Carte-de-visite of the week #13 Belle Bilton

This carte-de-visite was taken in the late 1880s and shows the Countess of Clancarty (1867-1906) – a singer, actress and music-hall entertainer better known under her stage-name of Belle Bilton. It shows her in costume and was taken in the Ebury Street studios of fashionable London photographers W. & D. Downey, opened in 1872 by William Downey (1829-1915) while his brother Daniel managed their studio in Newcastle. The Downeys took many portraits of Queen Victoria and the royal family, as well as aristocrats, society beauties and famous actresses. Belle was photographed by Downey several times, and also sat for other society photographers such as Alexander Bassano.

Background and Stage Career

Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton was born in 1867, the daughter of Sergeant John George Bilton of the Royal Engineers. Under the stage name of Belle Bilton she made her name as a music hall entertainer at the Alhambra and the Empire and other venues. Sometimes she appeared with her sister – an advert for a performance at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly in 1886 shows the ‘Sisters Bilton’ on the billing.

Lord Dunlo

Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty, using a stereoscopic camera around 1864, three years before the birth of his son.

At the Corinthian Club towards the end of April or beginning of May 1889, Belle met a young aristocrat – William, Viscount Dunlo, son of Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty and heir to the title. Like Belle, Lord Dunlo was twenty years old, and the couple quickly fell for one another: they were married soon after, at Hampstead Registry Office, on 10 July 1889. The groom’s father was not impressed at his son’s choice of bride, and William had already incurred the Earl’s displeasure due to his lack of enthusiasm for the army career that had been planned for him. As it had already been decided that William would benefit from foreign travel in the company of a sober and morally-minded mentor, his scandalous marriage to a music hall entertainer proved the last straw: the Earl forced his newly-wedded son to sail for Australia immediately under threat of losing his inheritance. A divorce case – which in those days depended upon proving adultery – was at once initiated, with the Earl determined to use every means in his power to blacken Belle’s name and have the union dissolved with his family’s honour intact.

The Trial

Over the next few months evidence was gathered, while Belle – in the absence of her husband – continued to socialise and pursue her stage career. In April 1890 she played the title role in the ‘burlesque extravaganza’ Venus at the Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. The trial opened in July 1890 with Sir James Hannen sitting as judge, Sir Charles Russell prosecuting, and the solicitor general Frank Lockwood QC representing Belle. The adultery trial had been preceded by a separate court case in which Belle was implicated in forgery; although the matter was quite independent of her marriage to Lord Dunlo, it was clearly intended to blacken her character – an objective that was largely thwarted by her being found innocent.

Eastern Evening News (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.2

It became apparent during the adultery trial that Belle was more sinned against than sinning, and the Earl and his associates came out looking worse, having instigated various machinations to make Belle look bad. As recent events have made all too clear, rich and powerful men can be responsible for all sorts of abuse to protect their interests. When Lord Dunlo declared he believed his wife to be innocent of the charges, the case collapsed, and he returned to live with Belle. Cut off from his father’s allowance, the couple were required to live off Belle’s earnings from the theatre – estimated at around £1,500 a year. Some felt that the publicity of the court case might actually help matters:

‘I dare say the photographs of Lady Dunlo (Miss Belle Bilton) are more marketable now than ever. I don’t know if this fascinating young lady has been paid liberal terms by Bassano and the other photographers to whom she has given sittings, but she certainly deserves to remunerated handsomely. She will sell like ripe cherries from now until her divorce trial comes off.’

London and Provincial Entr’acte (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.5.

The couple did not have long to wait. Belle’s father-in-law died less than a year after the trial, aged only 57. In May 1891 her husband became the 5th Earl of Clancarty, and Belle assumed the title of Countess of Clancarty. The couple had five children, including the 6th and 7th Earls of Clancarty.

Belle with her twin sons Richard and Henry, born Devember 1891. Photographed by Bassano ca. 1893-4. Reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sadly, Belle died of cancer on 31 December 1906 at Garbaldy Park, Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of only 39. Carte-de-visite portraits of her – both in theatrical costume and as herself – are fairly easy to find and so it is tempting to consider building up a collection of these. Belle’s short life is intriguing for anyone with an interest in late Victorian theatre, and there is something inspiring – and remarkably topical – about the story of how this young woman refused to be crushed by powerful men who sought to silence her.


