This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Bearded British Musicians

09 March 2012

I have a theory about how old family photos break away from their original relations. In the 19th century when photographs become inexpensive enough for ordinary people to have their portraits taken, it was the usual practice to have multiples made. With the larger families of the time, there was one to keep and the others to give to brothers, sisters, parents, et al.  This meant most photo albums were filled with countless uncles and aunts. The photos of parents and grandparents became heirlooms, but inevitably the photos of distant forgotten relatives got hawked to the local antique dealer. That's why I think the most common subject in a vintage photo is always someone's long lost uncle. 
This is Uncle Jim.  He plays the cornet. His full name is neatly written on the back of this carte de visite, Uncle James Pallister. Besides his cornet, he also holds his music as he sits in a relaxed pose for the camera. Though he is not wearing a uniform, his fine tailored suit and splendid beard gives him the distinguished air of a gentleman.

Uncle Jim presumably lived in the town where the photographer kept his studio.
Thomas Spetch
23 Upper Victoria Street,
Bank Top Darlington
of County Durham, England did not produce many references but I did find another family Web Album with similar Thomas Spetch photos dated 1879. The rounded corners of this cdv and the relatively simple stylized photographer's logo, compared to those of the later 19th century, would date Uncle Jim to around 1872-1875.

His cornet is a piston valve instrument which was just beginning to become the premier solo instrument of the 19th century. The great French cornet soloist, Jean-Baptiste Arban, had just published his great method book in 1864, and the popularity of this instrument was soon to push the older rotary valve saxhorns and keyed bugles out of the brass bands.

So is Uncle Jim a professional musician? I can say from personal experience that it takes real skill to place the mouthpiece correctly under a brush like Jim's. But it is difficult to know for certain, as the name James Pallister turns out to be less than unique. There were over 12 men, age of 30+/-, with this exact name, living in or around Darlington during the census years of 1871 and 1881. Two joiners, a farmer, a grocer, a coal dealer, a butcher, a mason, a games keeper, and a gentleman's coachman among other occupations. Without another reference, Uncle Jim will just have to remain lost.

This next cdv is a musician who comes from Glasgow, a flutist seated in profile with his instrument artfully posed on his thigh. His hair and beard suggest he is more blonde than Uncle Jim's auburn locks. There is a fabric object with a feathered edge on the side table beside him. Perhaps a cloth case for his flute, or even a Tam o'Shanter.

I think his appearance seems very professional but the flute was a gentleman's instrument too, and there were many celebrated amateur flute players who had careers outside of music. His flute, a wooden instrument with ivory rings and silver keys, was the traditional orchestral flute in Britain even into the mid-20th century.


The photographer's stamp on the back reads:
Stuart, Photographer
Thistle Bank, Charlotte St.
Head Establishment
120 Buchanan Street, Glasgow

An excellent website, Glasgow's Victorian Photographers, identifies him as John Stuart and shows a number of his back stamp logos. This one matches cdv photos from around 1867-1870.

I recommend this Glasgow Photographers website if you'd like to learn more about dating this type of early photograph.

This next cdv is of a violinist standing with his violin and bow at his side. It is a very unsophisticated photo with a plain backdrop and a common diamond pattern floor cloth. There is no photographer's name or other markings, but the photo came from England so I think it is almost certainly of British origin.

The gentleman has a formal suit and a neatly trimmed circle beard, perhaps more continental, which again suggests a gentleman, but I think this man was a professional violinist. He has the look of a concertmaster or orchestra leader. The simple style of this cdv, square corners and no borders suggests an earlier date, perhaps 1863-65.

This last British musician's photo is of another flutist, this time from London. He is older than the other musicians, perhaps 60 + years, with muttonchops and Pince-nez spectacles hanging by a ribbon, and wears an older style frock coat. He holds a silver flute which was a relatively new invention in this era. It is likely a Boehm Flute which was introduced by Theobald Boehm in 1847, and slowly became the modern instrument we associate with today's modern flute. The first wooden flute has a conical bore shape but this metal flute was actually cylindrical. More information on the secret mysteries of flute design can be found at

The photo's back is marked:
F. York, Photographer, 
Alfred Villa, Lancaster Road,
Notting Hill. W.

along with a name, Recherson, possibly that of the musician. But alas, I can find no one living at this time in all of Britain, let alone London, with this name. Even trying more Germanic spellings does not work. Yet another lost uncle.

