'From today, painting is dead!’ exclaimed French artist Paul Delaroche in 1839 on hearing about English scientist Henry Fox Talbot’s success in making the first negatives from which multiple prints could be taken.
Indeed, the world’s first photograph had been taken only a few years before (around 1826 - see Milestones of Still Photography below) but within 30 years of Talbot’s invention, photography had developed from a product of the few to one for the masses.
(Right: Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Northumberland.)
Its rise coincided with that of an affluent middle class who clamoured to be captured on glass plate and then later, in the latter quarter of the 19th century, by the lower orders flocking in huge numbers to photographic studios as cheap portraiture became widely available through the development (from the 1850s onwards) of the carte-de-visite or photographic calling card.
This enthusiasm led to virtually every home in the land having a ‘family album’ full of formal photographs which, in tandem with the family bible, enabled all but the very poorest to record family lineage and notable events.
(Left, South Landing, Flamborough, North Yorkshire - horse rather than today's tractor drawn - thanks for correction from Paul Arro)
Soon, large prints were also being ordered and framed up for display on the walls of the ‘best room’ to somewhat ape the grand picture galleries of the nation’s aristocratic stately homes - a tradition which largely continues to this day. Such photographs symbolized social respect and material progression both within and without the family.
One interesting aspect of these formal images is the opportunity to look closely at the knitted ‘gansey,’ the traditional working sweater of North East and Yorkshire fishermen.
They were knitted without seams and designed to be tight fitting and high waisted (I don’t know why but Simon Cowell springs to mind!), although underarm gussets provided free movement.
Each fishing community is said to have its unique pattern to enable those unfortunate to have been drowned and swept ashore miles from home to be identified and returned to their family.
Men and boys needed several each as they were constantly worn when out at sea, on shore and for ‘best.’
(Right: a three man Staithes coble crew.)
Again, like much else, interest in these traditional garments has soared in recent years and information can easily be sought from a range of books and websites. Knitting patterns and the finished article can also be purchased (see links).
Back to photography.
The cameras of the time were large and cumbersome, invariably made from dense mahogany with heavy brass fittings.
They used whole glass plates to produce negatives measuring 6.5ins x 8.5ins (although half and quarter plates were also available) and as such, were able to capture an exceptional amount of detail.
Photography was not an easy craft to master as taking the image was only the start of a long and arduous process.
However, this was to dramatically change in the early half of the 20th century with the development of celluloid roll film and the arrival of cheap cameras such as the Box Brownie.
(Left: bringing in the catch at Flamborough, Yorkshire.)
This evolution transferred the power to take photographs from the professional and/or rich amateur to anyone in the family.
And the result, a decline in formal portraiture and a rise in the spontaneous ‘snap,’ celebrating everything from the family pet to the family holiday - all providing a tangible and immediate connection to the past, and all treasured by the families concerned.
However, photography also enables us to evaluate the past with a more critical eye.
At the time most of the photographs in this gallery were taken, fishermen (amongst other labouring classes) were perceived to be on the one hand, inverted, stubborn, retarded and resistant to change and on t’other, as wise, shrewd and stoically courageous (for wrestling a living from the dangerous deep).
(Right: beach fish auction, North Landing, Flamborough, North Yorkshire - thanks for correction from Paul Arro.)
This double standard also applied to photography.
The vast majority of the images shown here were taken either because of a personal need within a fishing family to record the physical reality of men who could so easily be lost at sea the next day, or were taken on the personal whim of either professional photographers such as Frank Meadow Sutcliffe of Whitby or gifted amateurs such as George Woods of Hastings.
Outside of families, such photographs were not highly regarded. Perhaps their realism was too much to stomach without a veneer of artistic aestheticism.
In contrast to these and other photographs, similar images in the form of etchings, watercolours, oils and even postcards were widely admired and eagerly acquired.
(Left: herrin' lasses at Scarborough or Seahouses ?)
This double standard survived until fairly recently even though the foundation of photo realism had been laid down as long ago as 1876, when Scottish photographer John Thomson captured the poor on the streets of London.
Perhaps it is only now with our perceived loss of identity that such photographs resonate so clearly down through the years - to give back what we so sadly lack today - a strong sense of certainty, purpose and place.
The following photographs were largely taken between 1875 and 1910 by Francis (Frank) Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941).
He is widely known for his pictorial compositions of Whitby fisherfolk which, whilst appearing natural and realistic, were often very carefully orchestrated.
(Right: Whitby cobbles by Sutcliffe.)
