The People of Gibraltar
1861 - Browning and Dansey - Part 7 - The Problem

Whoever curated the album on Harvard University’s website was good enough to supply a single page of descriptive notes covering the entire set of photographs. In these the creator is given as “Benjamin Browning” - which according to the range of dates given for some of the photos could be either Benjamin Browning Snr (1799-1876) or his son Benjamin Browning Jnr (1835-1919) - the pipe-smoking fellow on Tenby Beach.

The album’s date of publication is given as “England ca 1847-1864” which I suppose is based on the fact that one particular photo is identified with a question mark as possibly having been taken in 1847 and a few others are dated 1864. My own interpretation is that it is impossible to give an exact date, other than that 1864 would be the very earliest year it could have been put together. 

Saltash - the so-called Gateway to Cornwall - and just across the River Tamar - one of the newest photos in the album   

The university’s description of the contents of the album is that it contains 106 albumin salted paper photos and that:
Most of the prints are signed either BB (i.e. Benjamin Browning) or George Dansey. Some are signed by both, indicating that Dansey took the image and Browning printed it. One such image is dated 1856 by Dansey and 1863 by Browning. Most of the prints are captioned in manuscript and dated from 1851 to 1864.

The photograph with the two different dates 

Excluding pages with missing photos, digital duplicates, dried flowers, a greeting card and few blank pages leaves the album with the given number of prints. Of these almost exactly half fail to give any indication as to who took them - or where they were taken. Around 30 are undated whether with or without captions.

Dunrobin Castle in Scotland    (Undated and uncaptioned)

The initial BB and GD - as well as a very few photos that include the captions “B. Browning” and “G. Dansey” do appear on a number of them but Harvard offer no evidence as to why the initials BB should be interpreted as showing that Browning was responsible for the printing as against the taking of any particular photo - although I suspect that this interpretation is the correct one. The description also fails to explain who took the 50 odd unsigned ones.

Finally, the description of Benjamin Browning as “Creator” seems to be contradicted by identifying George Dansey and Philip Delamotte as “Author/Creator”. I would imagine that Harvard is of the opinion that one of the Brownings compiled the album while Dansey and Delamotte created the majority of the photos. But even a cursory look through the collection is enough to convince me that this is not quite correct.

Other than those included in the album I had also found four more photographs held by the Getty Museum attributed simply to Benjamin Browning without specifying whether the photographer was either the father or his son. 

Trees at Mount Edgecumbe Park

Rocks by Barnpool  (1856)

St Gerusant (sic) - Cornwall  (1856)
(Actually this is a stately home known as Port Eliot - St German's Priory is on the right)

Stonehouse Pool   (1856)

All four shown above seem very similar in subject matter and style to those in the album attributed to Dansey - one of the photos in it shows the entrance arch to St German's Priory - but not everybody agrees - at least in so far as the first one is concerned.

In Roger Taylor’s biographical summaries in his book Impressed by Light - British Photographs from Paper Negatives - 1840 - 1860, the three photographs captioned Trees at Mount Edgecumbe Park, Keyham Steam Factory and The Dewerstone near Brickligh, Devon, are all attributed to Benjamin Browning b 1799 - In other words to Benjamin Browning Snr who was indeed born in 1799.

Roger Taylor’s biographical summary

This biographical summary incidentally is not just Roger Taylor’s personal opinion but is actually copyright of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I have discussed the “Trees” photograph elsewhere but have attributed it to Browning Jnr. As regards the Keyham Steam Factory in Devonport - it was commonly known as a yard rather than a factory - I have so far been unable to find a copy. Completed in 1854 the Yard was the kind of place that George Dansey would have loved to photograph. The biographical comment that many of the photographs reflect an interest in the industrialisation of Britain is spot on but just about all of those that do so in the album's prints are attributed to Dansey rather than either of the Brownings.

The Dewerstone refers to a climber’s delight - a rocky outcrop in Dartmour not all that far from either Saltash or Plymouth. I am unsure about the “Bickleigh” reference but this one could have been taken by any of them.

The Dewerstone near Brickligh, Devon

The “diverse album” with Farnham Maxwell Lyte photographs mentioned in the “biography” may have contained several by a Benjamin Browning - Lyte produced photographs mostly spanning from 1850 to 1865 dates which more or less corresponds with most of those attributed to either Dansey or the Brownings. Unfortunately the album is not available to the likes of people like me - but that “geographical diversity” comment is worth exploring.

Both Brownings joined the Royal Navy as surgeons for longish periods of their lives - Browning Snr from 1823 to around 1838 and his son from 1856 when he was 21 to around 1869 when he was 34.

According to the bibliography the photos in the Lyte album included scenes taken in Rome, Gibraltar, Australia, Sevastopol and Suez - the Browning album does contain photos of Gibraltar and Australia but none from the other three places. Those taken of Gibraltar and Australia were almost certainly taken by Browning Jnr during his service on ships that visited these places on the given dates.

The only implausible alternative is that his father accompanied him on these trips. The oldest ones refer to the Australian visit which ended in 1859. When Browning returned home from this trip he visited his father who was already in poor health. In other words the chances of his old man traipsing almost right round the world with him on a warship appears to be vanishingly small.

Conclusion - Browning Junior is the amateur photographer and not his father. The photos of Gibraltar, Australia and New Zealand were taken by him. The rest of the photos - mostly dated prior to 1858 - were all taken by George Dansey including the four extra ones held by the Getty Musem and perhaps all three mentioned in the Metropolitan Museum’s biography

But that, I am afraid is not that. There is more. The Getty Museum where I discovered the four additional 1856 attributed to Browning also holds a collection of 60 odd photographs all of them said to have been taken in 1893. Only thirteen of them are available as digital copies but there can be little doubt that the subject matter on all of them confirms that they were taken on the given date. They are all views of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago - precisely in 1893. Here are the thirteen photographs.

Astonishingly all of them are attributed to one Benjamin Browning.

The Illinois Exhibition was one of those odd late nineteenth century events that captured the imagination of scores of well known professional photographers such as for example William Henry Jackson. One of the official photographers was Charles Dudley Arnold but there were very many others and literally thousands of photographs were taken of the event and copies of most of them are easily available

Whether any of these were taken Browning Jnr, however, is very much open to question. He would have been 58 years old at the time - admittedly not that old as to be dismissed as incapable of taking a photograph - or taking the time to visit Illinois. Nevertheless twenty-nine years had elapsed since he took his last extant one in 1864. Photography itself had moved on.

A case of mistaken identity? Could Browning have simply bought some of these postcard-like scenes, ownership being mistaken for authorship? I will probably never know the answer to these questions but I would willing bet good money that these photographs were not taken by him.

As for the album itself - I am still not a hundred percent certain as to who actually compiled that odd but fascinating collection of photographs - Browning Jnr seems the best bet but it could also have been his wife Mary Frances or even George Dansey. Why the photos and the other material were presented in such a haphazard fashion is also impossible to tell.

But the album did reveal something that had not occurred to me before - even the oldest photographs can be reprinted again and again making it possible for the printer to date his work on the day he printed it, rather than give the date when the photo was taken - or indeed even omit the name of the photographer who took the picture.

I suspect it is this that has led George Dansey to be practically and undeservedly unknown as one of photography’s pioneers - and for that I think I would probably have to blame either Benjamin Browning Snr . . . . or the man smoking a pipe in Tenby Beach 1oo odd years ago.