Sepia photographs capture Whitby’s history

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe's picture of St Hilda's Terrace in the snow
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe's picture of St Hilda's Terrace in the snow

This might be one of the most romantic pictures ever taken of Whitby in the snow, courtesy of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.

The sky is heavy, and St Hilda’s Terrace is transformed into a snowscape, both atmospheric and poetic at the same time. The trees are laced with flakes and looking at this photograph it is possible to feel the cold and imagine the quiet that descended over the town. Victorian Whitby must have been rendered even more remote than normal in extreme winter weather.

Michael Shaw of Sutcliffe Gallery explains the technicality of capturing this image; “Snow scenes were (and still are) difficult to photograph as the scene is generally quite bright with the snow reflecting any available light.

“The exposure had to be adjusted to compensate for the brightness requiring experience and expertise on behalf of the photographer to create just the right balance of light and shade.”

It would also have been quite precarious to lug the heavy camera equipment and cumbersome tripod.

Sutcliffe’s large camera was made of mahogany with brass fittings and took ‘whole plate’ glass negatives (6.5”x8.5”).Photography in Victorian times was not an easy craft to master and people were often content to produce an acceptable image which was sharp and well exposed - but there were a handful of photographers who wanted to lift their pictures into the heady realms of ‘Art’.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe was one of these artists, and managed to capture this part of the world in a way that has inspired generations of photographers. What makes his work unique it the understated way in which he captured everyday life.

Key to his success was his ability to depict scenes which feel entirely natural. Here you can almost hear the horse’s hooves crunch on the snow and the soft noise the wheels whould have made. According to Michael the subject matter would more than likely have been a coal merchant delivering fuel to the residents who lived in the grand houses that line St Hilda’s Terrrace.

However natural this appears it may be possible that Sutcliffe would have positioned himself to wait for the coalman. It adds a sense of narrative to the landscape and gives it a poignancy to the subject matter.

It’s possible that he inherited some of his sense of compostition from his father who was a landscape artist, especially when you look at his rural scenes.

“What was happening in art and literature would also have influenced him, and what was extremely popular during that period was narrative, something that Sutcliffe effortlessly introduced to his photographs.

The Sutcliffe Gallery has reproduced images on a new range of products especially for Christmas including calendars, jigsaws and an excellent range of framed Victorian photographs by Frank Sutcliffe and also contemporary photographs by Michael Shaw.

Michael shared some little known facts about Sutcliffe with us.

“He was very famous in his day, winning over 60 gold medals throughout the world.

He made his living taking portrait photographs of the numerous wealthy tourists to Whitby in Victorian times. Frank was a very keen gardener and also kept bees.”

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