His images are no more or less than ‘fine art’ conceits for which he won much praise and over 60 gold, silver and bronze medals.
Interestingly, these images had little commercial worth during his lifetime (for example, they were never published as postcards) and it is only in the last two decades that they have underpinned a successful worldwide publishing enterprise called The Sutcliffe Gallery.
Indeed, shots of fisher lads and lasses were taken in his spare time as a hobby whilst little survives of his ‘bread and butter’ work - his paying clientele, the studio commissions of elegant Victorian families on holiday - as these glass plates were often destroyed.
(Left & below: Runswick Bay by Sutcliffe.)
His surviving body of work now represents one of the most comprehensive records available of a Victorian seaside resort, port and fishing community. Examples can be viewed in the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, the National Media Museum and The Sutcliffe Gallery (see links).
However, Frank Sutcliffe is not the only photographer to leave behind a nostalgic and atmospheric record of a Victorian fishing community. Another is George Woods, a selection of whose photographs follow (no cobles tho!)
George was also highly skilled in capturing striking images of Victorians at work, rest and play but this time his home was the seaside town of Hasting in Sussex.
He is especially noted for his glass plates of the town’s several hundred strong fishing community that operated off a local beach called the Stade.
Only in the last few years has the full historical significance of his work been acknowledged.
George was only one of many thousands of amateurs across the country to record local scenes and people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
He died aged 81 in 1934 leaving well over 2,000 glass plates. (Below: Woods' shots of the famous Stade fishing huts.)
(Right & below: a selection of miscellaneous East Coast views.)
(Above: a group of Seahouses fishermen. Below: goodness knows where?)
(Below left: Cullercoats Bay, Northumberland. Below right: unloading the catch at either Whitby or Scarborough, Yorkshire.)
(Below: Cullercoats Bay, Northumberland. See, in another gallery, the half hull 'John' opposite Tynemouth Headland.)
(Below: Cullercoats Bay, Northumberland.)
(Below left: Filey Brigg, Yorkshire. Below right: Cullercoats' fisherlasses.)
(Below: a Staithes fisherlass wearing the traditional bonnet.)
(Above: Psamathe was built by Hargrave (Arg) Potter Hopwood (the renowned Flamborough coble builder) in about 1927 for the two Morrow brothers and may have been the last true sailing coble to be built on the east coast. She was a common sight on Hornsea Beach in the summers before and after WWII. In the early 1960s she was sold to a Mr Wigglesworth in Scarborough. Thanks to Hornsea Museum for the info and Paul Arro for the correction.)
(Below: panoramic view of Newbiggin Bay.)
(Above: Newbiggin fishermen.Below left: coble in Blyth harbour?)
(Below: Laura Johnson (nee Knight) painting on Staithes foreshore with Fred Jackson.)
(Left: an old Lighthouse Keeper. Below: a very early shot of Tynemouth Headland from King Edward's Bay showing the lighthouse and a crane constructing the pier in 1855.)
Milestones in Still Photography
1826 (circa): the world’s first photograph, called ‘View from the window at Le Gras,’ was taken and developed by Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niepce. He called his process ‘heliography’ or sun drawing. Exposure took eight hours.
1839: Dutch chemist Robert Cornelius (who immigrated to Philadelphia), took a daguerreotype portrait of himself outside of his family’s store to make it the world’s first human photograph.
1839: British mathematician and astronomer Sir John Frederick William Herschel was the first to coin the terms ‘photography,’ ‘negative,’ ‘positive’ and the vernacular ‘snapshot.’
1850s (late): Andre Disderi popularised photos-as-calling-cards (called carte-de-visite) which, because they were cheap to mass produce, became a huge craze for the Victorian public. The carte-de-visite (left) is of Eugen Sandow, known as the world’s first bodybuilder.
1861: the world’s first colour photograph (of a tartan ribbon) was taken by Thomas Sutton under the direction of scot James Clerk Maxwell.
1872: another famous (and more recognizable as such) early colour photograph (of Angouleme in the south of France) was taken by Louis Ducos du Hauron.
1876: the foundation of photojournalism was laid down by Scottish photographer John Thomson when he documented the street people of London.
1885: George Eastman (founder of Kodak) invents roll film.
1888: Kodak launches its first camera, effectively the birth of amateur photography.
1893: the first underwater photograph was taken by French scientist Louis Bouton - the model was said to have been so excited that he held the identification plate upside down.
1975: Kodak invents the first digital camera.