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 }

Two Tales of Umbrellas

26 October 2012

Most of my photograph collection features musicians. But occasionally I come across unusual photos with an interesting subject (and an inexpensive price too) that I can't resist. So today instead of musical instruments, the topic will be umbrellas.

The early photography studios must have resembled the backstage of a theater, with different painted backdrops for artificial landscapes or imaginary interiors, and countless drapes, bell tassels, columns, pedestals, plinths, podiums, gates, fence posts, steps, chairs, benches, stools, desks, floor cloths,  and of course the all-purpose sheepskin strewn about the photographer's well-lit stage. The scenery and prop choices presented to the client for their appointment must have required lengthy discussion about artistic fashions and the subject's personal interests.

Standing or seated? Hat on or off? Hold the book or place it on the desk? And what about your umbrella , sir? Shall we include that as well?

_ _

The umbrella seems to have been a fairly common personal item to include in early photograph sessions. Why this was so fashionable is hard to fathom. Was it a mark of status or class, or just some new fancy thing to show off? In any case, this distinguished English gentleman wanted to hold on to his when the camera shutter snapped.

It is not that he looks at all silly but just that the umbrella seems such an odd element to use for a serious photo composition. Perhaps it was an accepted substitute for a cane.

The umbrella was what attracted my interest, but it was the writing on the back that gave added value.

To Mr. & Mrs. Hughes, with my best love to you both.

My Dear Husband,
Taken in 1863.

Unfortunately the writer and the recipients felt no need to add full names, but the date of 1863 gives the gentleman's frock coat, top hat and umbrella an historical context.

The back also had an imprint of the photographer's name and address.

Photographed at
S. J. Wiseman's
Art Repository
15, Above Bar

For some that might be the end of the story, but for the curious like me there is more to find.

Southampton, England is a city on Britain's channel coast and has long been associated with ships and maritime activities.

Mr. Wiseman's Art Repository must have been a popular place for the many navy and society people to have a photograph made. And in 1864, he took a photograph of Raphael Semmes (1809-1877),  a Captain in the Confederate Navy.

Captain Semmes was  without his naval sword, (or his umbrella) as he had thrown it into the sea, rather than give it to the Union commander of the USS Kearsarge, which had destroyed Semmes' ship, the CSS Alabama, in a heated battle off of Cherbourg, France on July 23, 1864.

_ _

The Sinking of CSS Alabama
engraving, Harper's Weekly Magazine

As his ship was sinking, Captain Semmes escaped with some of his crew to a nearby British yacht, the Deerhound and retreated to the safety of the neutral port, Southampton.

The exploits of the CSS Alabama became an epic sea story of the War between the States where most battles were fought on land. The CSS Alabama was built in England and secreted away by Semmes to the Azores where it was outfitted with armament to be a commercial raider of US merchant ships crossing the Atlantic. Powered by both sail and steam engines, it captured or sank over 65 Union ships without loss of life to either passengers or its own crew. Over several raiding missions, going even to the South Atlantic around Africa, the CSS Alabama was at seas 534 days out of 657, and yet never once visited a single Confederate port.

Captain Semmes would later evade the Union blockade, via Cuba, and return to the Texas gulf coast and then Virginia where he commanded the James River Squadron defending Richmond before the fall of the Confederates in  April 1865.

The image referenced below
is unfortunately
no longer available
on the internet.
But trust me,
the information is true.

On the back of Captain Semmes' carte de visite photograph
is an identical backstamp of S.J. Wiseman's Art Repository, and a note:

Capt. Semmes
Confederate Cruiser
Sunk off of Cherbourg
by "Kearsage"

Could Mr. & Mrs. Hughes' elderly friend have met Captain Semmes?
Maybe loaned him an umbrella?

They certainly shared the same camera lens.