Carte-de-visite of the week #12


It seems like an eon since I last posted in this series, and so – to make up for lost time – this week I’m looking at four cdvs, including delightful portraits of three young sisters.

Bishop Wood (1839-) of Lower Leigh.

What makes me want to acquire cdvs such as these?  The attraction could stem from any number of things. There might be some unusual aspect to the image itself, or some intriguing detail in the artwork or lettering on the back of the card. It might be the photographer’s name that attracts, possibly because I am familiar with their work already, or because he or she has a local connection. Sometimes the place or person depicted is of interest. Handwritten annotations always catch my eye, for even a few cryptic details might provide enough clues to build up a little bit of background.

Such was the case with this group of four cards. Although they were produced by two photographers, one in Bristol the other in Tiverton, the similarity of surnames, placenames and handwriting indicated a close family connection. Piecing the jigsaw together involved a fair amount of work, but enough details came together to share here.

 According to the printed advert on the reverse of the card, the portrait above was taken by R Houlson, of 5 Griffin Hill, Bristol. Robert Houlson was born in Bristol but had Devon connections, as he first appears as a commercial photographer in the 1871 census when he was living in Honiton.

Bishop Wood appears in the 1861 census as the 22 year old son of William Ayshford Wood (1810-84), a ealthy gentleman who lived at Leigh House in Uffculme and was one of the main freeholders in the parish. William’s other children included William (aged 19 in 1861), Penelope (aged 16), Florence (aged 9) and Arthur Ayshford. It seems almost certain that this Arthur Ayshford Wood (1849-) – Bishop Wood’s brother –  is ‘A.A.W’, father of the three girls below. He married Julianna Palmer (1845-1921) at Tiverton in 1869, and their first child – a son named Arthur – was born in 1870.

The girls’ portraits were taken by Walter Mudford, about whom I have written in a previous post. His photography business was first recorded in 1878 and these were probably taken within five years of that date. Note the bearskin rug!

The caption to each portrait reproduces the pencil note on the back.



‘M. Wood, daughter of AAW, Leigh Court, now Mrs Worth of Tiverton.’
Julia Mabel Wood was born in 1872. She married Charles Lloyd Henry Worth at Tiverton in April 1894.
‘F. Wood, daughter of AAW, Leigh Court.’
Gertrude Florence Wood was born in 1875.

‘A. Wood, daughter of AAW, Leigh Court’

Alice Wood, born in 1876.

The 1881 census records Arthur Wood along with three daughters: Gertrude (aged 6), Alice (aged 4) and Ethel (aged 1) as well as a three-year old son named Ashford. The absence of any names beginning with either M or F was puzzling at first, but the 1891 census reveals that the eldest daughter (Julia) Mabel (now aged eighteen and therefore born in 1872) was away from home on the night of the census ten years earlier, presumably with her mother Mrs Julianna Wood (now 44.) A son Ernest had also appeared, born around 1883.

It is therefore possible to identify the three sitters as Mabel, Gertrude and Alice. Going by the ages and their dates of birth, Walter Mudford probably took the portraits in the mid-1880s. Dating their uncle’s portrait is a little harder, but if he was in his mid-40s when the photograph was taken then it was probably about the same time. He was then living in Dulverton, Somerset – not far from Tiverton and Uffculme – with his wife Elizabeth and describing himself as a retired farmer.

Sadly, his brother’s marriage broke up in the late 1890s – Julianna divorced Arthur Wood following his infidelity with a woman named Sarah Broad, and went to live in Heavitree, Exeter. I haven’t followed up how life turned out for her daughters – a project for another day, perhaps.

carte de visite of the week #11 robert graham and the love letter

This week’s cdv is a rather charming portrait of a young lady reading a letter. Her natural pose and slight smile make a pleasant change to the forced artifices found in many portraits, where the sitters appear uncomfortable, are grimacing rigidly, or else are engaged in some pretence such as rowing a boat inside the studio. All portraiture, of course, involves an element of performance, and this was even more the case during the early years of photography. However, a cdv portrait like this could almost be imagined as a candid shot in the corner of someone’s living room. Was this letter a studio prop, or did the girl bring it along with her? Does it have personal significance – a letter from a distant relative, friend or lover? Perhaps the carte-de-visite was made for the person who wrote the letter, and would be posted back to them as an affectionate sign that his/her correspondence was both received and valued.

