My latest carte-de-visite purchase via a well-known auction site caught my eye for a number of reasons.
The gentleman featured in this full-length portrait has a magnificent beard, is wearing a smart suit and waistcoat complete with watch chain and is carrying a silk top hat which has caught the light.
But it was actually the painted background in front of which the gentleman is standing that particularly attracted my attention.
Those familiar with Newcastle and the north east of England will recognise it as the lantern tower of the anglican Newcastle Cathedral, England’s most northerly.
Until 1882, it was known as St. Nicholas’ parish church, but the building’s distinctive lantern tower has been part of the city’s skyline since the 15th century.
The verso of the cdv confirms it to be by “W. & D. Downey of 9 Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne” and states the firm is “Patronized By Her Majesty.”
This locates it to a period between March 1862 when Downey opened its studio in Eldon Square, and September 1866 when the firm took its first portrait of Queen Victoria.
After this point, it used the slogan “Photographers to Her Majesty” on its products even though its first Royal Warrant was not granted until 1879.
What I hadn’t realised until looking at the cathedral’s website is that in 1865, the celebrated architect Sir George Gilbert Scott was commissioned to underpin and rebuild the lantern tower after it started to lean as a result of nearby building work.
This dating suggests that Downey’s use of the landmark in its branding was not merely a sign of its arrival in Newcastle from nearby South Shields where it started in 1856.
Work to correct the leaning lantern tower would have meant St. Nicholas Church was a talking-point and customers having their portrait taken may have wished to mark their connection with Newcastle and its revitalised skyline accordingly.
It also might inform the dating in the mid-1860s of another Downey cdv in my collection (erroneously titled by an unknown hand in pencil as “St. Peter’s”) in which the then St. Nicholas’ Church takes centre stage.
An illustrated talk that I presented recently for the Royal Photographic Society’s Historical Group set me thinking about one image in particular.
The subject of the talk was the photography firm of W. & D. Downey and its first decade in the North-East of England in the 1850s and 1860s.
Downey’s celebrated image of Alexandra as Princess of Wales carrying her daughter Louise on her back featured in an earlier post (2nd December 2022).
In the past year, I’ve started collecting Downey carte-de-visite. Such was their ubiquity that many thousands are still in circulation.
The carte-de-visite format appeared in the late-1850s and immediately proved popular with the public.
Aside from its affordability, a carte-de-visite by design nestles conveniently in the palm of your hand
As the talk took place at Newcastle Cathedral, I was pleased to track down a card that featured the building’s distinctive ‘lantern tower’ and then included it in my presentation.
Confusingly though, at some point in its life, an unknown hand has written ‘St Peters’ in pencil on the front of the card, a point that members of my North-East audience were quick to point out.
In fact, the cathedral’s patron saint is St. Nicholas and not St. Peter.
However, that’s not the only aspect of the photograph that prompted a little head scratching.
When you turn the card over (to its ‘verso’), it lists ‘W. & D. Downey. Photographers’ as being based at ‘4 Eldon Square, Newcastle on Tyne.’
This is unexpected and a little perplexing.
As proclaimed in regular adverts for its wares in the local press, the company’s studio in the city from 1862 to the late 1880s was at 9 Eldon Square rather than at number 4.
What then might be the explanation for this apparent anomaly?
Eldon Square, a group of impressive townhouses created by the eminent architect John Dobson between 1825 and 1831, became one of the most fashionable addresses in Newcastle by the mid-19th century.
Public records reveal that 4 Eldon Square was home to one ‘Thomas Humble MD,’ a physician who features in both the 1861 and 1871 censuses for that address.
According to a notice he placed in the Newcastle Courant (1st March 1867), Dr. Humble served the Newcastle Dispensary, a medical charity treating the city’s poor and destitute, for nearly 38 years. He was resigning the position, he said, due to his ‘increasing engagements.’
Given this background, is it possible that he needed to let out rooms to his photographer neighbour to earn additional income?
Downey’s photographic business was certainly booming and extra capacity to accommodate its growing clientele may well have been welcome, if only on a temporary basis.
This scenario is partly supported by other information on the card’s verso.
It lists ‘illustrious and eminent persons’ the firm had photographed including Her Majesty Queen Victoria.
This dates the card’s likely production to late 1866/early 1867 by which point Downey had recently photographed the Queen at Balmoral for the first time.
On the other hand, human error might have been responsible.
Simply put, a batch of carte-de-visite produced for Downey were printed with the wrong address featuring number 4 rather than number 9 Eldon Square.
Despite this error, they were used anyway and sold to a public whose main interest lay in a carte-de-visite photograph rather than its ‘advert’ verso.
There is one remaining possibility though and one that needs to be considered by collectors of all kinds of objects.
That the card is a fake.
If so, it’s a very convincing one.
The faker has even gone to the trouble of attaching a sales sticker for Allan, a bookseller, stationer and news agent in 1860s Newcastle, known to have been one of Downey’s sales outlets.
Or there might be another explanation that I have failed to consider.
Here’s a link to a Twitter thread prompted by this post …
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