* * *

This next English lady is younger and from the next decade. She stands by a plinth with a theatrical background wearing an attractive fur stole and brandishing an umbrella. It is a dark winter dress so I don't think this is a summer parasol. She actually looks a bit cold.

The umbrella has a long history and its original use was mainly for shade. In ancient times, hats and cloaks were the usual protection against rain. But the Victorian period must have been very wet, as it inspired Samuel Fox of Stocksbridge in Sheffield, England to invent the Paragon steel-ribbed umbrella in 1852. Being mass produced, it was inexpensive, and it quickly became the staple outdoor accessory in Britain.

Earlier umbrella frames were constructed with baleen, the whalebone extracted from the mouths of whales. This long flexible material,  a byproduct of the whaling industry, was used in all kinds of manufacturing. It was not only in the ribs of parasols and umbrellas but it stiffened buggy whips, shirt collars, and the hidden under-structure of 19th century women's voluminous garments. This lady's narrow waist was no doubt compressed by a corset reinforced with whalebone stays.

The photographer had a much more elaborate backstamp on the reverse of the cdv.

Friese Greene, 
Artist, 7 Corridor, Bath.

He was  William Friese Greene, (1855-1921) who ran several studios from 1876 to 1888 beginning first in Bath where he apprenticed, and then expanding to Plymouth, Brighton, and London with partners. He was born in Bristol as William Edward Green but in 1874 married Victoria Mariana Helena Friese,  daughter of a Swiss baron. Friese Greene must have seemed a more artistic choice for a photographer so he changed his name in 1877.

His studio addresses are well documented and this was an earlier location, so the lady with the umbrella has a historical context of 1875 to 1880.

That might be the end of the story, except ....

_ _

This backstamp came from a small collection of Friese Greene's photos at the excellent website Luminous-Lint. It reads:

Friese Greene for Instantaneous work
Friese Greene for Out Door Photography
Friese Greene for Enlargements
Friese Greene for Tinting
Friese Greene for Opals & Plaques

Friese Greene for Tuition in Photography
Friese Greene for Wedding & Other Groups
Friese Greene for Lawn Tennis Clubs, Schools & Colleges
Friese Greene for all Description of Animal Photography.

Friese Greene was a typical 19th century entrepreneur with grand ideas that seemed to require more business ability than he actually had. He was driven into bankruptcy a few times, and even sent to prison for his debts. But he had the obsessive imagination of an inventor that distracted him from the ordinary work of a photographer.

_ _

His real passion was not really with static photographs. Instead he wanted to capture moving images on film. William Friese Greene is celebrated as one of the first pioneers in creating cinematic  motion pictures. His first attempts were with a collaborator in Bath named John Arthur Roebuck Rudge (1837-1903). They used the technology of the magic lantern, and by 1890 were able to demonstrate moving images. Building on the ideas of George Eastman and others, Friese Greene would ultimately have numerous patents for kine cameras, perforated film tape, and other improvements that led to the art of moving pictures we know today.

In Bath there is a plaque on New Bond Street Place where Greene and Arthur Roebuck Rudge had their first studio. The text reads:

"To perpetuate the name and memory of John Arthur Roebuck Rudge who lived for many years in the adjoining house and after numerous experiments conducted in the basement was the first Englishman to produce moving pictures by means of photographs mounted on a revolving drum.

And also of his friend

William Friese-Greene who had his studio at No. 9 The Corridor nearby, the inventor of commercial kinematography being the first man to apply celluloid ribbon for this purpose.

Kinematography can thus be attributed to the labours of these two citizens of Bath where this wonderful invention undoubtedly received its birth."

_ _

Mr. Rudge, who made scientific instruments, is credited with inventing the Rudge Projector, a kind of image lantern that eventually developed into the Biophantascope. But it was Friese Greene who seems to have had the real insight that a camera could be designed to take a continuous tape of film and thereby capture the movement of life on each negative frame. His life story was made into a movie in 1951 called The Magic Box.

