Old North East photographs show a forgotten way of life

PUBLISHED: 00:16 13 January 2011 | UPDATED: 18:22 20 February 2013

This romantic view of old Newcastle was produced by Lydell ‘Lyd’ Sawyer in the 1890s and published as a postcard in the early years of the 20th century. Images like this, complete with well-dressed ladies and barefoot urchins, were very popular.

This romantic view of old Newcastle was produced by Lydell ‘Lyd’ Sawyer in the 1890s and published as a postcard in the early years of the 20th century. Images like this, complete with well-dressed ladies and barefoot urchins, were very popular.

John Hannavy presents another selection of photographs from bygone days in the North East

To historians like me, early trade directories are a goldmine of useful information and an essential aid in dating photographs. In the early days of photography, studios came and went with surprising speed, being opened with huge expectations of fame and fortune, and closing either due to the ineptitude of many early photographers, or the surprising lack of customers coming through their doors.

So, by the simple rule of thumb that the studio probably opened a year before its first trade directory entry, and probably also a year before its last entry, we can usually date early portrait photography pretty precisely.

Newcastles trade directories are something of a surprise, however, in that the first mention of a photographic studio does not appear until 1873 - although surviving photographs show that, of course, photographers were active in the city a long time before that.

Indeed, in my own collection is a portrait of a young man taken in a Newcastle studio between 1855 and 1857. It is an ambrotype portrait - a photograph on glass where the little positive picture set in a leather case is the actual plate exposed in the camera.

The ambrotype was introduced in the early 1850s and, like the daguerreotype before it, was packaged and sold in exactly the same sort of leather cases which had hitherto been used to house the much more expensive miniature painting. This was all part of the promotion of photography as the new art, and, by association, the leather case helped underline that idea.

This was Victorian high technology brought to the world of art - magical and a little mystical to many of those who saw photographic portraits for the first time.

The photographer who captured the likeness of the unknown young man was John Mawson, a pharmacist from Penrith, who had arrived in Newcastle in the early 1840s and, by 1846, had gone into partnership with his 18-year-old brother-in-law Joseph Wilson Swan to create Mawson & Swan Ltd, photographic chemists, at 13 Mosley Street in Newcastle. For a brief period he also operated a photographic studio at the same address, and in Newcastle trade directories for 1857, he listed himself as a chemist and an artist - with a little p to identify himself as a photographic artist. Using my rule of thumb, that entry would have been put together a year earlier, in 1856.

Mawson & Swan quickly developed such a high reputation for their chemicals, that Mawson, perhaps, could no longer afford the time to take photographs, and in his obituary, the fact that he had once operated as a photographer was not only overlooked, but specifically denied.

Mawson himself went on to become Newcastles mayor, a position he held until he was tragically killed in an explosion in 1876. Swan, of course, went on to pioneer the electric light bulb, and to fame, fortune, and a knighthood.

In 1882 Mawson & Swan Ltd, by then one of the countrys major producers of photographic dry plates, welcomed a visitor from the United States who was to spend two weeks studying how the company operated, learning the secrets of their high quality photographic emulsion manufacture and learning how their quality control systems all ensured consistency in their manufacturing. That visitor was none other than George Eastman, who just a few years later would introduce the world to the Kodak camera and snapshot photography. The rest, as they say, is history.

But back to Newcastles trade directories, where we find several photographers with the surname of Sawyer, but none of them listed before 1873 - no help, really, in trying to establish who took a series of lovely little carte-de-visite photographs taken from a quayside somewhere on the Tyne, in the early to mid 1860s, and identified simply by Sawyer, Photo.
Also in my collection is an unusual cabinet portrait by E Sawyer, which I would date at several years earlier than 1873 - the first year in which he appears in trade directories.

The most eminent Newcastle photographer named Sawyer was, undoubtedly, Lydell Sawyer, who is believed to have been born in Sunderland in 1856. By the mid 1880s he had a studio in Newcastles Northumberland Street, moving from No.56 to No.80 in the early 1890s. From that address, Lyd Sawyer Ltd continued to produce superb high quality photography until at least 1904. Lyd himself, however, moved to Maida Vale in London in 1896, and opened a portrait studio in Regent Street, returning periodically to Newcastle to attend to his studios there.

He counted among his friends the great Whitby photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, and became a member of the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, a group of photographers who broke away from the Royal Photographic Society which, they believed, did not really understand the photographic art. In the Linked Ring, which took on a somewhat mystical structure, every photographer, or link as they described themselves, chose a pseudonym - Sawyer was known as Sheriff, for example.

But while he might have seen himself as an artist, Lyd Sawyer was also commercially aware, and one of the early photographers to see the potential of the picture postcard, publishing some fine images as postcards from around 1902 - many of them photographs he had taken years earlier.

Most of the photographers who took the photographs which graced the regions postcards throughout the Edwardian years, however, remain unknown to us. They sold their pictures to, or were commissioned by, the postcard publishers, but sadly remain anonymous - a sad fate for the men and women who recorded and celebrated the regions history.

Were always keen to receive old photographs of the region. If you have any to share with us, please have them copied to disk (no originals please - theyre too precious to post) and send them or email them to North East Life, PO Box 199, Hexham, Northumberland, NE46 9AG, email neleditor@archant.co.uk

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