British hand-colored ambrotypes of the 1850s have a vibrancy and veracity unrivaled until the 1903 invention of the first genuine color process by the brothers Lumière. I have a number of these photographic jewels in my collection, but this pair—portraits of John and Mary Ellen Hill Fawcett—are courtesy of James Morley.
“Developed in 1851, the ambrotype took over the popularity of the daguerreotype and pretty much displaced it by 1860. It was much cheaper to produce than a daguerreotype, could be made with a shorter exposure time, and you didn’t have to tilt the plate to see the image. The ambrotype made photography more affordable for middle and working class people,” Karen Langberg of Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers explains, “Ambrotypes were made on a glass plate coated with a wet, light-sensitive substance, which when developed and dried, produced a negative image. The negative then had to be mounted against a dark background or coated with a dark varnish to give the illusion of a positive.”
Before that background was added, the photographer or an artist employed by the studio painted on the reverse to take the plate’s brownish-gray albumen tones to those of life. When the artist was a good one, the results were transcendent.
John Bailiff Fawcett, born 20 March, 1836, in the ancient market town of Kirkby Stephen, Westmorland (now part of Cumbria), England, was the son of Thomas and Esther Bailiff Fawcett, and was baptized 10 April in the Congregational Church in Warcop, Westmorland, about five miles to the north.
Warcop was the childhood home of his parental grandfather and namesake, who was born there in 1771. As an adult, before 1807, that John Fawcett moved his wife Margaret, née Moss, and infant daughter to Kirkby Stephen. There were many Fawcetts there, too. The clan had been in what is now the Eden district for more than two centuries, and most Fawcetts were interrelated.
Kirkby Stephen, as the town’s website describes the modern locale, is comprised of “historic buildings, cobbled yards, quaint corners and interesting shops, ideally located in the beautiful Upper Eden valley…. This is an area of Cumbria much less well known than the Lake District, but equally appealing. It is surrounded by a landscape of pastoral rural scenery and wild uplands and offers breathtaking views in every direction. Remotely located from large towns and population centres, Kirkby Stephen has developed a strong and self-sufficient identity and a vibrant sense of community.”
The Fawcetts had some level of local celebrity. In a wonderful, detailed article on the town during the 19th Century, author Ann Sandell writes, “In pre-railway Kirkby Stephen of 1858, as evidenced by the Post Office Directory listings, there were all the usual trades that you would expect in a traditional country market town of the day…. As the nursery rhyme suggests, there was the obligatory Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Maker. There were in fact nine butchers, several of them also farmers and one who was a cattle dealer. There were five bakers and a confectioner. Three tallow chandlers including the famous Fawcett family, at this time Mrs. Ann Fawcett and Richard Fawcett.” (This was Richard Fawcett, born 1798, who died in London in 1870.)
In a search to understand why the Fawcetts might be famous (a quest that was never satisfactorily solved,) I found that at least a few Fawcetts were infamous instead. The Penrith Herald of 18 July, 1874, reported, “Mr. Richard Fawcett [(1828-1909)], tallow chandler, Kirkby Stephen, appeared before the Sanitary Authority, with reference to an alleged nuisance arising from his chandling shop in Millbeck, Kirkby Stephen. Mr. Fawcett said he had adopted all the improvements he had heard of, and he thought his shop would be no worse than his neighbours. It was stated, however, by some of the guardians, that as there was a difference of times, some fault must exist, and they therefore urged upon Mr. Fawcett to take as much care as possible to prevent a repetition of the nuisance.”
And then there was this: “A most calamitous fire occurred early on Saturday morning in the parish of Kirkby Steven, Westmorland. The fire broke out in the shop of Mr. Richard Fawcett, a tallow chandler, at Mill Beck, a hollow part of the parish, to which descent is made from the main street by a steep declivity, and over this shop was a cottage in which a man named Varty and his wife and family resided. Owing to the secluded position of the dwelling and shop, which are flanked by a brewery and cut off from other dwellings, the fire was not noticed till it had burnt itself out, and when the catastrophe was first discovered the premises were destroyed, and the poor fellow Varty and his wife and three children were found burnt to death or suffocated. It seems that Varty, on being roused from his slumbers by the heat and smoke, made a desperate effort to escape with his family, for when discovered dead at 4 o’clock in the morning, he had two of his children in his arms, and the mother had the third. Another person who had got into the chandler’s shop was terribly scalded by the liquid heated by the fire. As may be supposed, the discovery of the ill-fated family caused the greatest consternation in the town and neighbourhood. The inquest on the five bodies was held at the workhouse on Saturday night. The bodies were very much burned, and presented a shocking spectacle. After hearing the evidence of the police, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Suffocation,’” The Times of London ran in its 20 October, 1884, issue.
