Thursday, 20 October 2011

Sepia Saturday 97: Geo W Holden, Brother of the more famous Jack

I've long enjoyed the catchy title of Barbara Trapido's book, and this is an excellent opportunity to appropriate it for my own use. The glimpses into the life and career of this elusive photographer that I've unearthed are intriguing, albeit sporadic and far too brief. However, they pale into medocrity beside the bizarre trail of tall tales left by his older brother.

I don't wish to distract either the reader or myself by the adventures of John Watkins Holden (1844-1917), Imperial prestidigitateur - I've taken a small liberty here in calling him "Jack" - so if you wish to read more of him, please visit Old Crone's fascinating account of The Mad Magician. Suffice to say, he was a man of many talents, not the least of which were a keen sense of self-aggrandisement and a tendency to accrue wives and children.

Image © Brecknock Museum & Art Gallery and courtesy of Culturenet Cymru
Pennoyre Mansion, near Battle, Brecon, c.1895
© Brecknock Museum & Art Gallery Courtesy of Culturenet Cymru

This account concerns the younger of the two brothers: George Watkins Holden was born on 3 September 1846 at Peckham in Surrey and baptised on 15 November at Christchurch, Camberwell. Although his brother was born two years earlier at Albany Terrace, Claines, Worcestershire, both were illegitimate sons of Emma Holden (1817-1887), and most likely fathered by the Welsh Liberal politician and Lord Lieutenant of Brecon, militia Colonel John Lloyd Vaughan Watkins (1802-1865). Watkins may well have provided for his mistress and her children - the 1851 Census shows them visiting a house in King Street, Laugharn, Carmarthenshire, and Emma is described as an annuitant.

Image © and courtesy of Google Maps
King Street, Laugharn, Carmarthenshire
Image © and courtesy of Google Maps

There doesn't seem to be much chance that George or John ever saw much of either their father or his grand residence, the mansion of Pennoyre near Battle in Brecon, built c.1846-1848. The colonel's wife Sophia Louisa Henrietta née Pocock, daughter of a baronet, remained ensconced there with her two sisters, childless but attended by a retinue of fourteen servants, until her death in May 1851. By this time Lloyd Watkins' attentions had strayed again, and he had fathered further illegitimate children by another woman.

By 1861 they had moved back to London, Emma described herself as a house proprietor and George, then aged 14, was working as a miniature painter. He disappears from view for a decade or so, although a girl he later claimed as his daughter was born at Ashburton, Devon in late 1866.

Image © and courtesy of John Rivis
Unidentified family, possibly in Yorkshire, c.1874-1878
Carte de visite by G.W. Holden of Windsor
Image © and courtesy of John Rivis

Then in December 1871, a report in The Era described a "portrait of [a] Welsh bullock ... from a photograph by Mr. George W. Holden of Portmadoc." This is the first evidence I have found of his photographic career, and a trade directory confirms that he was operating a studio in the High Street, Portmadoc, North Wales in 1874. The engaging carte de visite portrait of a large, but as yet unidentified family, probably taken somewhere in Yorkshire in the mid- to late 1870s, is by George W. Holden. By this time he was based at 12a William Street, Windsor, Berkshire, but clearly travelling widely in search of clients.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
St Andrew's Middle Class School, Litchurch, Derby, c.1877
Carte de visite by G.W. Holden of 12a William St, Windsor
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

As early as 1877, when this school photograph including my great-grandfather was taken at St Andrew's Middle Class School in Litchurch, Derby, Holden had identified the niche of scholastic photography as one in which he could specialise.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The card mount is very similar, although not identical, to John Rivis' family group portrait. Judging by the remnants of Holden's output that I have found on the net, schools would be his main clients for at least the next two decades.


Class 1, unidentified group of school girls, c.1881-1883
Carte de visite by "Pen aur" G.W. Holden of London, Paris, Bristol & Swansea

In April 1881 George was in Oxford with his daughter Ada, aged 14, and a young wife Emily Ann, aged 21. It seems unlikely they were there for long because, from the evidence of several carte de visites from the early, mid-, and late 1880s, he appears to have been at least partly based at 42 City Road, Bristol. He operated under the "registered title" of Pen aur, an obvious reference to his father's former estates. The fact that his father died virtually penniless in 1887 was, of course, irrelevant from the point of view of self promotion.


It was during this period that Holden started to advertise his "instantaneous portraits of children with a new patent apparatus." Amongst the numerous extravagant and unverifiable claims made were that he was "under the patronage of several members of the Royal family, colleges, yacht clubs, 'Graphic' &c &c," and that he had studios in London, Paris, Bristol and Swansea. His firm of Holden & Co., described as scholastic group and landscape artists, were able to take "views,groups, machinery &c. ... from C de V to life size, in any part of the Kingdom or France at the shortest notice."

While I have little doubt that he was kept a busy man, I view with some suspicion his claims of such a widely distributed branch studio network, supported by a printing works in Bristol. He stated categorically that he used "no agents," and I suspect that, as was common amongst travelling photographers, he listed the locations that he frequented as "studios." Roger Vaughan, in his extensive list of Bristol Photographers, makes no mention of Holden. On one of the carte de visite mounts displayed on Roger's web site, Holden warns, "As the negatives of this photograph is not kept copies should be ordered without delay," an unusual statement among photographers who normally tried to encourage their customers to make return visits.

