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. However, George died in 1865 and the business passed to his brother Charles, and his two sons (George Francis and Charles).  It is possible then that Charles and his sons  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 junior (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 the relatives of a such  a talented artist as George Newbold  should find themselves locked up for selling ‘dirty pictures’. But perhaps that 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]

Art theft in the Caledonian Road – a Frenchman is questioned at Bow Street

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Caledonian Road market, late 1800s

London was a cosmopolitain city in the nineteenth century. I have been tracing my family tree and have discovered that one of my grandfather’s sisters married a German tailor who lived and worked around Marylebone. There was a large Russian/Polish community in Whitechapel alongside many previously settled German Jews. In Limehouse you could find a small but well established Chinese community, while Frenchmen, Italians and other Europeans were well represented throughout the capital.

Henry Sanders was a 21 year-old Frenchman who lived in Stanmore Street, off the Caledonian Road. He described himself as a watchmaker but was brought before Sir James Ingham at Bow Street Police Court accused of obtaining artworks from a  Belgian painter under false pretences.

Sanders (which may not have been his real name) was brought in by the police having been tracked and arrested in Liverpool by Inspector Moser. The Belgian authorities had approached the Metropolitan Police and were formally requesting that Sanders be extradited to the Low Countries to face trial.

Three other men were involved in the deception; fellows Belgians named Leroy, Marten and Merney. They had been apprehended in a pub in Tottenham Court Road five days earlier but Sanders had escaped north.

Questioned by Sir James Sanders admitted obtaining two paintings by the artist Hoezort. The pictures (Le Lundi and L’Attende) had cost him £60 which he said he had secured the rights to sell. Three other watercolours were found however, ‘alleged to have been obtained by fraud from Continental artists’, and evidence relating to at least one of these was found in a notebook at Sanders’ premises. The police also uncovered  series of letters and notes written by Sanders but under a variety of different aliases.

For the time being the police requested a remand so they could pursue their enquiries and the magistrate granted it. Henri Sanders (if that was indeed his name) and his three associates, would continue to enjoy the hospitality of the English police and prison system until such a time as a decision was made as to whether to send them home or dismiss the charge against them.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, January 02, 1883]