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Looking Back at Shakespeare’s Birthplace: Commercial Photographs Re-purposed

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. We take a look back at some of the commercial images that are currently on display in the house where they were taken.

Jim Ranahan

Shakespeare’s Birthplace is one of the most photographed buildings in the world. Every day of the year, tourists photograph the exterior and its environs. Every day (except for Christmas Day), visitors also photograph the interior.*

Photography at the Birthplace has a long history, dating back to the early years of the technology, for instance this exterior photograph dating from around 1850 [STRST: SBT 1994-19/41 – photographer unknown]. Tourists have always been important in this history, initially as consumers of commercially produced photographs, later becoming ‘snapshot’ photographers themselves, leading to today’s avalanche of images shared instantaneously across Social Media.

Shakespeare's Birthplace (1850), photograph
STRST: SBT 1994-19/41 – Shakespeare's Birthplace c.1850 (photographer unknown)

A range of these ‘tourist photographs’ are contained with the Trust’s collections and the Visitor Engagement Team has created a display of historic images which launches in the Birthplace on 1 January 2019.  These images all focus on the Victorian and early 20th century, permitting today’s visitors to compare and contrast the Birthplace interior layout with earlier presentations.

The photographs selected are all commercially produced, aimed at a tourist audience wanting mementos of a visit to the historic house, and also at widely dispersed audiences with an interest in the first home of William Shakespeare. Today, these photographs have a range of strong research applications, including architectural surveys, conservation and heritage management, apart from their general historical merit.

Shakespeare's Birthplace Museum
‘Shakespeare's Birthplace: Museum’ Photographic postcard by the Real Photo Postcard Ltd (Sunbeam Series 190-23) c.1900

The photographs themselves were taken by some of the top commercial photographers of their day: Francis Bedford & Co [SC14/1146 (c.1877), SC14/3291 (c.1895)]; Valentine & Co [SC8/15797 (1892)]; Real Photo Postcards Ltd [SC4/18/34 & 35 (c.1900)] and J. Salmon Ltd [SC33/2/4476 (1924)]

It is noteworthy that these companies specialised in photographic postcards and it was inevitable that Shakespeare’s Birthplace would attract their attention and feature in the Edwardian postcard craze. Indeed the only photographs in the Birthplace display not originating as postcards are those by Francis Bedford, but he was a pioneer of tourist focused photographs and laid the foundation for subsequent postcard production. He was so focused on tourist destinations that he generally shunned industrial areas and the nearest he came to Birmingham on his photographic journeys was Shakespeare’s Birthplace!

Shakespeare's Birthplace Kitchen
‘Interior of Shakespeare's Birthplace: Kitchen’ – Photographic print by Francis Bedford & Co c.1877
Shakespeare's Birthplace - Shakespeare's Desk
‘Shakespeare's Birthplace: Museum’ photographic print from a postcard negative by Valentine & Co 1892

We hope that you enjoy seeing these images online and that you are inspired to view the display in the building where the photographs were originally taken. Find out more about planning a visit to Shakespeare's Birthplace

Whilst this introduction to the Trust’s ‘Tourist photographs’ has focused on commercially produced images, we will look at ‘snapshot’ and ‘selfie’ images in future blogs, as well as other aspects of the Trust’s rich photographic heritage. Please view our online catalogue at collections.shakespeare.org.uk or contact us at scla@shakespeare.org.uk


*Photography is permitted within the Birthplace, but to help conserve the historic building and its contents, we ask visitors not to use flash photograph or ‘selfie sticks’.