Photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe left a legacy of photographs of Victorian Whitby. STEPHEN LEWIS reports
LOVE Whitby? Then you’ll certainly love these extraordinary photographs.
They were all taken in the late 1800s by the great Victorian photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. And they provide an unforgettable portrait of a seaside community and a way of life that has now all-but vanished.
In one, a two-masted brig is moored in Whitby harbour. In another harbour scene a steam-powered tug pulls a much larger vessel into port.
They’re both gloriously evocative photographs. But it was when photographing the people of Whitby that Sutcliffe really came alive.
He made his living as a portrait photographer based in the town. But his photographs go way beyond the kind of lazy commercial portrait you might have expected a hard-up professional photographer of his time to produce. They are character studies – and the people in them are real, and bristling with individuality.
Mike Shaw, who runs the Sutcliffe Gallery in Whitby and who has supplied the photographs we reproduce today, says what is remarkable about such portraits is how natural they look.
They are clearly posed – and given the equipment Sutcliffe had to work with, the subjects must have held those poses for some time. But you wouldn’t know it to look at them. The subjects seem about to move, to speak, to share intimate moments. “Very few photographers even nowadays could capture that,” says Mike.
So who was this remarkable photographer?
Sutcliffe was born in Leeds, the eldest son of the artist and watercolourist Thomas Sutcliffe.
In 1870, when his son Frank was just 17, Thomas moved with his family from Leeds to Whitby.
If he had hoped that moving to the seaside town would offer him a new challenge as an artist, however, he was to be sadly mistaken.
A year after the move, he died of heart failure at the age of just 43 – leaving 18-year-old Frank as head of the family. Frank had little experience of work, other than a brief and unhappy spell as a clerk at Tetley’s brewery in Leeds, Hiley writes in his biography Frank Sutcliffe – Photographer of Whitby.
But he had long been interested in the new art – or should that be science? – of photography.
His father had encouraged that interest – even building him a darkroom, and buying him a huge mahogany camera to work with.
Before he died, Thomas suggested that Frank take up photography professionally – which is exactly what he did.
His father’s friends gave him commissions to take photographs for them in the Lake District and Francis Frith employed him to take “local views” of the North Riding.
At one point, Sutcliffe did briefly leave Whitby. He tried to set up a studio in Tunbridge Wells, of all places. But this proved a “total failure”, Hiley writes, and in 1876 Sutcliffe returned to Whitby with his wife and young child.
Whitby remained his base for the rest of his life. He had two studios. The first was in part of a jet worker’s shop up a smelly back alley. In 1894, by which time his business was flourishing, he moved into a new photographic studio in Skinner Street.
It was in Whitby that he earned the reputation that brought him worldwide fame.
He photographed the town’s fisherfolk, the harbour and its craft, and also went inland to capture farming scenes.
But it was Whitby that he truly loved. Mike Shaw, whose studio in Whitby’s Flowergate has about 500 of Sutcliffe’s photographs on display, says the photographer was haunted by the fear that the Whitby he knew would disappear, lost to the coming new age of steam and technology.
He was largely right. But in his photographs he has preserved the Whitby of his day for generations to come.
l To see more of Frank Sutcliffe’s photographs, visit The Sutcliffe Gallery in Whitby, or go to sutcliffe-gallery.co.uk/