Saturday, 19 January 2013

Sepia Saturday 160: Charles Howell, the Official Photographer of Pleasure Beach

Sepia Saturday 160 by Alan Burnett & Kat Mortensen

Alan's photograph for the Sepia Saturday theme this week was, as I deduced about 18 months ago, probably taken in the late 1940s or early to mid-1950s at Blackpool's Central Pier.

Image © and courtesy of Google Earth Streetview

For my own contribution, I'm going to turn to the left and walk a mile or so south along the Promenade, past the South Pier to Blackpool's famous Pleasure Beach, according to Wikipedia "the most visited amusement park in the United Kingdom," and seen in Google Earth's Streetview above.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Postcard portrait of unidentified woman and child, 17 July 1933
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Somewhere in this vicinity, close to the Promenade - I haven't yet been able to determine the precise location - was where Charles Howell (1866-1943) operated a popular seaside resort photographic business between the two world wars. In this postcard portrait by Howell a mother envelops her arms protectively around her somewhat fearful child, who is perched precariously in a saddle on the back of a stuffed pony, itself mounted on a wheeled base strewn with "grass." A large painted backdrop depicting a cottage in a rural setting and wooden floorboards complete the scene.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The printed back of the standard postcard carries an imprint, "Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool." Although there are references to hundreds of postcard portraits on the web taken by Howell with this claim to official license, I have been unable to find any other photographers using the same title, and therefore assume that his permission to operate within the grounds of Pleasure Beach was sanctioned by the owners, the Thompson family. This must have been an important concession - in the mid-1890s, according to one report, around three dozen beach photographers were reported to be plying their trade in a single day (Moore, 2012).

Fortunately Howell was one of those thoughtful photographers who provided a clear date stamp on the back of most of his portraits, presumably as much to facilitate the purchase of prints by customers as to enable future family historians to date the holiday photos of their loved ones.

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Postcard portrait of unidentified family group, 4 August 1928
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

Charles Howell opened his first photographic studio in Blackpool on Bank Hey Street close to the tower in 1913, having operated briefly for a couple of years in Oxford Road, Manchester (Jones, 2004). Here, and later at 85 Central Beach, he exploited the burgeoning market for novelty caricature portraits using comical or grotesque painted foregrounds (Harding, 2008).

In 1923 he opened another studio which formed part of the rapidly expanding attractions at Pleasure Beach, and started to style himself as the "Official Photographer." The portrait of a young family above was taken at these premises in 1926, only three years after it opened, and demonstrates that the stuffed pony had already become one of what developed into a large array of studio accessories.

Howell ... offer[ed] playful portraits incorporating an assortment of novelty props ... you could be photographed wearing a top hat, playing a banjo or holding a giant bottle of beer. You could be photographed on a papier mache horse or a real, live donkey. (Harding, 2008)

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

In the summer of 1926 the pony was already looking a little worse for wear, with one floppy ear and a rather wrinkled coat. It is interesting to observe that the painted backdrop is very similar to that used for the summer 1933 portrait, althought not identical. I suspect that the same view had been embellished or repainted, perhaps more than once, in the intervening seven years. Certainly the base of the canvas screen (detail above) had become rather tatty, and the somewhat bedraggled "grass" looked more like seaweed.

Image © L.M. Wood and courtesy of Flickr
Postcard portrait of two unidentified young girls, undated
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © L.M. Wood and courtesy of Flickr

It's not surprising that some customers chose instead to pose on or alongside a real live donkey. I presumed that the donkey was borrowed or hired by the photographer from one of the many rides available on the nearby beach, until I noticed that in many of Howell's postcards that include the donkey, it has a saddle blanket with the neatly embroidered name "Radium."

Image © and courtesy of Audrey Linkman
Postcard portrait of unidentified woman on donkey, 28 August 1926
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © and courtesy of Audrey Linkman

This postcard from 1926 has the donkey under some duress (although doing well not to show undue sufferance) and a more topical backdrop which includes a large ferris wheel and a representation of the Blackpool Tower. It includes a negative number at the top, which I have thus far only seen on one other Howell postcard, dated 30 Aug 1930.

Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr
Postcard portrait of unidentified boy, undated
Unattributed, but probably by Charles Howell, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image © lovedaylemon and courtesy of Flickr

An undated portrait of a schoolboy still in uniform (presumably his socks and school shoes are stuffed into a satchel somewhere out of sight) riding Radium has another version of Blackpool's fairground style attractions on the backdrop.

Image © and courtesy of Colin Harding/Photographica World
Charles Howell's early studio at Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, undated
Image © and courtesy of Colin Harding/Photographica World

Colin Harding includes in his short article about Howell this photograph of the studio premises within Pleasure Beach, advertising 6 postcard photographs for a shilling, and makes it clear that the portraits would be "ready while you wait." The sign above the central doorway encourages visitors to "be photographed on the motor cycle," a studio prop which Harding refers to as Howell's trademark.

Image courtesy of Rootschat
Postcard portrait of Sarah Corkish and friends, 1939
by Charles Howell, Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool
Image courtesy of Rootschat

In a group portrait dating from 1939, Howell went to great lengths to satisfy the whims of his customers. Not only are the six women arrayed around the legendary Coventry Eagle motorcycle and the perennial stuffed pony, but a large toy dog mopes dejectedly in the foreground, there is a 30 mph speed limit sign almost disappearing off stage to the right, and the woman on the far left carries one of the famous giant beer bottles. The backdrop depicting a large gatepost and (as I know from other portraits which include the scene) a driveway leading to a grand home completes this bizarre scene.

As Harding writes in his article, the studio was "... a place where people could escape the cares of the workaday world; a place where, if only for the fleeting moment, the boundaries between fantasy and reality become blurred." That was, after all, the ethos of the Thompson family's Pleasure Park.

Image © Peter Fisher and courtesy of SmugMug
Panel portrait of Bessie Fisher, 2 August 1929
by Charles Howell, Blackpool
Image © Peter Fisher and courtesy of SmugMug

I'm tempted to carry on showing you more of Charles Howell's wonderful variety of customers and array of studio props, because there are many, many examples to be found on the web, but I don't want to get carried away, so I'll leave you with a final example. This is one of the panel prints that Howell advertised at 6 for 6d.

Jones (2004) shows Howell working at the Promenade in Blackpool until 1939, but there are some dated examples of his work at that location from 1940 (listed in the holdings of the Greater Manchester County Record Office, via The National Archives ARCHON Directory). Charles Howell died on 26 November 1943 at Moore-street Nursing Home, Blackpool, aged 77.

References

Breen, Thaddeus C. (2012) Photographers and Studios in Dublin, on Irish Archæology

Edwards, Steve (2007) 'Poor Ass!' in "A Donkey in Blackpool, 1999," Oxford Art Journal 30 (1), p39-54, Oxford Journals.

Harding, Colin (2008) Charles Howell, Photographer of Pleasure, Photographica World, 2008/3, The Photographic Collectors’
Club of Great Britain, p16-19.

Jones, Gillian (2004) Lancashire Professional Photographers 1840-1940, Watford, Herts: PhotoResearch, 203pp.

Moore, Nick (2012) Blackpool and District Now and Then, The Chronology of a Holiday Resort, version XVI (accessed 18 Jan 2012)

22 comments:

  1. It is amazing what you have uncovered just around the corner of this week's prompt! I think the picture with the ladies and the motor cycle is a real gem.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Forgot to mention the meaningful license plate of the motor cycle: CH 1939...

    ReplyDelete
  3. All props rolled into one -- now that's a memory! I bet those gals hooted and laughed as they shared that picture with family and friends.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Peter - Yes, there was plenty more I could have mentioned, but time and space precluded it. CH was, of course, Charles Howell, and the number plate reflected the year the photograph was taken.

    Wendy - It was a hoot, wasn't it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. An excellent post, well researched and nicely written.
    (Oops, I sound like a teacher. Well, I was a teacher!)

    ReplyDelete
  6. It must have been quite a job to research all things about Charles Howell and his photography. And you haven’t even used all your finds! I enjoyed this wonderful post. We might have a lot of beautiful posts to expect.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Another fine post Brett which has reminded me that I have some donkey shots somewhere - from Whitby, not Blackpool.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Oh what a memory. You are quite right about the photo, and your identification of it from a couple of years ago. And what you add in the way of all those wonderful old images - and expert descriptions - is, as always, quite fascionating.

