Times past: North Devon had one of the first photography studios

The exotic reverse of a photograph by early professional photographer WJ Bell.

The exotic reverse of a photograph by early professional photographer WJ Bell. - Credit: Archant

Polls asking what belongings you would save first if your house was on fire often see the favourite answer to be family photographs – especially if you haven’t digitised them and shared them around the relatives yet.

GK Cotton, Mayor of Barnstaple in 1841 - a picture possibly taken by one of the earliest professiona

GK Cotton, Mayor of Barnstaple in 1841 - a picture possibly taken by one of the earliest professional photographers, Joseph Weir. - Credit: Archant

Such photographs here in North Devon can be traced back to June 1842 when Joseph Weir set up a temporary studio in Barnstaple apparently where Marks & Spencer now stands.

This was incredibly early as the first professional studio in Britain had only opened the year before in London.

Weir’s productions were hugely expensive at one guinea (£1.05) ‘exclusive of the frame’ – this at a time when agricultural labourers were often earning just eight shillings (40p) a week.

In August 1842 Weir travelled to Ilfracombe, presumably to offer his services to tourists, and in December he moved on to Bideford for three months where, astonishingly, he offered ‘colour tinted photographs’.


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No local photographs can be definitely assigned to Weir but there are ones showing Barnstaple mayors of the time which were probably taken by him.

The first permanent studio to operate in North Devon was set up by William Britton junior a Barnstaple optician who opened in October 1851 at 40 High Street.

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He was later joined in the business by his sons and the firm was the first of many that followed including Tedrake and Murphy in Bideford, Vickery in Barnstaple, the Catford brothers in Ilfracombe, the Bells in Torrington and Askew in South Molton among many others.

They all produced cartes-de-visite – small postcard sized portraits often with very decorative advertisements on the reverse – many of which have survived in family albums today.

As cameras became cheaper and using them easier so the number of professional studios declined – yet numbers of photographs taken by amateurs mushroomed.

Today nearly everyone has some treasured photographs – but how many of us have noted when and where they were taken and who they feature? Label them now and your descendants will thank you.

If you wish to learn more about local photographers then you can buy the 292 page book ‘A History of Photography in North Devon 1842-1914’ for £12 post free from Peter Christie, 9 Kenwith Road, Bideford EX39 3NW.

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