Downeys Victorian Portraits

A Newcastle Arts Centre Exhibition October 2006


William Downey was just 10 years old when the first photographs taken with a camera were presented Paris and London as a new artistic and scientific reality. His lifetime spanned the history of Photography from an inventor's dream to the creation of Kodak's consumer product industry of 'you press the button - we do the rest' the easy to use snapshot Box Brownie, and not least the birth of Cinema.

Artists had used cameras as drawing aids long before the invention of photography and it had been the ambition of many artists and scientists to discover a means of capturing the image on the screen of the camera by the action of light.

Towards the end of the 18th Century Thomas Wedgwood experimented with salts of silver and successfully made 'sun pictures' on salted leather or paper by contact printing, but the exposure required for a camera image proved to be to long. In addition Wedgwood's pictures could only be viewed by candlelight because the images remained sensitive to sunlight and would fog because he could not solve the problem of fixing the image.

In 1839 Daguerre in France and Fox Talbot in England demonstrated different practical photographic processes that built on Wedgwood's work.

The Daguerreotype was a unique mirror like image on a polished metal plate but Fox Talbot used paper negatives to produce multiple positive prints on paper. In 1840 William Henry Fox Talbot made the breakthrough discovery that after only a short exposure of a few seconds the action of light on the silver salts could be developed by chemical treatment. The problem of fixing was solved by his friend J F W Herschel who invented both the use of Hyposulphite of soda and the name Photography (light drawing).

In 1851 the British sculptor Fredrick Scott Archer published details of his Wet Collodion Process, which soon became the standard process, and would lead to the invention of film and movies.

William Downey who was know as the 'Queen's Photographer' was born in King Street, South Shields in 1829.

About 1855 he set up the town's first photographic studio with his brothers Daniel and James in a wooden building adjoining the old parsonage.Branches were later opened in Blyth, Morpeth and Newcastle. When the brothers set up their first studio they would have used Scott Archer's process.

19th Century portrait photography was done in a daylight studio, usually built with a large north facing glass roof where the picture had to be taken while the plate remained wet because in the early days dry plates had a poor sensitivity to light. Even so exposures were long by today's standards and early sitters had to keep perfectly still for several seconds. The size of the print was that of the negative, therefore a large photo required a large camera.

Their first Royal Order was for photographs of the Hartley Colliery Disaster in January 1862 for Queen Victoria. Soon after William and Daniel moved to London and established a studio at 5 Eaton Street.

Their first Royal Photograph was of the Princess of Wales ( later Queen Alexandra) taken at York Agricultural show about 1865. William was shortly after commanded to Abergeldie to photograph the Prince, and subsequently to Balmoral to make the first of many pictures of Queen Victoria.

In the summer of 1863 they set up a glass studio in the Houses of Parliament where they made portraits of MP's including Lord Palmiston and Gladstone during afternoon sittings on Wednesdays. William Downey received a Royal Warrant in 1879.

Photographers made printing paper by using egg white as a binder for the Silver Nitrate and pictures were made on paper by contact printing the negatives by exposure to the sky. They often hand coloured photographs and extensively retouched images to please their clients. The Downeys were keen to experiment with every new innovation as can be witnessed in the article we reproduce from the Pall Mall Gazette.

Lillie Langtry 1890
Popular and notorius, as a stage performer and mistress of Albert Prince of Wales who became King Edward VII.

They were skilled at darkroom tricks and many of their group photos are composites of several images. It is likely that they were on good terms with Joseph Swan as they used his carbon process for some of their best work.

In the 1880's Mawson and Swan's factory, (now the Foundation night club) in Newcastle had become the largest and most successful manufacturer of photographic dry plates in the world following their success in the use of gelatine to make the photographic emulsion. Dry Plates released the photographers from their immediate need for a darkroom and chemical processing making amateur, tourist and press photography a commercial practicality. George Eastman learnt the process of making dry plates during a fortnight in the Newcastle factory and went on to establish the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester New York. Kodak soon created the roll film and marketed photography internationally as something that anyone could do, and so the days of the high street commercial portrait studio were numbered.

Prior to the 1890's photographic reproduction for the printed page was not the commercial industry that it is today because the half tone process proposed by Fox Talbot had not been perfected. The result was that photographers had a ready market to sell the output of their studios as editions of photographs. Considerable effort was put into producing a production process that could make permanent high quality reproduction of photographs. The Carbon Process and the Woodburytype were both high quality pigment based processes used to produce editions.


The pictures in this exhibition are restored from Woodburytypes published during 1890-4 by Cassel and Co. as the 'The Cabinet Portrait Gallery', a five volume series of photographs by W & D Downey. This exhibition is largely made from digitally enhanced copies of a selection of the Woodburytypes from the first two of those volumes. The word 'Cabinet' is a name for a standard photographic portrait print mount size 17.5cm x 12.5cm with a print of about 14cm x 9.3cm, the framed pictures on show are digital enlargements.

William Downey was well liked by the famous people he photographed and enjoyed working to present them in the best light.

"Dear friend Downey, You are the king of photographers and the most amiable of men" Sarah Bernhardt 1886, from the studio autograph book.

Despite his showmanship and darkroom tricks, the quiet still moments before the camera often reveal a genuine portrait. These pictures were of a technical and artistic quality that made William Downey the most sought after Portrait Photographer in England, and 115 years later his work remains as one of the most complete records of how famous Victorians viewed themselves.

Towards the end of the Century the Downey Studio in London added to its fame by being the first to use the cinematograph to produce a moving picture of Queen Victoria in her carriage; a pioneer newsreel.

Mike Tilley, Newcastle Arts Centre, 2005


Prints on photographic paper from the exhibition approximately 29cm x 20cm are available at £8.50 each including vat.


Thanks to Dr Tom Yellowley and South Shields Central Library.

References - The Professional Photographer magazine 1906, Pall Mall Gazette 1897

The Cyclopaedia of Photography, Edited by Bernard E Jones 1911

Photography: Essays & Images, Edited by Beaumont Newhall. MOMA 1980

text and images Copyright Newcastle Arts Centre 2005


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