    ReplyDelete
  9. That looks like a fun place to visit. My favorite of these photos is the one with the motorcycle and huge bottle of beer.

    Kathy M.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I just know that Pleasure Beach must have been quite a pleasure to see and visit! Extremely wonderful and delightful photos, especially the group around the motorcycle!

    ReplyDelete
  11. This is so interesting and so excellent. Funny too! How the props aged. I love the ladies on the motorcycle with the big beer. Girls night out was Girls night out, even then.

    ReplyDelete
  12. What a fun group of photos! The one of the heavy woman on the donkey reminded me of the comic postcards that are captioned "I'm not the only ass to support a woman."

    ReplyDelete
  13. What a wonderful collection and a very well told story of Mr. Howell. His photos could inspire all sorts of short stories, from the styles of Ray Bradbury to Steven King.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Great photos, especially the one with the women and the motorcycle. They look like they know how to enjoy themselves!

    ReplyDelete
  15. As a Blackpudlian, I found your photographs fascinating. The woman on the motor cycle could be my aunt! I moved from Blackpool when I was 13, and I must admit as chidlren we were never taken to the Pleasure BEach. We remedied that with our own daughter!

    ReplyDelete
  16. A bottle of Bass - they were really Imperial measures then

    ReplyDelete
  17. I did enjoy all the pictures of donkeys - give me a real one over a papier mache horse any day! This was a particularly amusing post and that group portrait with all the props is crying out for the story behind it.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Boobook - Thank you. Perhaps I'll bring you an apple next week ;-)

    Prenter - Just searching on Google brings up a huge number of images by Charles Howell. A visit to the Greater Manchester City Library would uncover scores, I'm sure. One could really go to town on this particular artist, but perhaps I'll leave that for another time.

    Bob Scotney - Donkey shots from Whitby, naturally - I think I must've seen others from there.

    Alan - thank you, I can assure you the pleasure's all mine.

    Oregon - There were quite a few with beer bottles, in all sorts of combinations. The presence of the beer bopttles has an immediate effect on the tone, doesn't it? Space and time constraints precluded me from including more.

    Karen S. - Having never been to Blackpool, I have to assume it was and still is. I'm hoping that at some time in the future, a reader of this article will arrive with a photo of themselves taken at Howell's studio.

    Helen - I was a little surprised that the props weren't even more dilapidated by the late 1930s, given the nature of the studio and its clients' obvious party mood.

    Postcardy - Good one! It's not a particularly flattering portrait, is it?

    Mike Brubaker - I included the last portrait as an indication that he could and did provide some more sedate portraits, but the more bizarre ones were definitely the norm. I wish that I had one or two of these in my own family collection - it would certainly provide some food thought about ancestors whom I never had the chance to meet.

    Karen - I can imagine them arguing about which props to have in the shot, and then quickly agreeing to Mr Howell's suggestion that they each grab one.

    ScotSue - Yes, I imagine that there were many locals who never frequented the place, just as the rest of us often never visit the tourist attractions on our own doorstep until we have visitors.

    Mike Burnett - I think you'd have trouble dowing one of those Imperial measures.

    Little Nell - Many of the donkey shots that I see emanate from the beach itself (the photographers must've been in cahoots with the donkey ride owners, I think) but I have another group of donkey-and-cart studio shots in mind for another Photo-Sleuth post in due course.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I was happy to see it was a papier mache donkey and not an actual stuffed one. We went to a museum exhit where a metal horse statue was shown. If I had worked fast I could have put my granddaughter up there, taken a photo. Alas, I didn't even think of it since I hadn't read your post. Or maybe I should say luckily.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Kristin - I have to assume it was a papier mache pony, as the proportions just don't seem right for it to have been a stuffed animal. That would have been a little macabre, I agree.

    ReplyDelete
  21. You didn't want to get "carried away"? Soon you'll be just like me, letting loose and carefree!!

    I loved the pony "under duress", and describing Sarah Corkish and Friends as "bizarre" is an understatement.
    :D~
    HUGZ

    ReplyDelete
  22. Always good to have your comments, Bruno. Actually that donkey managed to keep its composure pretty well, whatever the situation - I guess it was thinking, "Well it's nothing I haven't seen before."

    ReplyDelete

Join my blog network
on Facebook