The Elusive Thomas Vernon Begbie

Thomas Begbie is known mainly because of the discovery of a cache of glass plate stereos in St James Square Edinburgh in 1955. These stereos from the late 1850s, the work of Alexander McGlashon, were incorrectly assumed to have been the work of Begbie. This post attempts to tease out what is known of Begbie

Census and other registration records point to him being born in 1841, (e.g. the 1901 census taken on 31st March gives his age as 59). The family business was that of lapidary and it seems that he probably trained as a lapidary.  Thomas’s father died in October 1855 and the business had ceased to exist by mid 1856.

The 1861 census lists Begbie as a lodger in 121 Rose Street, a crowded two storey property, suggesting that he was probably struggling a bit financially; his occupation is given as photographer, the earliest such reference. However it is extremely unlikely that he would have been able to carry out any photographic activities in such cramped accommodation so perhaps the enumerator has used a generic term whereas in reality photographic assistant would have been more accurate.

 At some point after April 1861 Begbie moved to London and was living in Hill Street when he married Sarah McDonald in 1864. By August of the following year when his daughter was born he had moved back to Edinburgh. Very interestingly her birth certificate gives Begbie’s occupation as photographer’s assistant as is the case on each of the birth certificates of his following three children. As, with one exception, these certificates bear Begbie’s handwritten signature, they can be taken as an authoritative statement of his occupation.  The exception is signed by his wife and also states that he is a photographer’s assistant.

In April 1867 Begbie became a member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society

By 1871 he is living with his wife’s family; her brother, whose occupation is a lapidary, is listed as the head of the household, again suggesting that he is still struggling to progress in photography.

Begbie’s circumstances improved during the 1870’s as he moved to a two roomed house in 7 Leith Street in Edinburgh, at last the head of his own household. From 1874 he is listed in the Post Office Directory at that address as a photographer and in the 1879 and two following directories he has placed a small advert for his photographic business. However after 1881 there are no further entries although he is still listed as a photographer in the 1891and 1901 censuses;  by 1901 he has moved into another two room house in 23 St James Square in Edinburgh; both his sons are in the jewellery trade. He is retired in the 1910 census.

Begbie died in St James Square in March 1915, two months after his wife’s death.

There are few contemporary references to him. A detailed search of the online British Newspaper Archive failed to produce any references, and there seems to be scarcely any surviving photos bearing the Begbie name; personally I have encountered only a few cdvs. It is reasonable to assume that he was not particularly successful as a photographer.

Intriguingly at the time of his death his two sons were in the jewellery trade. An obvious question is why didn’t they follow their father into the photographic profession – indeed did Thomas Begbie continue a parallel career in the jewellery trade, helping to make ends meet, and passing these skills on to his children?

Begbie is a shadowy figure who clearly had aspirations as a photographer but success seems to have eluded him; had it not been for the misattribution of the McGlashon photographs Begbie would likely have been no more than a footnote in photographic history.



























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  • Hello Alex,

    Interesting. I am also intrigued by McGlashon's work in Australia - I once owned a street view in Melbourne ( I went to school there) with a large shop sign with his name on it, but I sold it at Christies many years ago. If I had the time I would love to go through all of the images associated with the Australian gold rush as I think that is the reason why he went to Australia. Melbourne would have been at the very centre of travel to and from the Victorian gold fields and a very lucrative spot for a portrait photographer at the time.

    It is still puzzling, in view of what you say, that McGlashon is never described as a photographer in any of the Census or Valuation records - he is always 'copper plate printer'

  • Hi Joe,

    Thank you for your comments. I have never seen any evidence that McGlashon was a publisher, although interestingly I have noticed that amongst the publishers he used was Alexander Hill, elder brother of Octavius Hill.

    McGlashon did indeed start out as a fine art printer and was very active in this field particularly in the 1840s and early 1850s; The success of his printing businesses would have given him a bedrock of financial security throughout his career. The earliest dateable McGlashon photographs are from 1854 and we know that in that year he stood aside from all active involvement in his print business, leaving him free to concentrate on photography. As you point out he subsequently appointed a partner William George Wilding to his print business. He would have been happy to entrust the day to day running of that business to Wilding as he was his brother-in-law.

    All surviving photographs from McGlashon’s time in Australia in the mid 1850s are outdoor scenes and are mostly stereoviews, so it was perfectly logical to continue with this approach on his return to Edinburgh.

    I think it is obvious that McGlashon’s main interest became photography. The very fact that he worked with Octavius Hill on several occasions should be sufficient to emphasise that fact but it is also notable that he was the first Edinburgh photographer to photograph members of the royal family; these photographs have survived in a personal collection of Queen Victoria’s held at Windsor Castle. Also he had four prints, two portraits and two landscapes, included in the Brumby Johnston album intended to showcase the best in contemporary photography. He also regularly lectured on photography and he ran a studio in Princes Street, Edinburgh.

    As late as 1871 McGlashon was awarded the prestigious commission as photographer for the major exhibition in the National Gallery to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott.

    In the interests of brevity I will simply add that there is ample contemporary evidence of McGlashon’s role as a successful photographer of both portraits and scenic views.