Image © and courtesy of Sophie Dickerson
Class 1, at Horninglow, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, c.1888-1892
by Geo. W. Holden, Manager of The Elementary Schools Photographing Co. of Leeds & Hull
Image © and courtesy of Sophie Dickerson

An 1887 trade directory suggests that he was operating from "Pennoyre House" in Castle Street, Swansea. Sophie Dickerson sent me this school photo which includes family member Amelia Francis (born c. 1880), probably taken in Horninglow, Burton-on-Trent in the late 1880s or early 1890s. George Holden was by this time probably based in Hull. At least that's where two daughters were born in 1888 and 1889, and card mounts showed him as manager of the The Elementary Schools Photographing Co. at Leeds and Hull, but also visiting an exhausting list of 22 other towns throughout the England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. There is no mention of Burton!

Image © and courtesy of Stephen Cook
Class 1, at Plymouth, Devon, c.1895
by Geo. W. Holden, Manager of The Elementary Schools Photographing Co. of Leeds & Hull
Image © and courtesy of Stephen Cook

This portrait sent to me of Maud Eva Pike (born 1888) and her class was sent to me by her grandson Stephen Cook, who believes it was probably taken around 1895 in the vicinity of Lipson Vale, Plymouth, Devon, where they lived at the time. Plymouth, for once, is included in the list of places visited by Mr Holden. In the census of early April 1891 his "family" were living in Hull, although he was recorded as a visitor in South Bishop Wearmouth, Durham.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Class 6, Mt Street School (?), unidentified location, c.1896-1898
by Geo. W. Holden, The Home & Colonial Photo Co. of Plymouth & Johannesburg
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The last two examples are from my own collection, purchased on eBay and their provenance is unknown. The first has the locations "Plymouth & Johannesburg S.A." printed on the front and is inscribed in pencil on the reverse, "about 1899 Mt Street Scool [sic]." George Holden married Maud Louise Warnes at Plymouth in early 1894, and a son George Ernest was born at Belfast, Ireland the following year. It seems likely that they returned to the south of England soon after, as I estimate that this class photo is from the late 1890s.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Class 11, Gendros School, Swansea, Glamorgan, c.1900-1904
by Geo. W. Holden, The Home & Colonial Photo Co. of Cardiff & Johannesburg
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In mid-1898 George Holden married Alice Norman, his previous wife's former "mother's help," 24 years his junior, settling in Cardiff, where they were living at the end of March 1901. This example is a slightly larger format mounted print, and has "Cardiff & Johannesburg S.A." printed on the front. The name of the school at which this portrait was taken is written on a large blackboard held up by the children in the front row: "YSGOL Y GENDROS (MORGANWG)" translates, I believe, to "Gendros School, Glamorgan."


Gendros Primary School, Swansea

Gendros Primary School, in Swansea, built in 1897, is still going and, from the look of the buildings seen over the wall in this Google StreetView, may have many of the original buildings - perhaps even the ones that formed the backdrop to my 110 year-old class photo.

I have pondered on the mention of Johannesburg, South Africa on Holden's later card mounts at some length, without coming to any firm conclusion. It is possible he visited South Africa at some stage, perhaps even intending to cater to the large number of troops heading out there during the Boer War. His brother John claimed, in his fanciful book A Wizard's Wanderings from China to Peru, to have travelled widely, and I think it likely that Johannesburg may also have been the the result of George's lively imagination.

George Watkins Holden continued to operate his photographic business out of the family home at 55 Tudor Street, Cardiff from 1907 until his death in 1921, aged 75, probably the longest settled period of his very busy life. He had five children, at least two of them illegitimate, by three different women, and lived for a time with a fourth. All of his partners were a good deal younger than him. They say that apples don't fall far from the tree.

Many thanks to John Rivis, Sophie Dickerson and Stephen Cook for the use of images from their personal collections.

If you, like me, have a penchant for old school photos, I can thoroughly recommend a visit to this edition of Alan Burnett's Sepia Saturday, where this week's charming image prompt depicts a group of young lads on a break from class, being asked to "Look up" by the photographer. A couple of them did! The rest ... well, they did what all school boys do when asked en masse to pose for a school photograph.

References

Alderman, Mari (2006) Victorian Professional Photographers in Wales, Sept 2006, GENUKI

Anon (2007) The Mad Magician (Old Crone Holden), The Family Tree Forum.

Vaughan, Roger (2003) Bristol Photographers 1852-1972.

23 comments:

  1. Great article, what an interesting career! The collection of photos are wonderful.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I doubt that anyone else will come up with such a fine collection of school photos from the 1800s. Another interesting article to go with them.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love looking at old school class photos. I wish I had one of myself. I don't know whether any were made of my first three school years. By 4th grade, my family had moved and only individual pictures were being made.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I could study the faces on these photos for hours. I do like the one with the mortarboards. I wondered if the teacher on the right in the second group photo is looking directly at the girls because she needs to keep a beady eye on one of them. Third from the right I reckon. Very informative article. Quite a chap that George Holden, and a magnet for younger women it seems.

