Sutcliffe’s winter tale at St Mary’s Church

'St Mary's Church under snow' by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.
'St Mary's Church under snow' by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe is best known for his naturalistic and spontaneous photography, especially his portrayals of Whitby’s fishing community.

He was a founder member of The Linked Ring Brotherhood and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1941.

The Linked Ring (also known as The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring) was a photographic society created to propose and defend that photography was just as much an art as it was a science, motivated to propelling photography further into the fine art world.

Members dedicated to the craft looked for new techniques that would cause the less knowledgeable to steer away, persuading photographers and enthusiasts to experiment with chemical processes, printing techniques and new styles.

Sutcliffe was in very good company. The founder was Henry Peach Robinson and American counterparts Alfred Steiglitz and Clarence H White were some of the finest in the field.

This scene of St Mary’s Church in winter quietly expounds a solid religious sensibility. There’s something still and reassuring about photographs of churchs. It is framed so that your eye is led up the path towards the church door.

The fresh footprints in the snow suggest that the congregation has made its way into the church.

Inside, the congregation would be wrapped in their winter clothes, having braved the weather and snow-covered 199 steps. Listening to a sermon in their box pews, they were probably wishing they were nearer the stove.

There’s something sunny and bright about this photograph, despite being in the deep mid winter.

Sutcliffe has managed to gauge the exposure to capture the best light and balance the solid heavy structure of the church against the softness of the snow, recently fallen.

The houses below look like they are clinging to the cliff, with the mist over the west side of town giving this winter scene a romatic feel.

At some point you know that the church doors would be flung open and the priest would stand at the door as his black cassock blew in the wind and he would make conversation as his congregation left.

Looking at this image little seems to have changed, apart from the cliff has eroded considerably.

Sutcliffe’s most famous photograph was taken in 1886. Water Rats caused a little comment at the time as it featured naked children playing in a boat.

Sutcliffe was using the conventions of the academic nude to show how photography can approach art.

He was, however, excommunicated by his local clergy for displaying it, as they thought it would ‘corrupt’ the opposite sex.

Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales) later purchased a copy of the picture.

Sutcliffe was a prolific writer on photographic subjects, contributed to several periodicals, and wrote a regular column in the Yorkshire Weekly Post.

His work is in the collection of the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society and in other national collections.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe left a photographic record of the town, harbour, fishing and residents in late-Victorian times.

He became famous internationally as a great exponent of pictorial photography. He exhibited his work in Tokyo, Vienna, France, the USA and Great Britain winning over 60 gold, silver and bronze medals.

He retired in 1922 and became curator of Whitby Museum.The Royal Photographic Society made him an honorary member in 1935.

The community that Sutcliffe photographed is little changed structurally. You can still stroll the narrow lane of Sandgate in Whitby’s Old Town, though the cobbler, ironmongery and carpet-maker have now become touristy art galleries and knick-knack shops.

A calendar featuring the picture above and others by Sutcliffee is on sale at the Sutcliffe Gallery in Flowergate, Whitby. It is priced £11.95 or £20 for two. Call 01947 602239 for details.