form and materials, moving from conventional depictions of the Lake District to otherworldly townscapes and sharp, bright abstracts inspired by geology. Each work encourages us to look anew, reconsider the form and substance of our environment, and how we might depict and share those landscapes with others.”
I can strongly recommend that you pay a visit to this show to see the works of an artist, who should be more widely known.
Finally, I wonder what would have become of our few dear friends had they abandoned accountancy prematurely. One of them, in his retirement from many years in banking, has become written a highly acclaimed novel. Another, who retired from a career in an international corporation, is now highly developing his skills as a cook. A third, who dropped out of accountancy, has become a successful translator.
GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS (1817-1904) was a sculptor and a painter. I first became acquainted with him and his work when I was writing my book about west London (“Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”). My interest in him increased when I was writing a book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). Between about 1850 and 1870, he lived with Thoby and Sara Prinsep’s family, about whom I have written in another book, in the now-demolished Little Holland House in Kensington. Not far from where he lived, there are two bronze statues by Watts: a portrait of Lord Holland in Holland Park, and the equestrian sculpture “Physical Energy” in Kensington Gardens. While living with the Prinseps, Watts met Julia Cameron, who was Sara’s sister. Cameron lived at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in a house that neighboured the property where the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived. Watts, who had helped the Prinseps rent Little Holland House, was a frequent visitor to Freshwater, where he met and socialised with both Tennyson and Cameron. Watts, who was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry, painted Tennyson several times and was himself photographed by Cameron. And Watts painted at least one portrait of Cameron – now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Apart from the numerous paintings and sculptures created by Watts, one of his most unusual works is neither a sculpture nor a painting – it is what one might describe as a precursor of Conceptual Art. Although attractive, the concept that it conveys – self-sacrifice – is more important than its appearance. Located in Postman’s Park, which extends from Aldersgate Street to King Edward Street, it is a memorial to ordinary people who lost their lives during peacetime whilst trying to save those of others. Created in 1898 but conceived by Watts in 1887, the work of art is called “Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice”. It consists of a stretch of wall protected from the elements by a wooden loggia, which was designed by Ernest George who helped design the buildings at the Golders Green Crematorium. On the wall there are memorials to those who sacrificed their lives whilst rescuing others. Each memorial is made of ceramic tiles and records the name of the hero and a brief account of how he or she met their deaths. The first four memorials were designed and made by William de Morgan. Later, others were made by the Royal Doulton pottery. There is room for 120 memorials but by 1931, only 53 had been placed. In 2009, the Diocese of London permitted another memorial to be added.
Watts supervised this project. When he died, his widow, his second wife Mary, took over its supervision, but after a while she lost interest in it as she began concentrating on the management of the Watts Mortuary Chapel and the Watts Gallery – both near Compton in Surrey. The memorial is in Postman’s Park, which was formerly the graveyard of the nearby St Botolphs Aldersgate Church and is, I am guessing, maintained by the Church of England or a local authority.
The memorials are both fascinating and moving. Here are a few examples:
“Mary Rogers. Stewardess of the Stella. Mar 30 1899.Self sacrificed by giving up her life belt and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship.”
“Herbert Peter Cazaly. Stationer’s clerk. Who was drowned at Kew in endeavouring to save a man from drowning. April 21, 1889”
“Herbert Maconoghu. School boy from Wimbledon aged 13. His parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue his two school fellows who were drowned at Glovers Pool, Croyde, North Devon. August 28, 1882”
According to Wikipedia:
“Maconoghu was actually Herbert Moore McConaghey, the son of Matthew and Martha McConaghey, and he was born in Mynpoorie in India where Matthew was working as a settlement officer for the Imperial Civil Service,”
Standing amidst these memorials is a small sculpture depicting Watts. Its inscription reads:
“The Utmost for the Highest. In memoriam George Frederic Watts, who desiring to honour heroic self-sacrifice placed these records here.”