The photographer on the other hand, is one of the more documented photographers I have acquired. He is Frederick Arlington Viner York (1823-1903), who first apprenticed as a chemist in Bristol. In 1855 he moved to South Africa for his health and worked as a photographer in Cape Town. He returned to London in 1861 where he opened his first photography studio on Lancaster Road in 1864.

Frederick York

He was respected for his landscapes and traveled with the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, on his grand trip to India in 1875 via the newly opened Suez Canal. Many of York's photographs of India and Egypt were later produced as glass magic lantern slides.

Frederick York was a member of the Royal Photographic Society and his name appears many times in the minutes of their meetings. I offer a short excerpt here from the 1876 edition of the British Journal of Photography  to show how photographers in this era were very close to scientists in evaluating the different ways to create an image with a camera. The knowledge of chemistry and understanding of the development processes needed for this trade made it a very complex and even dangerous business. I imagine that these professional meetings could sometimes create intense rivalries and foster some loud disagreements.

Frederick York lived not far from the London Zoological gardens in Regent's Park. One of his projects was to photograph the animals at the London Zoo, and Scrabble players the world over owe him a debt of gratitude for taking the photo of the very last Quagga in 1870. This animal is now an extinct sub-species of the Zebra and was found in South Africa. Perhaps Mr. York even knew of it when he was living there.

Quagga, London Zoo c. 1870 photo by F. York

Notting Hill is a short walk west of Regent's Park, and along the way is the Royal Academy of Music.  Founded in 1822, it is the oldest music conservatoire in Britain and would be just the place for a photographer to drop a business card. Could Recherson be a flute professor from the RAM?

His name is still elusive but I would bet he is at least someone's lost uncle too.

This is my hirsute contribution to Sepia Saturday
where the theme this weekend is hairy men.
Click the link for even more fuzziness. 


Rob From Amersfoort said...

Nice instruments, and I had never heard of a quagga before.

Kristin said...

I have heard of a quagga before. It was the "Q" animal for an alphabet book I used to read to my children. But, I had something to say...Oh, I think it is the flutists tam with a feather on the table. too bad about all those unwanted uncles.

Travis Bennett said...

You are especially qualified to write a post about bearded musicians!

Wibbo said...

A fascinating post :o)

Bob Scotney said...

Welive within 14 miles of Darlington and I know Bank Top. Pallister is still a common name in the area.
Thanks for including the quagga.

Postcardy said...

Did you try looking for the name "Rechesson?" To me, the name looks more like it has "ss."

I never heard of a quagga before. I wonder why it became extinct.

Mike Brubaker said...

Thanks Postcardy, I hadn't tried that spelling, but Rechesson does not produce many hits. On a cdv one can't know if it was the subject's signature like a real calling card, or a friend/relation's handwriting. I usually assume odd names are misspellings by an acquaintance. He's someone's uncle though.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hi Mike, another fantastic and detailed article. I love how you tied it all in together with the photos, beards, instruments, long lost uncles and then showing us the Quagga. I haven't heard of or seen one before just now, and I thank you for that.

Kathy M.

barbara and nancy said...

You have such a wonderful collection of old photos and add to that your research - makes for great posts. I'll think of you the next time I play scrabble.

Karen S. said...

Thanks for the last darling photo from the London Zoo! I knew you'd come up with some great musical bearded folks. Great post.

Little Nell said...

OK Mike, I have to confess that I DID know of the quagga; however, there our shared knowledge ends, as once again you have given us a wonderful post full of interesting facts and people. I hope somebody knows who Recherrson is - perhaps his niece or nephew have left us a clue somewhere.

Queen Bee said...

What an interesting post. I like the way you tied it all together. I've never heard of a quagga before. Thanks for including it.

Wendy said...

Quagga -- must remember that next time I play Scrabble!
Apparently facial hair did not interfere with playing flutes and horns.

Jo Graham (images past) said...

Well done, Mike another interesting post and you found not only facial hair, but facial hair on musicians :-) I hadn't heard of the quagga either. Jo

Tattered and Lost said...

So wonderful that you have collected so many photos of musicians. A very interesting category and you always make it so interesting.


Elegant and informative, as always. I would have liked to see Mr York's magical lantern slides. Nice allusion to Scrabble. Poor beast, last of its kind...
Oh well!

tony said...

You Know,I Like The Whole Pose & Perspective of the Glasgow Flutist.'Sat At An Angle,I keep expecting his legs to do a jig!


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