Pure negligence was a better verdict. The Cumberland and Westmorland Herald of 25 October set the record straight, “Colonel Sir Charles Firth, President of the Fire Brigade Association, having been to Kirkby Stephen to investigate the circumstances of the fatal fire there, has made the following report thereon: ‘I inspected the scene of the fire at Kirkby Stephen, on the 20th inst. It was caused by a wood conductor of the steam effluvia from the fat boiling in the set-pot having had one end let so far into the chimney which conveyed the heat and smoke from the fire stove under the set-pot as to get on fire and communicate fire to the boiling fat, tallow &c, in the set-pot, and about the set-pot. This in turn caused the suffocation of the five inmates of the two rooms above, forming a dwelling. No means of ventilation existed in the house excepting by the opening of windows or the door. In the bed chamber no fire-place or chimney placed; the family were sealed up to their fate. No cat or dog formed part of the establishment to give alarm. Had the inmates not been so quickly suffocated they could with little risk of limb have dropped safely from the window. I have visited thousands of scenes of fire, but never saw a more imprudent thing than the placing of this wood conductor into a heated place or chimney; and finding in the depositions of the Coroner that the master chandler expressed the opinion that the deceased inmates caused the fire, it is, in my opinion, adding insult to injury; the dead cannot speak, but the facts speak for themselves.’”
“My family consists of 10 children—6 boys and 4 girls. Two of the boys died in infancy, and were buried in the old church yard, at the bottom… on the north side.”
How the chandler Richard Fawcett was related to John Fawcett and his father Thomas is unknown. Thomas, son of John and Margaret Fawcett mentioned earlier, was christened in Kirkby Stephen 12 July, 1812. Thomas became a painter, glazier, and gilder who married Esther (b. 1814), the dressmaker daughter of Joseph Bailiff (1782-1867) and Agnes Brunskill (1777-1860), on 25 June, 1835; little John arrived nine months later, almost on the dot. Thomas and Esther would go on to have at four more children—Sarah, born in 1840; Margaret, born in 1846; Joseph, born in 1849; and Mary, born 1853.
John Fawcett’s bride, Mary Ellen Hill, was born 15 November, 1837, to Sarah Littleford (1812-1870) and Thomas Hill (1812-1894). Her father, who came from Eastham, Essex, married her mother, who was born in Deanshanger, Buckinghamshire, on 26 December, 1837, in Tower Hamlets, Bromley-St. Leonard, Middlesex, about 3.75 miles northeast of St. Paul Cathedral, London. In the late 1830s, the couple lived in Kendal, Westmorland. However, by 1841, Sarah, daughter Mary Ellen (b. 15 November, 1837), and son Rowland (b. 25 January, 1841), lived in High Street, Whitechapel, London, in what appears to have been a boarding house. With her husband apparently left behind, Sarah Hill described herself as “independent.”
Whatever split the family in the early 1840s—and it is hard to think other than a purposeful separation—husband and wife had reunited by the 1851 Census. The Hills were enumerated in Kendal, Westmorland—another market town, about 25 miles southwest of Kirkby Stephen and famed for its Kendal mint cakes.
Thomas Hill’s profession was schoolmaster. A letter exists in which Hill writes that his wife died 24 January, 1870, “and is interred in the Kendal Church cemetery, where I hope to lie with her when it pleases God to call me away.” He continues, “My family consists of 10 children—6 boys and 4 girls. Two of the boys died in infancy, and were buried in the old church yard, at the bottom… on the north side. My family now (1884) consists of 4 sons living, 4 daughters living, and 25 grandchildren.”
Hill was the master of the Kendal Green British School. He writes of his experience, “I had a great deal to do in preparing for the opening of the school—several scores of reading lessons in sheets to paste on boards, besides other things. These occupied me for nearly 2 weeks. When all was ready, it was publicly announced that the school would be opened…and that the names of intending scholars would be taken on two days in the previous week: 63 names were given in. It was considered best not to take all the boys the first week, so the first 40 were taken, then 20 more the next week, and afterwards all that came. So I began with 40 boys on the 12th October 1835, a day much to be remembered by me, as if it was the commencement of mastership which extended over a long period of 40 years!”
