Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Mr Beeson’s Academy and Studio

This is a slightly unusual carte de visite for several reasons. The intricately decorated surround which frames the cameo portrait is of a style that I’ve not seen used on English mounts, the top corners are rounded while the lower corners are not (and I don’t think the bottom edge has been trimmed), and the motif on the reverse was probably a “one off” - it could have been designed by the photographer himself.

Portrait of unidentified child, c.1873-1876
Carte de visite by J.W. Beeson of Wirksworth
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The portrait is of a young unidentified child partly covered by what looks to be a very light coloured, possibly white, crocheted shawl or something similar. It may even be a christening dress. The central oval cameo has an artificial "shadow" to the lower right, which makes it seem more prominent, and is surrounded by a fancy scrollwork design that renders it rather grander than an ordinary carte de visite might appear.

J.W. Beeson’s “bee-sun” motif
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The motif on the reverse contains a bee in the centre of a stylised sun, obviously derived from the photographer’s own surname (Beeson = Bee-Sun). Although I have seen such personalised designs before, they are fairly uncommon.

Wirksworth is a town and parish in central Derbyshire. Its people and history are dealt with in some considerable detail by John Palmer on his Wirksworth web site, an admirable study which incidentally inspired my own South Derbyshire genealogy pages a decade ago.

The Derby Mercury, 10 July 1850

James William Beeson (1827-1879) arrived in Wirksworth in mid- to late 1861, where he established the Excelsior boarding and day-school in Coldwell Street. He was 34 years old, and had already been operating a "classical, mathematical and commercial academy" in Derby for over a decade. He was born in 1827, the son of a Derby publican Thomas Beeson and his wife Hannah née Buxton, and had married Anna Henchley at Ashbourne in 1850, before settling at No 7 Wilmot Street in Derby.

The Derby Mercury, 17 August 1853

Besides the academy, for which regular advertisements appeared in The Derby Mercury, he was also a money lender, somehow connected with life assurance, and occasionally offered his services "in office work of any kind" to architects, builders, engineers, surveyors, solicitors, etc.

The Derby Mercury, 16 January 1861

In early 1861 James Beeson announced in the local press that he had "given up school-teaching, and commenced business as a law stationer, writer, and accountant, house, estate and general agent and collector, architectural, mechanical, engineering, and artistical draughtsman, private teacher, &c." References can be found in the newspapers to "illuminated" documents which Beeson had prepared for special presentations around the county, but by December that year he had moved to Wirksworth.

Bookplate from Walter Meller’s Cashbook, 1861
© and courtesy of John Palmer & Wirksworth.org.uk

He opened a new academy in Coldwell Street, Wirksworth not long after his arrival, and was soon offering a variety of educational services. A double-entry book-keeping ledger probably used for exercises by Walter Meller, a student at Beeson’s Academy, contains entries dated January 1st to May 17th, 1861, and was most likely created later that year.

John Dean’s Chart of the Solar System, 1866
© Nigel Aspdin and courtesy of Wirksworth.org.uk

Fellow photo-sleuth Nigel Aspdin has in his family collection a "Chart of the Solar System" created in 1866 by a distant relative John Dean, aged 13, under the tutelage of Mr J.W. Beeson at the Excelsior Boarding & Day School. This private educational institution clearly did not restrict itself to accounting, scientific pursuits and drawing; in a 19 July 1871 report in The Derby Mercury a Mr Field states, “I have been a teacher of music for three years at Mr. James Beeson's, Wirksworth."

James Beeson appears to have been a late comer to the art of photography, and possibly left little in the way of a photographic legacy. Until my purchase of this carte de visite portrait recently, there was no mention of him in my index of Derbyshire photographers, and Wirksworth expert John Palmer was unaware that Beeson had done any photographic work. Such is often the case with those practitioners who dabble in the profession for relatively brief periods, and are unfortunate enough to be missed by both the decadal census enumerator and intermittent trade directory compilers.

The Derby Mercury, 29 April 1874

However, a thorough search of The Derby Mercury unearthed a single 1874 advertisement for James W. Beeson’s large format panoramic photographic view of Wirksworth, from the Gilkin, and a corresponding advertorial article in the same issue.
Mr. James Beeson has recently issued a panoramic picture of the fine old town of Wirksworth, one of the oldest, most important, and certainly most interesting, of the towns in the county of Derby. The picture reflects the highest possible credit on its producer. It is 32 inches in length by 7 inches in depth, and is therefore of extraordinary size, as with its proper margin the picture is no less that 38 inches by 12 inches. We recommend this picture to our readers - See advt.
The 1874 date corresponds well with the carte de visite. The personal motif on the reverse and the decorative framing on the front, being rather unusual, and perhaps not following general design trends, are not particularly useful for dating. However another unusual feature, the combination of rounded upper corners and square lower corners may suggest that it is from the period when card designers were in the process of converting from square to rounded corners. Having rounded corners made it far easier to slide the cartes de visite into album slots, and I have previously come across combination examples like this from the mid-1870s.

Newspaper extracts from his years in Derby demonstrate that Beeson was quite capable of turning his hand to many skills, and of making the most of opportunities that presented themselves. Perhaps his interests moved on from photography to other things. I think it more likely, however, that he found the business was not as remunerative as he had hoped. The phenomenal growth the industry experienced during the 1860s was not sustained through the 1870s, and many photographers either practiced photography as a side-line, or only stayed in business for very short periods, finding the competition just too stiff for the business to be profitable or to sustain a regular income.

The last trade directory entry for the academy in Wirksworth was in 1876, and when James William Beeson died on 29 April 1879 at Duffield, he was described as a "bookkeeper, late of Wirksworth." He left a wife Anna Maria Beeson (1829-1880), son Walter James Beeson (1857-1835) and daughter Ida Marion Beeson, later Bland (1863-1927).


  1. I am tracing family history for my partner who's surname is Henchley, in my research came upon this website and discovered that Anna Marie Henchley (married to James Beeson) is his GGGG Aunt.
    She was fourth child of 9 and it was very interesting to read all about her husband as I did not realise what his profession was.
    Thank you

  2. Thanks for leaving this comment, Angstep. He was an interesting man indeed. Regards, Brett


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