The reverse of the card identifies the photographer as Robert L. Graham, operating from his studio at the Top end of the Parade (No.6), Leamington, Warwickshire. It probably dates to the 1890s: Graham opened his studio at 7a Upper Parade in 1873, later moving to York Terrace and then to No. 6 Parade, expanding into the next door premises (No.8) as his business flourished.

Graham appears to have been a prolific photographer, making many thousands of images during this period. After his business closed in the 1920s, the store of negatives ended up – no one knows how – in the cellar of a house at 16 Augusta Place, a couple of blocks away from The Parade.  They were forgotten about and the cellar was bricked up, sealing the negatives away for decades. They were only discovered by chance in April 1987 when workmen happened to break through the cellar wall, and found stacks of glass negatives, piled up to five foot high. The total number was estimated at between 40-50,000, but most of them were damaged beyond repair. Thankfully, around 5000 of Robert Graham’s negatives were rescued safely and are now held by the Warwickshire County Record Office. You can read more about this remarkable story here.

Carte-de-visite of the week #10                  Henry PhilLpotts, Bishop of Exeter


The photograph above was taken in the mid-1860s at the London studio of William Walker (1791-1867) and his son Samuel Alexander Walker (1841-1922.) Clearly visible in the picture are the gaiters worn by the bishop. This was standard ecclesiastical dress for bishops and archdeacons until the mid-20th century. Some readers may remember a BBC TV series in the late 1960s, All Gas and Gaiters, with Derek Nimmo, William Mervyn and Robertson Hare playing comical clergyman of St Ogg’s Cathedral.

Henry Philpotts (1778-1869), the redoubtable Bishop of Exeter
Phillpotts was Bishop of Exeter from 1830 until his death and ruled the diocese with an iron hand, imposing order in a region that had long been disorganised and demoralised. He was, however, a pugnacious character who relished conflict and detested compromise. Walker’s portraits capture the bishop’s forceful character – the massive brow, granite features and clenched jaw support Owen Chadwick’s description of him in action: ‘exposing opponents’ follies with consummate ability, a tongue and eyes of flame, an ugly tough face and vehement speech.’ (The Victorian Church Vol.1)
Unsurprisingly, Phillpotts was embroiled in controversy throughout his life. Local conflicts included his long-running feud with Thomas Latimer, editor of Western Times, the Exeter surplice riots (1844-45) – which saw violent mobs protesting in Sidwell Street – and the Gorham case (1847-50), a long-running dispute over the bishop’s refusal to allow the Rev. George Gorham to take up his appointment in Brampford Speke. Philpotts believed Gorham’s views on baptismal regeneration to be out of line with Anglican orthodoxy, but when the bishop’s judgment was overruled by an appeal court, High Churchmen were appalled at the idea of secular authorities overruling the episcopate on matters of religious doctrine.


St Peter’s Church in the quiet village of Brampford Speke, a short distance from my home. It was Phillpotts’ refusal to ordain the Rev. George Gorham as vicar here in 1847 that led to deep unrest within the Church of England.


The Lower Cemetery in Exeter, showing the wall dividing the Anglican graves from those of Nonconformists. Phillpotts consecrated the Anglican side on 24 August 1837 but refused to have anything to do with the ‘dissenters.’
Although it is tempting to dwell on the conflicts and controversies, Phillpotts made many positive contributions to the diocese of Exeter, including restoring part of the cathedral, founding a theological college and library, and working with Lydia Sellon to revive religious communities for women. He didn’t like the city much, however, and preferred to live in Torquay rather than in the episcopal residence attached to the cathedral.


