The Water Rats (1886)
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe Hon. F.R.P.S. (1853-1941) is best known for his photographs of Whitby – views that capture the landscape, including the iconic abbey, as well as the daily life of fisherfolk and other inhabitants of the Yorkshire town. Many of these images – such as The Water Rats (below) – were widely reproduced and imitated, enhancing Sutcliffe’s reputation and attracting droves of amateur photographers to Whitby. As a sign of his high standing amongst pictorialist photographers, he was invited to join the Linked Ring shortly after its foundation in 1892.
Equally interesting to me was the back of the card – not, for once, because of the ornate detail or florid artwork, but because of the minimalist simplicity of the design:
Sutcliffe’s cards bore many designs over the years, and typically they were adorned with details of all the awards he had won, and his claim to call himself ‘Photographer to Mr Ruskin.’ By contrast, there is almost nothing here, not even an address or advertisement – just his name, town, and two little animals…
Sutcliffe’s reputation as an art photographer means that it is easy to forget he also ran a portrait studio in Whitby from 1876 to 1922. There was a tendency among pictorialists to look down upon professional photographers for reasons of both aesthetics and social class. Sutcliffe is unusual in running the two traditions in parallel for such a long time, and there is no questioning the very high quality of his portrait work. Those who sat for him would have been both locals and visitors; judging by the cut of his coat, the customer who sat for this portrait may have been a clergyman.
What sort of creature is this supposed to represent? It reminds me very much of the mythological beasts with which medieval scribes adorned the marginalia of illuminated manuscripts. Most cdv backings were designed by commercial printers, using lithography to reproduce stock images; the photographer could then choose a template onto which business particulars could be added.
In this case, however, it seems certain that the back of the cdv was created by Sutcliffe – for some personal reason that remains as yet unclear.