Wolverhampton's Earliest Photographers

Frank Sharman

with contributions from David Simkin

This article has been compiled by Frank Sharman from some information collected by himself and first published on this site; and from a lot of more precise information supplied by David Simkin in response to the original article.

The earliest reference we have to a photographer in Wolverhampton is this advertisement which appeared in the Wolverhampton Post Office Directory for 1847 and is itself dated March 1847.  

The Royal coat of arms at the top is not significant: in Victorian times people used it liberally and without authority.  

The main text is interesting:  "So unerringly faithful is this natural portraiture, that the very play of life is seen in every feature.  To those who wish to perpetuate the memory of friends, or to mark the varying phases of life, here is an agent that will convey both to a period when memory will be no more required, or other scenes arise.  So exceedingly interesting is the process and its results, that the proprietor earnestly invites the Intellectual and Scientific of the town and neighbourhood, to see for themselves".

At the foot of the advert are the words:  "Attendance Daily, except in the smoky, dull days of winter, - then only in fine weather".  Early photography relied entirely on natural light and a studio in the Market Place, not far from, amongst other factories, Manders varnish works, might not get too much of that.  

The advertisement does not name the photographer concerned but it seems that it must have been John Duncan, who opened his Photographic Rooms at Lich Gates, Market Place, in August 1846.  [see: Wolverhampton Chronicle, 5 August 1846, p.2, col. 1].  Duncan apparently remained at Market Place until 1847/48.

The same studio was also advertised in the Directory for 1849.  The expanded text lets us know that the studio was run by "Mr. Rollason" who has been licensed by Mr. Beard (who has the patent rights for Great Britain) to use the Daguerreotype process. 

And the studio is now described as "a commodious gallery and rooms, on the premises of Mr. Baker, Market Place, Wolverhampton".  Rollason also declares that he willing to take portraits of "ladies and gentleman in the country ... at their own residences".  

Although Rollason is only in attendance "daily from ten till dusk" he seems more confident about the light:  "Portraits may be taken in any state of the weather, wintry or otherwise - a couldy or hazy atmosphere simply lengthening the time of sitting for a few seconds".

Alexander Rollason took over the studio from Duncan at the end of 1848. [see: Wolverhampton Chronicle, 13 December 1848, p2, col 3].  Rollason had obtained a licence from Richard Beard to use the daguerreotype process in South Staffordshire in 1848. 

David Simkin has found a baptism record for an Alexander Rollason, who can be assumed to be identical to the Wolverhampton daguerreotypist:-  Alexander Rollason, born 9 July 1814, son of Thomas & Mary Ann Rollason, baptised 12 August 1814, at St Phillip's Church, Birmingham. 

Rollason remained in Wolverhampton until 1851.  The entry in White's PO Directory for Staffordshire for that year reads:  "ROLLASON, Alex  Photographic Artist, High Green, Wolverhampton".  Rollason also traded as a medico-galvanic operator and a dealer in galvanic apparatus. At the end of 1851, Rollason was working as a photographer in Hereford. In 1853, he became the operator and manager of the District Photographic Rooms in Birmingham. Rollason stayed in Birmingham until 1858. In the early 1860s he was working as a chemist in London. [Details of Rollason's career from " A Faithful Likeness : The First Photographic Portrait Studios in the British Isles " by Bernard & Pauline Heathcote ].

Another early photographer was Edward Monson (born 2 May 1821, Colchester, Essex ). Monson held a daguerreotype licence for Essex and parts of Suffolk and operated studios in Ipswich and Colchester in the early 1850s.  In 1854 Monson moved to the Midlands, operating as a photographer in Coventry and Birmingham. He was an itinerant photographer and in April 1855 he was taking portraits at Mr Warr's premises in Darlington Street, Wolverhampton. 

The most famous of these early practitioners of the art was Oscar Gustav Rejlander whose career in Wolverhampton, and later, is recorded elsewhere on this site by Bev Parker.