You can find excerpts of the movie on Youtube which stretch the truth of Friese Greene in that exaggerated way of the 1950s. I'm prevented from embedding the player here but Click the link for an explanation how his fiancee sparked his imagination in the 1870s.  The following scene shows the interior of an early photographer's studio too, and has the clutter of the props and sets. Watch it at least until Mr. Guttenberg snatches the doll away from the little girl.

But let us hear the great director Martin Scorsese tell how he was inspired by this movie and the biography of William Friese Greene to work in cinema.

* * * *

* * * *

I hope you have enjoyed the tale of two umbrellas.
Sometimes there can be a lot of history concealed inside a small photograph.

This was my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where you find more stories and photos of people and umbrellas. 


Little Nell said...

I remember seeing that film years ago and it sprang instantly to mind as soon as his name was mentioned. I need to seek it out and watch it again I think. I did enjoy this post and the way you drew together all those elements and used your peerlesss detective work to enhance the story.

Wendy said...

Civil War history and cinema history all in one place inspired by a simple umbrella. That's why I enjoy Sepia Saturday and TempoSenzaTempo so much.

Postcardy said...

Very interesting. I enjoyed the way you started with an umbrella and ended up with history of moving pictures.

Umbrellas seem to be more of a British thing than American. I wonder whether Americans chose them for props in their pictures.

Unknown said...

That first photo really does jump out as a very odd photograph. Interesting romp through time. I particularly enjoyed the CW tale.

Kristin said...

Thank you for introducing me to the movie 'The Magic Box'. I will have to look for the whole thing. And I like the quote about it being in the enjoyment being in the search.

Bob Scotney said...

I never expected to be engrossed in a post about umbrellas but I was hooked by Civil War story. It was magic before we came to Friese Greene and The Magic Box. Now I've spent quite a time following the links and watching videos. Great post, Mike.

North County Film Club said...

This is your best post ever. Using the umbrella as your prompt sure led to a very fascinating story from wars to film. And you also managed to squeeze in Bath - another of our prompts this week.

Peter said...

I really had no idea that part of the Civil War took place off the coast of Cherbourg! You taught me yet another piece of history! But you also disappointed me. I would have thought that if anyone would have been able to explain how to make music with/on an umbrella, it would have been you. But alas ;)

Kathy said...

You introduced me to a part of the Civil War that escaped my education and I always enjoy your detective work!

Christine H. said...

The umbrella points the way through the Civil War and to Bath. I think I need to find out more about William Friese Greene.

Queen Bee said...

Fascinating post! I learned so much - from the CSS Alabama to whalebones used in various items including umbrellas to the creation of the moving picture. You kept my attention. It's obvious much time and effort went into this post - thank you for sharing it with us.

21 Wits said...

I do like how you switched your from your musical posts to the umbrellas! I am a fan of umbrellas! The Magic Box sounds like a movie worth seeing too, thank you for mentioning it.

Kat Mortensen said...

Love how you segued from the umbrellas to the life and innovations of Friese-Green.

I was at a performance tour at our local historical museum yesterday and one of the figures-come-to-life was John Connon, a local photographer who was responsible for some very unique images using glass panels, and paper negatives. It seems rather a coincidence that I held in my own hands yesterday a device by which to view images that was somewhat similar to Rudge's "Magic Box".

Bruno Laliberté said...

"Friese Greene was a typical 19th century entrepreneur with grand ideas that seemed to require more business ability than he actually had. He was driven into bankruptcy a few times, and even sent to prison for his debts. But he had the obsessive imagination of an inventor that distracted him from the ordinary work of a photographer."

He may not have reached either fortune nor fame as he wished, but he did leave some legacy. Interesting fellow. Thanks for bringing him out.

I am under the impression that if the walking cane was the statement by some elite, the umbrella was more democratic and dual purpose, a sign that the working class and bourgeoisie were taking over.
Beautiful photographs, all in all.


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