Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history
Some months ago while browsing the net I came upon several photographs attributed to Thomas Begbie; I recognised several of these photographs as ones which I held in my collection. This led me to the Capital Collections website of Edinburgh Council libraries and museums where I recognised several further images which I own. I then acquired a copy of the 1992 book Thomas Begbie's Edinburgh - a Mid-Victorian Portrait by Joe Rock and again there were further photographs illustrated that I own. However in every case the photographs that I recognised were original Victorian stereographs by Alexander McGlashon.
It was immediately apparent that the dating of the photographs, mostly stereographs, on the Capital Collections site was generally incorrect. The images are mostly dated 1887 on the site but many of these were advertised for sale by McGlashon in 1858 in Menzies Magazine. This dating problem can be verified additionally in some instances from physical features in the photographs; for example a view of Princes Street in Edinburgh from the Scott Monument shows Campbell’s North British Hotel which was still trading as such in 1857 but by 1858 had become Wilson’s North British Hotel. Similarly a stereo of the Covenanters Tomb in Greyfriars Churchyard is dated 1887; however the stereograph which I own, in addition to bearing the McGlashon name, has on the right hand margin the embossed stamp of the Edinburgh Stereographic Co of New York, which operated in the late 1850s. Capital Collections incorrectly dates these and other images to 1887.
Begbie was born in the first half of 1841 making him age 16/17 when these stereos were taken. Oddly there are few contemporary references to him. Indeed a detailed search of the online British Newspaper Archive failed to produce any references to him. Begbie did run a studio from his house in Leith Street from 1874 – 1881 but from the lack of any other recorded photographic activities it is reasonable to assume that he was not particularly successful as a photographer. Indeed I am struck by lack of surviving photos bearing the Begbie name and in particular I have not seen any Victorian stereoviews with his name on them. By contrast the contemporary press confirms the active photographic involvement of McGlashon - he photographed many well known individuals; he lectured on the theory and practice of photography in the Edinburgh Institute; he was a council member of the Edinburgh Photographic Society whose meetings he on occasion chaired and he also gave talks to them on photographic subjects; he was involved in photographic projects with Octavius Hill including exhibiting at the London International exhibition in 1862.
If these stereo plates were ever in the possession of Begbie, and there is no clear evidence that they were, I would suggest that the most likely scenario was that he purchased them from McGlashon with a view to reusing them, but that his business never grew sufficiently for him to make use of them. Bearing on mind that these plates were discovered in St James Square, Edinburgh in 1950 it may also be relevant that at the time of his death in 1877 the McGlashon business was based in St James Square and his daughter lived in a further address in that Square which she still owned at the time of her death in 1919.
In the introductory pages of the book by Joe Rock there is clear and I believe well founded scepticism that the youthful Begbie could have been the photographer. I have recently corresponded with Joe on this subject and he has confirmed that he has always been sceptical of the attribution of these photographs to Begbie; as he stated in the book “on balance we must accept Begbie as the author until more evidence should prove otherwise” – I think that the required evidence is now available that the photographs are by Alexander McGlashon and should be recognised as such.
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