This article from our archives is by Tom Garvey. We have recently re-digitised the collection of 80 Benjamin Stone photographs. The collection is available to view on our online catalogue.
As we go through the lengthy process of digitising our image archives, there are countless pictures that threaten to distract us from the job at hand. Few of these pictures have as much appeal as the collection of photographs from the MP, mayor and amateur photographer, Benjamin Stone.
Born in Aston in 1838 to a glass manufacturer, Stone became a very successful businessman and a prominent Conservative politician, working as a representative and Councillor of Duddeston and Wylde Green Wards respectively, as well as a magistrate for Birmingham, Warwickshire, and Sutton Coldfield, becoming Sutton’s first Mayor in 1886.
Not only did he found and later preside over the Birmingham Conservative Association - as well as the Primrose League, which survived for over a century (and partly for which he was knighted in 1892) - he was every bit as passionate and dedicated to his work outside politics, which, in his own words, was:
“[T]o show those who will follow us, not only our buildings, but our everyday life, our manners and customs. Briefly, I have aimed at recording history with the camera, which, I think, is the best way of recording it.”
To this end, Sir Benjamin Stone began collecting photographs in the late 1860s, and when dissatisfied with these started to take his own. Taking full advantage of his wealth and political connections, Stone travelled extensively at home and abroad, visiting and taking pictures in Spain and Norway as eagerly as he did in Japan and South Africa. His approach was uniquely scientific; he sought to record a true history of his time through a new and powerful medium, seeing an educational and historical value in photography that was overlooked by many. He pioneered the use of new technologies and established both the Warwickshire Photographic Survey and the National Photographic Record Association. His bold use of the then unfashionable camera in the Palace of Westminster has left us with a unique account of many MPs, visitors, and clerical staff, and was likely the reason he was appointed as official photographer for the coronation of George V in 1911.
But it is not just the range and sheer number of pictures he took that is significant, for even a tiny sample of his enormous collection is enough to show his eye for aesthetic value, and his skill at capturing it. While it’s possible to appreciate his contribution to our history and photography as a medium, it’s even easier to enjoy his interesting, charming, and sometimes beautiful pictures, particularly given his obvious talent for capturing human expressions in an era without the convenient and portable equipment we rely on today.
Our selection only hints at Stone’s range, including shots of an ox roast at the 1899 Mop fair, Morris dancers in action, the Shakespeare’s birthday procession, and many pictures of local villages and rustic characters. An elderly almsman smiles determinedly, balanced on his crutches; a group of men relax on an upturned boat by the river as the swans swim by; a painter takes in a Welford scene as Sir Benjamin makes him part of another. One wonderful image of the river Avon with the original memorial theatre in the background and an unknown man on a bench under a tree in the foreground is a perfect example of a great thing done for its own sake. His work is not just a record of slanted facts and famous objects, but of the little details of human life that remind us of why history is not just something to learn, but something to enjoy.
Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service holds over 22,000 photographs from his collection, and London’s National Portrait Gallery is home to 2,000 of his parliamentary ‘mug shots.’