Sadly, nothing survives nor lingers in living memory to tell us how John Fawcett and Mary Ann Hill met, but we know they wed in Kendal in April 1859. The pair of ambrotypes, both dated to that year, are without doubt wedding portraits. This brings me to a conjecture for which I have only slight supporting evidence (see below), but wish to moot nonetheless: Perhaps we should not conclude that the Fawcett family painting trade equaled only wall and building prettiment. Thomas Fawcett was also a gilder—one who overlays metallic leaf including gold on items sometimes quite delicate and precious—as well as a glazier who insets fragile glass. Might it be possible that Thomas Fawcett and perhaps his son John, too, were artistically skilled and that one of them is responsible for the magnificent coloring of the wedding ambrotypes?
The Fawcetts were a close-knit unit. In 1861, three generations of the family, including maternal grandfather Joseph Bailiff, inhabited numbers 14 to 16 Chapel Terrace, carrying out their trades and employing a domestic servant. Family matriarch Esther Bailiff Fawcett died in the Spring of 1867, and by 1871 Thomas Fawcett, his second son Joseph, and daughter Mary had moved to Kirkby Stephen’s Main Street to run the family painting and glazing business.
Also on Main Street, just a little down the road, were John and Mary Ellen Fawcett. They were parents many times over by this date: their firstborn was Mary Caroline, who arrived in 3 May, 1860; Thomas Bailiff arrived in October 1862; Frederick was born in 1864; Henry John was born in 19 September, 1865; Rowland Hill was born 24 May, 1867; and Joseph was born during July 1868. Another son, William Arthur, would make his debut in April 1872, completing the family.
In 1871, John told the census taker that he was both a painter and a photographer, although by the 1881 Census he had altered this to painter and decorator. This information sent me on a hunt for extant copies of his work. I found one record from the National Archives, Kew, which pertains to John: “’Photograph of railway Train passing over Belah Viaduct.’ Copyright owner of work: Edward Metcalfe, 29 High Street, Kirkby Stephen. Copyright author of work: John Fawcett, 19 High Street, Kirkby Stephen. Address when photograph was taken, Chapel Terrace, Kirkby Stephen. Name of parties to agreement: John Fawcett, and Edward Metcalfe.” Was this a photo John had taken long before to which he sold the rights later in life? Probably, but more certain is this image:
I discovered this carte de visite (CDV) on eBay during my hunt for images by John Fawcett. It dates from about 1870 and clearly shows Fawcett’s imprint on the reverse. But as I looked at the sitter, I felt I had seen him before—especially that straight nose that seems to lack a bridge and the upward-glancing dark eyes. It occurred to me that this was possibly a self-portrait of John Fawcett when he was aged about 35, taken a little more than a decade after his wedding portrait. If not John, might be another member of the family?
In 1891, the Fawcetts yet lived on Main Street, with John self-identifying as a house painter and decorator, his photographer days apparently long behind him. John and Mary Ellen’s daughter, Mary Caroline had married grocer John Alsop (1862-1936) in 1889, and the pair dwelt on Main Street with her younger brother William Arthur serving as an apprentice. The couple’s other sons had moved away to follow careers with the railroad and as drapers.
John’s father Thomas died 7 November, 1891, aged 79. His Will was proved the month following at Carlisle by John and his brother Joseph. His personal estate was a mere £6 2s. 6d, but he had been cared for by Joseph, who remained in the family trade of painting (and now paper hanging), as well as spinster daughter Mary, so there is no reason to believe Thomas died in penury. Mary Ellen’s father, Thomas Hill, died in Kendal during October, 1894, apparently intestate.
John and Mary Ellen lost their youngest son, William, on 17 May, 1904. He had married a local Kirkby Stephen woman, Charlotte Horsfield, and set up a grocery in the nearby village of Great Asby, Westmorland. William left behind two young sons, one less than a year old when he died.
Before the next census, the John and Mary Ellen removed to 19 High Street, where he continued in his life-long career; the couple were well-off enough to employ a male domestic servant. When Mary Ellen Hill Fawcett died 6 April, 1910, she left a personal estate of £928 18s. 7d.
After his wife’s passing, John lived at 19 High Street with his son Joseph, Joseph’s wife Harriet Annie Braithwaite, and their three daughters. By 1911, Joseph Fawcett had left the painting trade and was an insurance agent for Refuge Assurance Company.
John died in September 1916. He and Mary Ellen had more than a dozen grandchildren, including Reginald John Fawcett, born during December 1902 in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, to Henry Fawcett and his wife Ada Turner. His resemblance to his grandfather at about the same age is marked. Ω
I’m pleased to announce that I will be featuring material from my friend, fellow collector, and author Caroline Leech. Her first book, Tales of Innocence and Darkness, was published in 2012. Caroline not only collects what some might call the “broken toys” of early photography, but literally the beautiful, wounded treasures of the past. She photographs them in haunting arrangements that I am honored to share with you. I’ll close with an example.