Luckily for us, Watts’s unusual creation has been kept in good condition. Since 1972, it has been a protected structure. Unlike most of the art made by Watts, the memorial in Postman’s Park was an idea created by him, rather than something he made with his own hands. I had seen the memorial several times in the past, but today, the 17th of May 2023, I took my wife to see it for the first time. A few weeks earlier, while visiting the Tate Britain, we had seen an art installation by Susan Hiller. It incorporated photographs of 41 of the memorials on Watts’s wall of memory in Postman’s Park. Having seen this, we wanted to see the original, and were not disappointed.
You can discover more about Julia Margaret Cameron, Tennyson, the Prinsep family, and Watts in my book “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and her Circle”, which is available from Amazon:
THE LAST TIME I watched a film at the Everyman cinema in London’s Hampstead was in the 1960s. In my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, which I published in 2022, I described the cinema and my recollections of it as follows:
“It was at the Everyman that I went to the cinema for the first time in my life. My parents, who were not regular cinemagoers, decided that the rather sad French film, “The Red Balloon” (first released in the UK in late 1956), was a suitable production to introduce me, a four-and-a-half-year-old, to the joys of cinema. My parents, who tended to avoid popular culture, probably selected the “Red Balloon”, an arty French film, because it was a little more recherché than the much more popular Disney films that appeared in the late 1950s. The cinema, which still exists, was, according to Christopher Wade, built in 1888 as a drill hall for The Hampstead Rifle Volunteers. Then, in 1919 its windows were bricked-in, and it became MacDermott’s Everyman Theatre. In 1933, it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films in the summer months. I loved these films and used to visit the Everyman on hot sunny afternoons when I was often the only person in the auditorium. In those days, the cinema’s auditorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled household gas. Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. They might have there for use as emergency lighting in case there was an electricity supply failure. These were quite frequent during my childhood but never happened when I was at the Everyman.
The cinema is, I have been told, now a very luxurious place. The seats are comfortable and have tables beside them, at which waiting staff serve food and drinks. This is a far cry from what I can remember of the rather basic cinema in the 1960s. Back in those days, the Everyman, like the now long-gone Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, favoured screenings of ‘arty’ films rather than the more popular films that most cinemas showed. Now, the Everyman, formerly an art-house cinema, thrives by screening films that are most likely to attract full houses. That this is the case is yet more evidence to support the idea that Hampstead is not what it was. Many of the sort of people who might enjoy arty films that attract often small niche audiences, who used to live in Hampstead, can no longer afford to reside in the area.”
Today, the 16th of May 2023, my daughter took me to see a film at the Everyman (see picture). As already mentioned, the cinema is now quite ‘swish’. It had been re-designed late last year. Whereas once it had only one screen, now it has two. We saw our film, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, screened in what was the original auditorium – Screen 1. The ceiling supported by tapering metal struts is how I remember it from at least 50 years ago. Otherwise, all has been changed. The smell of gas has gone. The seating is curious to say the least. It consists of well-upholstered armchairs and couches, all well separated from each other. In between them, there are tables, and metal wine cooler buckets are attached beside each of them. The upholstery materials are colourful and differ from seat to seat. For my taste, the aesthetics are not too successful. The screen is placed high enough so that it does not matter how tall a person sits in the seat in front of you. The acoustics were good. All in all, it was a pleasure revisiting the cinema in which I saw my first ‘movie’ sixty-six years ago.
During my first visit to India (in early 1994), my in-laws encouraged my wife and me to take sightseeing trips organised by the Karnataka State Road Transport Company (‘KSRTC’). These coach trips, each of which lasted more than 12 hours, involved seeing many interesting sights. During one of them, we visited the old (12th century and earlier) temples at Belur.
After viewing the temples, we left the area in which they are enclosed, and stood waiting to board our bus. A small boy approached us. In his hand there were three small carved stone elephants, which he offered to sell us. They were quite attractive, but not something that we wanted. He began by saying:
“Two hundred rupees only.”
We declined his offer.
“One hundred and fifty rupees,” he said.
We were not tempted.
We said “No, thanks.”
Again, we refused. He brought the elephants closer to us.
“We really don’t want them,” we explained to him. Then, he said:
“Have them for nothing.”
We told him that we did not want them, and he wandered off,
Today, almost thirty years later, I still wonder what would have happened next if we had accepted the three elephants without paying anything to the little chap. Even though we did not buy or accept the three cute little carvings, I can still see them in my mind’s eye.
