But is art? Photography in the dock in 1880

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Photography was still a fairly new science in 1880. The world’s first photograph was possibly that made in 1826 using Joseph Nicephore Niepce’s ‘Heliograph’. In 1835 Niepce collaborated with Louis Daguerre to create the first practical application (the ‘daguerrotype’) that, in 1839, led to the very first ‘selfie’ by Robert Cornelius. Improvements followed in 1871 (with dry plate photography) and then in the mid 1880s with the invention of the earliest ‘box’ portable camera.

It seems that along with the self-portrait early adopters of photography quickly recognized the commercial potential of a technology that could make multiple reproductions of popular images.

As many of us probably do when we visit an art gallery early photographers realized that taking photos of artworks could be profitable if cheap prints of them could then be sold. Even better if those prints were of human nudes.

It is not surprising perhaps that one of the early uses of photography was in the creation of more realistic pornography (or ‘erotica’ if you prefer a less judgmental term).

I’m sure Charles Newbold would have argued that his collection of photographic images were a form of art. Sadly for him he couldn’t, as in November 1880 he was locked up in Coldbath Fields prison serving a three-month sentence for ‘selling photographs of an immoral nature’.

While his son occupied his days in hard labour his father George found himself up before the magistrate at Marlborough Street Police court on a very similar charge. He was summoned to answer as to why a series of photographic images that had been seized by the police should not be destroyed.

His lawyer, Mr Geoghegan, argued that the images – which were taken from works of art – were not offensive and were in fact very useful for students of art to learn from. This was one of the first ways in which daguerreotypes had been used – to reproduce famous artworks in a form that students could learn from. These could black and white or coloured, like the shown here (right). Nude_woman_in_colored_daguerreotype_by_Félix-Jacques_Moulin

Coloured daguerreotype by Félix-Jacques Moulin, c.1851-1854

The police – represented by Mr St John Wontner – argued that they were obscene and constituted an assault on public morals. The Newbold brothers owned a shop where the materials were on sale, located in Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square.

The justice, Mr Mansfield decided that he needed to see the pictures for himself if he was to determine how ‘immoral’ they were. He adjourned the case to make his investigations.

George Newbold was an established sporting photographer in the 1860s. Based at 303 and 304 The Strand, Newbold seems to have specialized in taking images of boxers for them to use as their carte de visites, and the V&A has several of these.  It is possible then that George and his son Charles  had branched out into more ‘racy’ photos by early 1880s, but perhaps they were simply providing a legitimate service for artists short of live models.

In 1880 Charles (at 19) was listed as a ‘porter’ in his prison record, which hardly suggests that he was a successful photographic artist. His father was also in prison by August 1882 where his record states that he was a bookseller. His crime? Tried at the Middlesex Quarter sessions and convicted of:

maliciously and scandalously selling and uttering to frank froest, in an open and public shop, certain lewd and obscene photographic prints’.

His sentence? 18 months imprisonment. He was 50 and so would have been in his 30s in the 1860s when he was taking shots of boxers and others. It seems a shame that a man with the talent that George Newbold undoubtedly had should find himself locked up for selling ‘dirty pictures’. But perhaps that (and the fact that his son worked as a porter) reflected the reality that photography was not an easy profession to make a living from in the late 1800s. And, of course, that there was (and still is) money to be made from erotica.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, November 6, 1880]

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