Sutcliffe: the pioneer in photography

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One of Britain’s most famous photographers is 160 years young on Sunday.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe may have died in 1941, but his work lives on into a third century. Born in Headingley, Leeds, on October 6th 1853, Sutcliffe started out working as a clerk before becoming a portrait photographer.

Frank’s father Thomas Sutcliffe was a member of ‘The Institute of Painters in Water Colours’, though he saw a great future in photography and likely owned the first camera in Leeds. This at a time whenmany painters were concerned about the onset of the new art of photography, fearing they would lose work, or even that painting would die out as a result. Sadly illness struck Thomas and Frank was forced to leave school at 14 and work as a clerk.

Upon his dad’s recovery, Frank moved to Whitby with his family, as a 17-year-old, in 1871, following a number of holidays in town. However, Thomas’ untimely death, months later, at the age of 43 prompted Frank to develop the hobby his father suggested into a full-time job. Although his mother Sarah did once threaten to smother him in infancy if he ever became an artist. An unsuccessful time as a portrait photographer in Tunbridge Wells, Kent followed but Sutcliffe was soon back in Whitby. After living on Broomfield Terrace, he moved to Sleights and married Eliza Weatherill-Duck, the daughter of a local bootmaker, on 1 January 1875.

His first studio was a vacant jet shop in Waterloo Yard, Flowergate. However, in 1894, he moved to a better facility at 25 Skinner Street. The first-floor studio was described as ‘one of the Largest and Best Lighted in England’, in an 1895 advert.

Due to the short holiday season and long winters, Sutcliffe’s genius was to become an expert on all around him photographing all four seasons in Whitby and district. Many of his works were shot in winter with the atmosphere of smoke and mist prevalent to give a unique, moody flavour. He wrote in May 1894: ‘We all know snow turns the most commonplace materials into the most fairy-like; a shower of rain, or a fog, even those nasty, choky town fogs, but especially a sea fog or mountain mist, which improve the complexion and soften the skin in a most delightful manner, will do as the snow does, and transform a common-place subject into a rare one.’

Sutcliffe retired in 1922, becoming curate of Whitby Museum. He kept bees, was a keen gardener and brought in a Swedish architect to construct a state-of-the-art home on Carr Hill Lane in Sleights,with under-floor heating. It’s gratifying to know that, unlike many artists, Sutcliffe was able to reap the financial rewards of his work while still alive. He sold his original works in 1920 to fund his retirement.The workaholic photographer oversaw the landmark move from the Whitby Museum, Library and Public Baths on Pier Road to its current home at Pannett Park. The old site is now home to the Quayside restaurant.

Four published books on the man himself and The Sutcliffe Gallery on Flowergate continue to showcase his work.

Gallery owner Michael Shaw said Sutcliffe was aware he was documenting a period of dramatic change:

“He knew that he was leaving behind an account of a disappearing time. He really wanted to capture a more basic life before industrialisation and mechanisation.

“If you think what he lived through, there were now cars for example and he knew he was leaving behind something special.”

Sutcliffe’s fame outside the Whitby area is sometimes understated, but he was world-famous winning 60 gold, silver and bronze medals for his work, across Europe, the United States and Japan.

The Royal Photographic Society made Sutcliffe an honorary fellow in 1935- the highest photographic distinction possible in England.

Sutcliffe was also a prolific writer for Amateur Photography, a publication still running today. He once remarked in one of his many columns that he wished he was born 40 years later so he could have taken advantage of improving camera technology. We can only imagine the quality of picture he would have created if he was still around in modern times.

“He would’ve been a conservationist”, Mr Shaw suggests. “He didn’t like the onset of steam, he had strong views on that.

“I think he would be proud of what he left behind and the interest his photographs generate. He must have gained a lot of respect to get people from those times to pose for him.”

In Victorian Britain, however, photography was becoming very fashionable, however mostly among the very rich. Sutcliffe provided a unique opportunity for ordinary, working people to get the same attention.

“The local people were in a lucky position. It would’ve been quite special to them. Being a photographer was expensive so you had to either be wealthy yourself, to do it as a hobby, or work full-time.”

Sutcliffe was arguably in both categories. He died in 1941, aged 87 and is buried in Aislaby churchyard. He had three daughters and one son. He also leaves behind an astonishing 160-year legacy that will live on a great deal longer.