ALMOST WITHOUT REALISING IT, it seems that I have developed an interest in 19th century photographers. A visit to the Isle of Wight in 2022 led to me becoming interested in the life and work of the pioneer of artistic photography – Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879). She lived at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight between 1860 and 1875. It was here that she produced most of her highly creative photographs. I have written a book about her: “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and Her Circle”.
Five years after Julia left the Isle of Wight, my great-grandfather Franz Ginsberg travelled from the German Empire to King Williams Town (‘KWT’) in the eastern part of what was then the southern African Cape Colony. Aged 18, he arrived there with his future brother-in-law Jakob Rindl. The two men set up what became a successful commercial photographic studio in the town, which they might have chosen because many of its European inhabitants were German speakers. Although Jakob continued the studio after 1885, Franz diversified his activities by founding soap, match, and candle factories in the town.
I believe that despite becoming a successful industrialist and politician, Franz continued taking photographs as a hobby. Because of his success in KWT, other members of his family came out from Germany to work in the town. Amongst these were Franz’s nieces, Anna and Else Ginsberg. These two intrepid ladies founded a photographic studio in KWT. They were the first ladies to have opened a commercial photography studio in what was to become South Africa. Of interest, amongst each of the generations of Franz and Jakob’s descendants, there have been keen photographers including myself,
In May 2023, when we visited the city of Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, we came across a museum that helped to bring 19th century photography back to life for me. It is the Museu de Fotografia da Madeira in Rua de Carriera. The museum is housed in what had been the premises of the commercial studio founded by Vicente Gomes da Silva (1827-1906) in 1863. The studio remained in business until 1978. In 1982, the Regional Government of Madeira purchased the building – Atelier Vicente – and used it for a museum of photography.
Vicente Gomes da Silva became interested in photography in 1856, and by 1859 he was recorded as an amateur photographer in a local newspaper published in the June of that year. By 1863, he had made photography his business venture, and moved into the Atelier on Rua Carriera in 1865. A year later, he was appointed photographer to the Empress of Austria. His son, also called Vicente, continued the business, and was appointed photographer to the Portuguese royal family in 1903.
The museum is interesting not only because it exhibits the sorts of cameras that must have been used by my ancestors in South Africa and by Julia Margaret Cameron, but also because features that were characteristic of early photographic studios have been maintained and explained. The Atelier was opened before there was electricity on Madeira. The main studio area was arranged so that it was lit by northern light that filtered through skylights and curtains designed to make it a homogenous light source. Part of the studio’s laboratories had skylights that allowed ingress of sunlight that was required at various stages of preparing the photographic plates. At the back of the studio, there are a set of sliding panels, each painted with a different scene that could be used as a background to the people being photographed. The desired scene could be slid out behind the area where the subjects posed for their pictures. In other rooms, there are exhibits illustrating the history of cameras and photographic processes, as well as a fine collection of reproductions of images captured by some of the many photographers – both Portuguese and others – who worked in Madeira. Some of the foreigners who took photographs on the island included British photographers such as Russell Manners Gordon (1829-1906) and Alexander Lamont Henderson (1837-1907).
Although I have no information about the appearances of the photographic studios used by my relatives in 19th century KWT, seeing the museum helped to give me an inkling of how their workplaces must have been. In the case of Julia Margaret Cameron, the places where she created images in her home, Dimbola, were far more makeshift from what I can gather.
Except for Julia Margaret Cameron, all the photographers I have mentioned, and many others working in the nineteenth century, aimed to create visually accurate images of their subjects. Often crystal clear, these pictures are fascinating but usually lifeless. What made Julia Cameron’s photography both unusual and full of life was her experimentation with focussing and processing. She used the camera not as equipment for capturing real life accurately on film but as a tool for creating works of art, in the same way as a painter uses the brush and the sculptor uses chisels. By doing this, she was far in advance of her time; experimentation with photography as a creative art form really only took off in the 20th century. The portraits and other composition that she created on film successfully captured not only their external appearance but also her astute interpretations of her subjects’ personalities.