The insatiable thirst for knowledge, patriotic passion and deep pockets of a photographer born 174 years ago has handed Birmingham one of the most remarkable image collections in the country.
Wealthy Birmingham industrialist Sir Benjamin Stone made it his life’s work to collect and take photographs to create a historical record for generations to come as the world went through drastic changes during the rapid industrialisation of the late 19th century.
His passion took him from festivals in Abbots Bromley and Sutton Coldfield to Australia and China, spending more than £1 million in today’s money in a quest to create a vast visual encyclopaedia of the ancient and modern world.
It led him to amass 22,000 photographs, 2,500 lantern slides, 17,000 glass negatives and more than 100 albums and scrapbooks, which will soon be housed at the new Library of Birmingham – and gave him the nickname ‘Sir Snapshot’.
Pete James, head of photographs at the Library of Birmingham, said it was the passion – and preparedness to spend his time and money in the cause of making a vast historic record – which made Sir Benjamin, who represented Birmingham East as an MP, so special.
He said: “He represents the great tradition amongst Birmingham worthies of accumulating knowledge for the purpose of sharing it for the benefit of other people.
“To me he is one of those extraordinary driven people.”
He added: “He was a man of private means who had a seemingly insatiable desire to gain knowledge about the world.
“He reflected the Victorian positivist philosophy which suggested that if you have knowledge about something you can control it and harness it for the advancement of society.
“He was a local and national politician, he had a wide range of business interests and he supported a number of local philanthropic initiatives such as Mason’s Orphanage.”
Sir Benjamin, who was knighted for his services to politics after serving as an MP for 15 years, was inquisitive from an early age and began collecting scientific specimens and built up his own museum of sorts as a young man.
He was fortunate to have been able to invest his private wealth, derived from the family-owned paper business, which became today’s Smurfit Kappa, in his search for knowledge.
He is thought to have spent as much as £30,000 on photography during his lifetime – a figure equivalent to more than £1 million today. He used it to create a record of things changing rapidly as a result of industrialisation, and often focused on collecting and taking photographs of buildings which were set to be demolished and customs and festivals in danger of extinction, to preserve a photographic record for future generations.
His pictures of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance – a 1,000-year-old tradition thought to be the oldest traditional dance in the country – are among his best-known.
And he sometimes went further than merely documenting British festivities – in some cases he rescued them. In 1887 he was credited with being instrumental in reviving the ancient maypole dance in Sutton Coldfield.
Mr James said that it was his hunger for knowledge that led Sir Benjamin to photography, as he could not always buy the images he wanted.
He said: “From 1860 to 1880 he travelled and collected commercially produced images.
“But he struggled because he couldn’t always get the photographs that he wanted to acquire to fill all the gaps so when photographic technology got better in the 1880s he started to take the photographs himself, so he didn’t have to simply rely on what was available on the market.
“That was the early 1880s, and when he died in 1914 he had travelled around the world and had one of the most extensive private photographic collections.”
Representing Birmingham East as an MP, and on entering Parliament in the early 1890s he also set himself the task of photographing every MP, the entire Palace of Westminster, its staff and all important visitors.
As an MP he was involved in promoting growth and change through the forces of industrialisation , but at the same time he set out to ensure that while a vast amount of change was being pushed through historic items, buildings and customs were not to be forgotten.
Sir Benjamin, who was also known as Sir Kodak and The Knight Of The Camera, had a global eye despite being keen to encourage what he called “local patroitism”.
He became president of the Birmingham Photographic Society, founded the Warwickshire Photographic Survey and set up a press cuttings service in the city.He travelled as far afield as China, Japan, the West Indies, South Africa, the US and South America – and might have ventured further but for the restrictions of the day. In 1903 he visited Olympia, known for having been the site of the Olympic Games in classical times. Five years later he photographed athletes from the US Olympic team when they visited the House of Commons following their success in the 1908 London Games. Many of those photographed were drawn from the famous Irish-American Athletics Club.
A selection of these images have been put on display on the hoardings at the new Library of Birmingham site to coincide with the Olympic Games.
He took a photograph of a solar eclipse in Brazil in 1890 during the South American revolution, in which he was said to have prevented the rebels from firing at the governor’s palace until he had taken photographs of them beside their guns.
And Sir Benjamin’s international visits continue to pay dividends for the Library of Birmingham, as it has had visits and enquiries from around the world by academics and students from as far afield as Japan, the Middle East and the US who want to study and learn from his photographs.
Despite his popularity in the early 20th century, Sir Benjamin’s efforts disappeared into obscurity for 40 years after his death, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that photographic historians like Colin Ford, Bill Jay and Barry Lane started to appreciate and promote his work to a new generation.
In the 1970s his work was a major source of inspiration to photographer Daniel Meadows, who followed in Stone’s footsteps, making a record of England and the English in his Photographic Omnibus project.
Meadows’ work will go on show at the new library in 2014.
His single-minded approach to photography was divisive at the time as he was often at odds with other members of the photographic society over the purpose of photography.
He saw it from the perspective of a historic record, but the pictorialists, who increasingly saw photography as an art form, saw things differently.
Mr James explained: “Benjamin Stone was adamant that the only important photographs in the future would be those that recorded the past. It is not that he was a great photographer because of his technique, it is about what his work tells us about the era he lived in.”
He added: “He is recognised nationally and internationally as one of the most important and influential British photographers of the 19th century.”
The father of six also published a number of books including A Summer Holiday in Spain, in 1873, Children of Norway, in 1882, and a fairy-tale called The Traveller’s Joy.
The Library of Birmingham is home to one of the UK’s most influential collections of photographs. It holds about 3.5 million images in total and in 2006 the archive was awarded designated status by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council in recognition of its national and international importance. The collection will be opened up to a host of new facilities, including state-of-the-art gallery space will open up public access to the collections for the first time when it moves to the new building next year.