The Wolverhampton photographers were indeed early.  The Daguerreotype process had only been made available in 1839 and the calotype process at about the same time.  Further developments soon appeared and photography became a kind of craze from about 1850.  This timing was unfortunate in some ways for traditional artists.

For centuries artists were seen as artisans or craftsmen and were usually expected to paint or draw in accordance with the directions of whoever engaged them, not only as to subject matter but even down to composition.  After all, it was the rich, landed classes who knew all about art, about what was good or great art and what was not.

In the 1700s artists had started a protracted battle to get themselves seen as as gentlemen with special skills and understandings, the people who determined what was art and what was not.  They had just about succeeded in this task when photography - which tended to be seen as a mechanical process of reproduction - threatened to set back the status of the artist. True, artists had long used the camera obscura - though they tended to keep fairly quiet about it - and many of them tried to see this new technique as being nothing more than a similar sort of potential aid to the artists. Others simply dismissed the system as not being art at all.

For others the system was not really art, simply because it was not good enough at what it was trying to do.  Many Victorians, George Wallis and Christopher Dresser among them, had engaged themselves in trying to find a method of reproducing original works of art en masse. The Daguerreotype obviously failed in this as each photo was a one off, from which multiple copies could not be reproduced. 

The later processes which used negatives, from which multiple prints could be taken, were much nearer the mark but it would be argued that they did not show the hand of the artist and that the photographer had insufficient control over so many elements of the picture that the final print was more mechanical than artistic.  [Wallis certainly, and Dresser probably, and others were trying to find a way in which the work of art itself was reproduced;  they were not, primarily, trying to find a way to reproduce an existing work of art - thought Matthew Boulton was trying to do just that and the Wolverhampton man, Joseph Barney, much developed this technique].

The amount of control the user had over the final result was an important point for many of the art gurus, not least Christopher Dresser who, like others but more insistently, went so far as to declare that ornamentation was a higher form of art than what was usually seen as fine art. This was because the ornamental artist started with, usually, some natural form such as a flower or a leaf, and abstracted a design from it.  This intervention of the intellect between model and image elevated the image to a higher level than the work of the painter who merely reproduced what was before him.  Such an argument was necessarily detrimental to the aspirations of photographers who could be seen as exclusively engaged in reproducing what was before them. 

The problem of whether or not photography was art is reflected in the prosaic pages of the trade directories.  The first such directory covering Wolverhampton and mentioning photographers is W. H. Dix & Co.'s General and Commercial Directory of the Borough of Birmingham, of 1858.  Its classified pages contain no heading for "photographers" but it does have a heading for "artists", which reads:

Dodds, William (photographic), Fryer Street
Finley, Alfred, Waterloo Road
Haseler, E (photographic), Waterloo Road
Holt, J. C. G.
Pearson, John F. (photographic), High Green
Rejlander, J. (photographic)
Rowley, John (photographic)
Thomas, George (photographic)
Voss, C. J., 62 Darlington St. h. St. John's Square.

This gives us 6 photographers and 3 people still operating as artists.  The classification largely avoids the directory's producers having to enter into any arguments about how far photography was an art.  It also shows how far photography had already come and how far the ability to capture a very lifelike image had captured the public imagination.  We know that Rejlander was not only photographing local people but was also busily trying to produce works of art, trying to produce them as if photography was an art medium as much as oil paint, water colour etching, engraving or whatever. 

How far the other photographers were doing to we do not know. As to the non-photographic artists we can imagine that they made a living painting family portraits, perhaps painting estates and even prize animals, possibly painting the decorative elements on japanned wares for local companies and almost certainly offering painting lessons, especially water colours for nice brought up young ladies. 

Later carte de visites and cabinet photos of these photographers show, in the way their producers call themselves "artists" or "photographic artists" that the debate was alive and well in Wolverhampton during the rest of the 19th century. 

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