Frank Meadow Sutcliffe was a pioneer of photography as an art form and his studies of 19th century Whitby beautifully capture an earlier way of life, writes David Clark
Image: From the beginning of his career, Frank Meadow Sutcliffe aimed to push the limits of conventional photography
Although the majority of Frank Sutcliffe’s photographs were made in or around the small North Yorkshire town of Whitby, he achieved an international reputation in his lifetime and is now regarded as one of the masters of late 19th and early 20th century photography.
Sutcliffe was both artistically and technically accomplished, and worked within the limitations of photography at the time to produce images of lasting value. Despite that, he never achieved great wealth and remained a working portrait photographer throughout his professional life. The atmospheric studies of Whitby and its inhabitants for which he is now remembered were mainly done for his own enjoyment.
As the eldest son of the successful watercolour artist Thomas Sutcliffe, Frank spent much of his early life surrounded by artworks and had early ambitions to be a painter. Due to his father’s illness, however, Sutcliffe’s education was cut short and at the age of 14 he was sent to work as a clerk at Tetley’s Brewery. After 18 months, his father recovered and Sutcliffe returned home where he formed an interest in photography.
His first camera, bought for him in 1869, was a huge mahogany stand camera that, when extended fully, was 3ft (1m) long and used 15x12in glass plates. Sutcliffe used the wet-collodion process, which required that the plate was exposed and developed before the light-sensitive coating had dried. It was a complicated and awkward process, but he soon produced good results with it.
After Thomas’s premature death in 1871, the 18-year-old Frank took on the wage-earning responsibility as the head of the household to provide for his seven younger siblings. He got his first commission the following year when Francis Frith paid him to photograph abbeys and castles in Yorkshire. These images formed part of Frith’s project to photograph all the towns, villages and landmarks in the UK, and were to be mass-produced and sold as ‘local views’.
However, commissions such as Frith’s brought in little money and Frank decided to set up a portrait photography studio. Believing that more money was to be made in the prosperous South of England, Sutcliffe moved to Tunbridge Wells in Kent and set up a studio there. Unfortunately, it was a financial disaster and he returned to Whitby the following year.
Sutcliffe started a new studio in considerably humbler circumstances and his studio was part of a jet workshop that was both hot and noisy. Nevertheless, the studio thrived and during the holiday season he and his wife would regularly finish the day’s work by mounting prints until 2am.
From the beginning of his career, Sutcliffe aimed to push the limits of conventional photography. He disliked the unnatural, stiff poses favoured by most photographers and aimed to make his portraits more relaxed and natural. He also strived to produce photographs of the best possible quality that contained a great range of tones.
Image: ‘Piggy Back’. Sutcliffe carefully posted his subjects to make them look as natural as possible. This picture shows Whitby locals Jane Fordon (left) and Hannah Ledley
Sutcliffe was diligent and hard working, and later moved on to a bigger and better studio. However, his writings revealed that he resented the amount of time he spent doing formal portraits of babies and children when he would rather have been photographing the outdoor scenes about which he was passionate.
He became a well-known figure in the town and, when his work permitted, was often out photographing local people and scenes in Whitby’s thriving harbour, around its ruined abbey on the hillside overlooking the town and in the surrounding countryside.
As Michael Hiley observed in his book Frank Sutcliffe: Photographer of Whitby, ‘Sutcliffe was able to produce striking photographs from very simple subject-matter – men leaning against a rail, sun streaming through the sail of a boat at the quayside, two women chatting in an alleyway… These scenes were there for all to see, but only Sutcliffe took notice of them and photographed them.’
By the 1890s, Sutcliffe’s work had won many prizes at international exhibitions and his writings on the theory and practice of photography regularly appeared in a number of publications, including Amateur Photographer.
He strongly believed in photography’s artistic potential at a time when many regarded it as inferior to painting and only useful as a means of recording people and scenes. In 1892, Sutcliffe became a founder member of The Linked Ring, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of photography as a fine art.
He was also interested in the technical innovations of the late 19th century and began experimenting with the new Kodak ‘pocket’ cameras made by the Eastman Company. From 1897-1907, Sutcliffe was given the company’s latest models in exchange for providing Eastman with photographs made with them.
These images were more photojournalistic in style than Sutcliffe’s earlier pictorial work, and although the results were inevitably of an inferior technical quality, he enjoyed the freedom of being able to photograph people in a more spontaneous and informal style.
‘The Kodak has freshened my interest in outdoor photography in a marked degree,’ he wrote in AP in 1900. ‘My only regret is that I didn’t have it years ago.’ Elsewhere, he wrote that he felt he had been born ‘40 years too soon’ and wondered what images he might have created with 20th century handheld cameras.
Image: ‘Dock End, Whitby’, 1880. Sky tones couldn’t be captured using the wet-plate process, so Sutcliffe expertly print in clouds from another negative
Sutcliffe eventually closed his portrait studio in 1922 and took up the position of President of Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society. He continued taking photographs into old age, but in later years lamented the passing of the more traditional way of life that he had done so much to immortalise in his work.
- 1853: Born on 6 October in Leeds, West Yorkshire. His father Thomas is a successful painter
- 1868: Begins taking photographs with a large and cumbersome stand camera that takes 15x12in glass plates
- 1870: The Sutcliffe family moves to Ewe Cote Hall near Whitby
- 1872: Sutcliffe is commissioned by Francis Frith to photograph abbeys and castles in Yorkshire for Frith’s postcard business
- 1873: Commissioned by the famous art critic John Ruskin to photograph views around his house
- 1875: Opens a portrait studio in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, in an attempt to establish himself as a society photographer
- 1876: Sutcliffe’s portrait studio closes and he returns to Whitby and opens a new portrait studio. He lives in or near the town for the rest of his life
- 1894: Opens more a larger and more prestigious studio in Skinner Street, Whitby
- 1897: Begins using Kodak ‘miniature’ cameras, supplied to him by the Eastman Company, while continuing to use stand cameras
- 1922: Closes his portrait studio and becomes curator of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society
- 1935: Is made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society
- 1941: Dies on 31 May,aged 87
Books and websites
Books: Four books of Sutcliffe’s work, edited either by Bill Eglon Shaw or his son Michael, are available mostly as second-hand editions on www.amazon.co.uk. Michael Hiley’s Frank Sutcliffe: Photographer of Whitby is currently out of print, but it’s worth tracking down a second-hand copy.
Websites: An extensive range of Sutcliffe’s photographs and related products can be seen at the Sutcliffe Gallery, 1 Flowergate, Whitby YO21 3BA. Tel: 01947 602 239. Open Tue-Sat 10am-5pm. Website: www.sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk.
Photographs reproduced by kind permission of the Sutcliffe Gallery, Whitby, www.whitby.at.