Bishopstowe, Phillpotts’ residence in Torquay and the place where he died on 18 September 1869

Celebrity cards like these were inexpensive to buy – typically between 1/ and 1/6d – and would be sold in stationers shops or other outlets. There was an insatiable market for collecting carte-de-visites of famous people in the 1860s, though one wonders how popular Bishop Phillpotts’ portrait was among collectors, given his unpopularity and fearsome reputation. I remain curious to know more about the person who originally bought this pair of cards. Were they an admirer of the bishop? Did they acquire the cards to go in an album with cdvs of other church dignitaries, or were they collecting cards of local interest to the Exeter area?

Original albums of Victorian cartes-des-visites regularly come up for sale, but often we know little about the way these collections were put together. How often were people buying cards? How much was acquired as part of a clear collecting strategy and how much was picked up on arbitrary impulse, according to what was available or looked appealing? What personal use did the collector make of the images he had acquired? Was the album taken out in the evenings to be pored over as we might do with a glossy ‘coffee-table’ book?

Questions such as these invite comparisons with modern habits of collecting, as well as highlighting the extent to which the meaning and nature of celebrity status has changed over the last 150 years. Some people might be bemused today at the notion of a man like Bishop Phillpotts being regarded as a celebrity, but his contemporaries would be equally baffled, if not more so, at the activities and achievements of those accorded the status of celebrity by the modern media.

Carte de visite of the week #9 – Ross & Pringle


Continuing on the Scottish theme, this week’s cdv comes from the Edinburgh studios of James Ross (1815-95) and Thomas Pringle (died 1895), who were in partnership from 1867 until 1883.

Pringle –   an assistant in the firm for many years – became Ross’s business partner following the retiral of John Thomson (born 1808/9) – not to be confused with another Edinburgh photographer named John Thomson (1837-1921) who became famous for his views of China and London street life.

James Ross was working with the calotype process when he went into partnership in 1848 with Thomson, a skilled daguerreotypist. They were appointed photographers to Queen Victoria in 1849, and later switched to using glass negatives following the introduction of collodion in the early 1850s.

James Ross has been in the news recently because of the hypothesis – advanced by American researcher Patrick Feaster – that he may have been the first photographer to produce a sequence of moving images, preceding the man usually accorded that honour – Eadweard Muybridge – by two years. Feaster’s theory is based on a reference in The British Journal of Photography, 14 July 1876, which describes a sequence of three photographs taken:

by Mr. Ross, of Edinburgh, in one of which a girl on a swing is caught just at the instant when the rope had reached the highest elevation; in another a girl is skipping, the picture showing the rope passing under her feet; while a third is that of a boy jumping over a large stone. The last is peculiarly interesting, as it was stated to be taken with a camera fitted with a number of medallion lenses, placed in threes, one above another. The exposures were made by causing a sheet of metal with a hole in it to fall so that the aperture was for an instant brought successively in front of each lens. To the lower end of the sheet was attached a heavy weight, and it was held up in such a position that the three lenses were all covered. At the proper moment the suspending thread was severed, and, although the time between the passing of the opening in the sheet from one lens to another must have been almost inappreciable, the plate showed the three pictures in very different positions.

It would appear from this passage that Ross used a single camera, but one that was specially-constructed with three lenses, allowing him to take three photographs of a moving person, animal or object in rapid succession. Muybridge used a line-up of twelve cameras to photograph a running horse in California in June 1878, with each camera activated by a trip wire as the horse passed by. His experiment was carried out to settle debate over whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves in the air at the same time. He was able to carry out a series of trials using an array of equipment thanks to the financial support of Leland Stanford, a wealthy horse-owner and businessman.  James Ross appears to have funded his own, more modest, experiments himself. For a fuller version of Feaster’s theory, see his article here.

This attractive little family group sat for their portrait around the time that Ross was working on his motion photographs, as a handwritten note on the back gives the date as July 1875 – shortly before Ross and Pringle moved from 114 George Street to 103 Princes Street. The studio was at the west end of George Street, close to Charlotte Square. The mother and her young children may have lived in the west end, but studios with a good reputation such as Ross and Pringle could attract clients from quite a distance. The only clue to their identity lies in the scribbled names and initials at the foot of the card.