Library & Archives Blog – Tom Watson: the Other Photographer!

Thomas Watson: ‘the senior professional photographer of England’

This week’s blog is about the Victorian photographer Thomas Watson! Often overshadowed by the more well-known Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, Watson was just as talented and is now just as important in the world of north eastern photography. The surprising fact, though, is that the two never actually met!

Watson, born in Castleton in 1863, lived in Lythe where his father was joiner for Mulgrave castle, a job which Tom helped him with in his early life, until he went to London to learn photography on a five-year course at a polytechnic.

As well as this, Tom, as a young adult, was an incredibly travelled man. A favourite anecdote of his to tell was that he travelled to New York by steam boat, then spent three weeks in Chicago, and then travelled to Niagara Falls, where he spent a week, all for £26! In modern money, that’s over £4000 (approximately).

Watson also spent a lot of time in Europe, travelling to places such as Switzerland, Norway, and France, where he wrote many postcards home, and all the while taking with him his camera and a portable darkroom.

“Here we are on the way to the famehorn(?), left Grindelwald at 6:30. The weather is magnificent, all the peaks being cleanly defined, I hope to get some good views today. Today makes up a great measure for the part bad weather.      Tom”

This was written on a postcard of the Wetterhorn, a mountain peak in Switzerland, in handwriting that was quite difficult to decipher. The word “famehorn” is most likely a slang word to describe the popularity of the mountain he was visiting. His excitement whilst there is definitely evident, even in very short and to-the-point postcards.

Another interesting fact was that he was likely a distant cousin of Jules Verne, and he had a signed collection of all of Verne’s books! It seems as though adventure runs in the family.

Such a well-travelled mind (depicted in the adjacent photo at 91 years old with his camera) would certainly produce lots of creative and magnificent work, but a lot of Thomas Watson’s photography is less adventurous, due to his being recruited by Lord Normanby to be their occasional photographer. At this time, he had his own studio and darkroom in Lythe, and he captured many important events such as weddings, the Esk bridge repairs and a WW1 bombardment, but notably the unveiling of the Caedmon monument, which Frank M. Sutcliffe attended and photographed too!

But Watson cannot be disregarded as an untalented wedding photographer, because if you see his personal photographs, there is a more noticeable artistic element to his work. He clearly enjoyed his work, in and out of a occupational field. It’s no wonder that in 1951, the Whitby Photographic society labelled him ‘the senior professional photographer of England’.

All of the photos you see here are part of our collection of memorabilia and information relating to Thomas Watson, including various postcards, picture books and records of his travels, which are available for further research for any Thomas Watson fans!

Daniel Shone Hatchwell, Student at Scarborough Sixth Form

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Richardson. G (1992), T.Watson Photographer of Lythe, Near Whitby Est.1892. The Lampada Press 1992.