  • Hello Peter (if I may),

    You should get in touch with the Edinburgh Public Library where they have two albums of prints made by T. V. Begbie from his stereo pairs. They were presented to the library by his grand daughter, Mrs. Sarah Thomson. I printed around 150 of the same negatives for the 1992 exhibition in the City Art Centre in Edinburgh and they were published in the well known book Thomas Begbie's Edinburgh. You will also find there a good number of prints from negatives that are now lost.

    You may be intrigued, as I was, to see that the National Galleries of Scotland hold a carte de visite, apparently by Begbie of two young cricketers. I have written to ask how they made the attribution and I will post the response here in due course:

  • Hi Joe

    I have been collecting stereoviews of Scotland for almost 30 years now and have never seen one by Begbie - I would love to see one - has anyone any examples?

  • I have responded to Mr. Sinclair's previous posts on Thomas Vernon Begbie and I will not add to what I have said about Begbie there.

    Since making those comments I have been reading through articles in the British Journal of Photography, and I came across interesting information on Alexander McGlashon (or McGlashen). I think the confusion regarding the Begbie photographs arises from a misunderstanding of Alexander's role in their production. I believe he was the publisher of McGlashon's Scottish Stereographs advertised in Edinburgh in the 6th edition of Menzies' Pocket Guide to Edinburgh and its environs (1858), not the photographer.

    McGlashon was admitted a member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society on 21 May 1862. He had attended a meeting on the 2nd April previous, as a contributor to a display of portable darkroom tents and he would have been known to the members, having exhibited a group of portraits made with David Octavius Hill, at the sixth annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1862. From the reports of their meetings in the British Journal of Photography (hereafter BJP) it is clear the McGlashon attended regularly, chaired at least two meetings and served on council in 1865 and 1871. He was regarded by the other members as one of their 'professionals' and his interjected comments, while occasionally a bit curmudgeonly, display great practical knowledge of processes and equipment. In November 1862 he was appointed, along with the only other professional photographer, John Horsburgh (1835-1924), to a committee to look at the new copyright Act, as it applied to photography. It is significant that the report of the Committee, published in the BJP on 1 April 1863 shows they spent most of their time discussing the rights of printers rather than photographers. He was involved in a number of practical demonstrations held at meetings including taking a portrait in an experiment with gas lighting in April 1865. This involved twenty-nine fishtail burners on a table, giving an exposure time of eight minutes. The sitter complained, not about the exposure time but about the heat; '… any longer and he would have been converted into roast goose!' It is clear from all references to him that he practiced as a portrait photographer.

    The most telling point arises in the account of the meeting in February 1866 in a discussion about increasing exposure speed by using tannin, McGlashon interjected

    '…it was all very well for Mr. Nicol who wrought only in the field, to be satisfied with the present state of sensitiveness; but, those who like himself [McGlashon] had to work in the glass house, could appreciate anything that would shorten the exposure by half or even a quarter'.

    The glass house in this instance was a glazed studio used by portrait photographers.

    McGlashon is noticeable by the absence of his interjections at the meetings from around September 1865 and in December that year, a group of prints made by 'Herr Albert of Munich' were handed around for comment. The process was explained by the Secretary, who ended his comments with the information that Mr. McGlashon was on the Continent at that moment learning the details of the process. This comment is corroborated in a report of a meeting on 2 April 1889 of the Photographic Society of Chicago, published in The Beacon in April that year.

                "The Mr. McGlashon, to whom we alluded in our January number as having offered to show Mr. Woodbury how to print with clean margins, [an offer that was pointedly rebuffed!] was the first to purchase instructions and the right to work the Albert process, having gone to Vienna for that purpose and paid, we think, some $1,000. On his return to Edinburgh he produced some fine results, but had to abandon the process for the commercial purposes intended, as he could not give it his personal attention, and could not get “wooden-headed" printers that could be taught, although he had in his printing office a staff of the best hands in the country. Of course, by “wooden-headed” he meant men who possessed sufficient manual dexterity for the delicate operations, combined with the ability to forget some of the ordinary details of copper-plate printing and acquire in its stead a knowledge of the peculiarities of the Albertype".

    So once again his primary interest is in a printing process, not photography.

    Alexander McGlashon was primarily a printer and in all his entries in the Edinburgh Census and Valuation Rolls, he is identified as a 'copperplate printer' and indeed there are more than a hundred fine prints by him in the National Portrait Gallery and the print room of British Museum. In partnership with the intaglio printer, William Wilding he made at least fifteen genre prints for the Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts in Scotland, between 1841 and 1853.

    As with any photographer of the period McGlashon no doubt took photographs of scenery but his prime business was in printing and publishing with photographic portraiture as a sideline. I suspect he used the work of many photographers for his stereo cards and this may well have included Marcus Sparling, famous as Fenton's assistant in Crimea. Sparling spent the late 1860's in Edinburgh and there is a story about him in the BJP in 1877 trying to take a photograph of an old tenement in the Cowgate. He was so pestered by children standing in front of his camera that he mounted a mirror on the back plate to keep them busy. As there are no photographs of Edinburgh identified as Sparling's work I suspect his photographs, like those of Thomas Begbie, were simply published as un-attributed stereo views by any number of printer/publishers like McGlashon. It was a method of working that went back to the beginning of print publication in the early 18th century.

  • Fascinating - we assume that museums and major collections get attribution correct. You would think that Edinburgh would be delighted to correctly attribute the body of work erroneously ascribed to Begbie to the much more important and influential photographer McGlashon. I do not understand the reluctance to do so.
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