By Nichola Court, Archivst
A few weeks ago, a series of remarkable photographs cropped up in some of my social media feeds. Dating from the 1840s, the photographs captured the inhabitants of Horsham and their surrounds and were taken by Captain Thomas Honywood, a local man with a keen interest in archaeology as well as photography (the Sussex Archaeological Collection features three articles by him – including the rather gruesome-sounding ‘The punishment of pressing to death at Horsham’, from 1867). The photographs shared on social media were taken from an album compiled by Honywood, which was due to be auctioned on 28th October (2020) by Chiswick Auctions with an equally remarkable estimate of £50-70,000. You can read about this sale on Chiswick Auctions website by clicking here.
Much as we would have loved to be able to add this album to our holdings, it’s fair to say that it was somewhat out of our budget. But the images shared by Chiswick Auctions got me thinking about some of the wonderful 19th century photographic collections we do hold, such as the John Fletcher and John Smith collections, both of which I have written about previously, as well a set of mounted photographs about which we know very little. Purchased in 1999 (along with the Fletcher albums) and catalogued as PH 26113, the set – in two presentation boxes (not necessarily contemporary) – comprises 121 carefully composed photographs of locations from across West and East Sussex, taken during the 1890s. Whilst predominantly focused on capturing landscapes and buildings, the photographs also afford views of the occupants of these landscapes and buildings.
From the moment I first came across this set of photographs – some years ago now – whilst poking around our uncatalogued collections, looking for something completely unrelated, I have been intrigued by them, mainly because we have no idea who took them. The photographer clearly had talent, both in terms of artistry and technical skill. As mentioned previously, the photographs are carefully composed and the images are crisp and clear, sharp yet warm in tone, and give us occasional glimpses into the rhythms of local life: a girl at a well, a team of horses pulling a heavy cart up a steep road, fishing nets hung out to dry, and – my personal favourite – washing hung out to dry by the river while two while two boys sit idly alongside, seemingly with nothing much to do.
Furthermore, the photographs have been well developed and mounted in uniform fashion. Each of them is carefully labelled on the reverse, with details of the location and date the photograph was taken.
Clearly, the photographer was skilled at their craft and took great care over their work. Given their skill, it is likely that the photographer was a member of one of the various photographic clubs that sprung up around the country during the latter part of the 19th century, as wealthy Victorians rapidly embraced the new hobby of photography.
It is possible that the photographs were taken during club day trips – if you look closely at another of my favourite photographs, of locals milling around Bosham harbour, you can make out another photographer with his tripod – and that the resulting images were mounted for exhibition.
However, whilst our photographer may well have been a member of a club, my own feeling is that this photographer was a local person, given that the collection offers none of the photographs of fellow club members that feature so prominently in the John Smith collection, for example. This collection has an altogether more lazy, meandering and almost private feel to it, as if the photographer set out for a slow stroll rather than a busy day of socialising and snapping.
Several photographs feature a well-dressed young man, nonchalantly yet deliberately (and artistically) posed for the camera. It’s tempting to think that this man could be our photographer, but there is no evidence of the hand bulb and lead that would have been necessary to take a self-portrait; of course, these photographs could have been taken by someone else but my belief is that they are a companion, rather than the photographer themselves.
Our knowledge and understanding of the contemporaneous John Smith and John Fletcher collections are broadened by knowing more about the men behind them – not only their personal lives, but their motives and interests, and what inspired them to take the photographs that they did. Whilst it is a shame that we do not have any context for this particular collection, that we don’t know the story behind it (or the photographer), it still provides us with a rich depiction of Sussex life in the 1890s. Interest in early photography has grown in recent years, with people interested in the technical history as well as the social history it captures. This surge in interest means increasingly that heritage institutions such as WSRO can’t compete with private buyers and so we are lucky to have previously acquired collections such as this, which we are able to preserve and share with people across the globe.
The collection PH 26113 has been fully digitised and can be viewed on our Online Picture Gallery, which you can access by clicking this hyperlink. You can search by location or enter PH/26113/1 in the search field and then search upwards numerically to view the entire collection.