    ReplyDelete
  5. What a great and thorough description! With even some personal stuff to add, love it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. George was quite the ladies man, but I have to wonder what happened to the wives?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks for your comments about the school photograph collection. They've been accumulating for some years, waiting for a story to emerge, and the right moment to tell it.

    Postcardy - Yes, all I have from my junior school days ar5e individual school photos too.

    Little Nell - I agree, and that's what I find so capticating about these school photos. Each one of these could have been the subject of a post by itself, of course - and perhaps will eventually - but I was telling a different story today. I think you're right about the teacher, whose name was George Sutherland, and nthere's another doing exactly the same thing in the next photo. I wonder which girl is the troublemaker in that one?

    whowerethey - I wonder too, because I've been unable to find death records for any of them. There are only two marriages that I have discovered, and it's possible that the first of these died in Belfast, Ireland, where a son was born. The others ... well, who knows. It has been a very tricky family to track down.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Fascinating history of the photographer. Loved all the great school photos.
    Nancy
    Ladies of the grove

    ReplyDelete
  9. Through your research and your writing we have the great privilege of almost knowing many of those great early photographers : a fascinating era. Pioneers of photography, their photographs provide unrivaled access to the history of ordinary human beings.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Amazing story, of such a remarkable family. I can see how "Jack" having the tendency to accrue wives and children was much like the father he knew really knew. I am completely fascinated by their story and just may read deeper into their incredible life...and thank you again for sending me to the dictionary so many times, just love learning new words from your posts...!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Your skill and enthusiasm for your subject is very apparent in this post. Great information and photos. You are indeed a photo-sleuth. I can't get over how widely folks got around way back then. Love em and leave em I guess.
    QMM

    ReplyDelete
  12. As interesting as the story of the photographer is, I wish for the stories of the students and teachers in the class photos. What about those young fellows with the mortarboards? What about the teacher looking at the class of girls? And the photo with the three children all wearing clothing made from the same striped fabric? I really enjoy looking at the clothing especially because you've identified the dates. Great post, as always.

    ReplyDelete
  13. What an entertaining and informative post. While I find all old photographs fascinating, I love it when there's a really good story to go along with the picture. The Plymouth school photo made me laugh -- actually, it was the little boy in the center of the back row, who found something far more interesting to look at behind him. But I think my favorite is the Gendros School photo. Some of those young ones in the front row clearly have better things to do with their time than pose for a photo! Well done! Thanks for sharing with us.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Another terrific story about the camera side of the photograph. The first family photo from Yorkshire is so descriptive of the times.

    I'm intrigued about Holden's first job as a miniature painter. Are these the small portraits painted on lockets? I've seen some collections of these and I would not associate their fine detailed quality to a young boy. But I can understand how such an artist would move into early photography.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Amazing story and a great collection of school photos to go with it! I am even more curious about George Holden now. I wonder what the newspapers had to say about him. He was certainly a character!

    ReplyDelete
  16. What a delightful read! I love how you connect all of these threads and show us so many wonderful photos.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Thanks everybody for your kind comments.

    Mike B - Quite a number of early photographers started out as miniature painters, and I have already written on PS about some silhouettists who were able to make the necessary transition to photography in the 1850s. I think many of those who described themsleves as artists in the pre-photographic era, as well as in the 1840s to 1860s, would have included miniatures in their repertoire. These miniatures, as I understand it, were small paintings aimed to at least some extent at those with a tighter budget, and may well have included those painted on lockets.

    Liz - I found surprisingly little in the newspapers about George Holden, despite a good deal of time spent searching. I suspect that as a semi-itinerant photographer, and because he managed to keep himself on the right side of the law, he largely fell below the radar of the newspapers. His brother, on the other hand, being a showman, actively promoted himself in the newspapers, and thus left a significant paper trail.

    ReplyDelete
  18. splendid work, as usual, on an interesting fellow.

    as for his choices in life, monkey see, monkey do!!
    :)~
    HUGZ

    ReplyDelete
  19. Very interesting read. George obviously got about a bit. Great photos with a lot of detail in the faces....

    ReplyDelete
  20. I had been researching a family photo of several children together taken by Geo. W. Holden, Manager of Cardiff, Plymouth & Johannesberg and came across this wonderful article that assisted in my research by filling in many blanks. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I found one of Holden's photos on ebay. See it here: http://flic.kr/p/bFwt7c

    Fascinating history. I was puzzled by the 'Pen aur'. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Thanks Ben, for another nice example of Holden's work. I don't suppose you would mind sending me a scan of the reverse of your carte de visite, please (email). It will be useful to add to the series, as I don't think I yet have one marked only "Bristol" on the front.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Brett, I have just stumbled across your page and want to thank you for filling in some gaps in my research. I am the great granddaughter of John Watkins Holden, and therefore George Watkins Holden was my "Great Grand Uncle". It was a thrill for me to see actual photographs he had taken.

    ReplyDelete

Join my blog network
on Facebook