7 Dec 2020
Exploring the Photography of the 1880s via a Greenwich Ghost Sign
Researching ghost signs is a very hit and miss affair, with dead ends fortunately offset by those that yield myriad clues and new paths to explore. This very faded piece on the wall of a residential property in South East London has been fascinating to investigate, taking me into the wonderful world of late-Victorian photography.
The sign itself faces Devonshire Drive, where it meets Greenwich South Street, and the address of the premises is 80 Greenwich South Street (known just as South Street before 1939). I learned of the sign via Roy Reed who is diligently mapping and photographing London’s surviving ghost signs, and whose work on transcribing them is second to none. (The sign actually featured in a past post about Roy’s reconstruction work.)
Working with street directories I was able to identify Thomas Lionel Brooker as the owner of the business advertised by the sign. It’s curious that he lists himself as photographer and photographer artist in the directories, but opts for the presumably more humble trade of picture frame manufacturer on this sign.
He was operating at these premises for 20 years or so from at least 1883 until about 1903. During that time, very close to the turn of the century, he expanded operations to the other location on the sign at Hither Green Lane where he continued to trade until at least 1907. Given both locations are listed on the sign, it can be dated to the relatively short period of time that he was working from both, 1897–1903 i.e. c.120 years old, so it’s holding up well.
The other clue on the sign is the name ‘Roan’s Studio’ at the very top. Brooker was a partner in Roan’s Studio with local photographer Charles Randolph Levermore for a brief period between 1883–86. When they were working together Levermore was very much Brooker’s senior, having already been in business since at least 1855, while Brooker was still in his early 20s. It isn’t clear from the records, but it is possible that Brooker was initially apprenticed to Levermore, rising to partner and then ultimately taking over the business on 8th October 1886.
A wonderful relic of the partnership survives in the form of the pictured ‘cabinet card‘, the slightly larger (11 x 17 cm) and fashionable successor to the ‘carte de visite‘. (These pictures have been kindly supplied by Maartje de Nie whose website features many more examples.) There is a lot going on on the back side of the photo, with elaborate lettering giving details of the partnership, and some of the techniques employed. I’ve been unable to verify whether they actually held a royal warrant, and this period in history was notable for false claims in that realm.
I was first intrigued by the “photography taken at night” claim at the top and asked Maartje de Nie about this. She told me that prior to the invention of electric bulbs most photography was reliant on light from the sun. Those that have ever visited London will know that this isn’t always in abundant supply, especially at this time of year. Therefore photography at night, and not dependant on external conditions, was a novelty and something worthy of boasting about.
This boasting was taken to extreme levels by another studio of the time, Arthur J. Langton of Buckingham Palace Road, Belgravia. His “12,000 candle power electric arc lamp” was “perhaps the most powerful in London” and certainly not “a cheap and nasty substitute” that you might have found elsewhere. The giving over of almost the entire layout to claims about his light shows just how novel it was at the time.
Towards the bottom of the card, in addition to plugging their enlargement capabilities, there are some options given for the colouring of photographs, in oil or water colours, or crayon. Again Maartje de Nie was able to offer some insight here, pointing out that this was a period of transition from people having portraits painted to photographed. Photography was only in black and white, and so every effort was made to brighten these up. Again, her website shows some examples with, as she puts it, “mixed results”.
It’s not clear what happened to Brooker after 1907, but by 1910 the studio at Hither Green Lane was being operated by Thomas Henry Fielding and listings for Brooker disappear. He would have been 50 years old in 1910 and so it is entirely possible that he died given average life expectancy at that time.
So, now I, and hopefully you, know a little more about late-Victorian photography, and the two photographers that once plied their trade behind this wall in Greenwich.
Thank you to Roy Reed and Maartje de Nie for their valuable input.
PS. This website was something I discovered while investigating Victorian photography techniques. It is largely focused on developments in America, but has some incredible images, including the first selfie, photography of an entire train using a giant camera, and women disguising themselves in order to hold their children, but not to appear in their photos.