Newcastle Courant (18/Nov/1899) - Among Life-Models

The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.



Holmfirth, six miles to the south from Huddersfield, lies in a corner of Yorkshire which the tourist does not often condescend to visit. Yet it is one of the most interesting literary shrines in the North of England. S. Baring Gould was very familiar with the place, and in a great measure made it the locale of his famous story, “The Pennycomequicks,” which is based on the terrible bursting of the Bilberry Reservoir above Holmfirth in 1852. The name of William Hepworth Dixon is coupled with that of S. Baring Gould in constituting Holmfirth an important literary shrine, not because of any attempt at local fiction on the part of the former, but because, as to all intents and purposes a native, he developed the highest literary abilities that man could aspire to. As biographer, historian, traveller, and critic he earned the rarest distinction, and held the editorial chair of the “Athenaeum” from 1853 to 1869. Both his father and grandfather were born at Holmfirth, and his very last visit out of London before his death in 1879 was to the old home of his ancestors in this comer of the big county, which he found broken up into tenements, and divested of all its original character. It is a curious coincidence that while Morehouse, the Kirkburton historian, credits Holmfirth with having “a society for the prosecution of felons, founded in 1813,” there is among Dixon’s principal literary remains the valuable work on “John Howard, and the Prison World of Europe.”

In two more classes of literature Holmfirth has a place. According to “The Log of a Gentleman Gipsy,” Dr Gordon Stables, the novelist and scientific writer, was here in his handsomely equipped caravan, “The Wanderer,” on July 5th, 1886, on his way from Berkshire to the extreme north. Several renowned literary persons have lately been seen in the vicinity of James Bamforth’s life-model studios, which suggest many possibilities to the enthusiastic illustrator. No wonder there is so much to see at this neglected little town, and so much to learn. The one main street is a severely plain cut incapable of occupying the attention, though at the post-office and stationer’s shop combined R. L. Stevenson, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Reade, Baring Gould, Coulson Kernahan, Charles Kingsley, and Marion Crawford may be seen rubbing their sixpenny paper-backs together. Although a busy little town, built anyhow, Holmfirth yet possesses the romance of situation, even from the river bank side to Underbank heights, where some of the houses remind you of eagle’s eyries.

“A wonderful man is James Bamforth of Holmfirth,” says “The Photogram” for February, 1899; “a man who frankly admits that his success in life depends entirely upon his powers of deception. He is truly a man of many parts, for besides being in actual life a scene-painter, stage-carpenter, stage-manager, photographer, plumber, glazier, gasfitter, and a host of other trades too varied to specify, he poses in his own creations in roles which range from bishop to congregation, from magistrate to mendicant, from temperance orator to drunken loafer.”

I shall never repent my interview with this wonderful man. In the very prosy station-road I found access to a typical little art-colony, erected in terraced and storeyed gardens which wind up the face of a cliff. Here nature seems almost to be revelling as in her prime, and possibly the amiable proprietor derives a good deal of inspiration from the quietude of this Arcadian nook, where Yorkshire birds sing in freedom, and foreign birds twitter in elegant aviaries. A lovely spot, truly, where lights are strong in winter, and sufficiently subdued in summer, where zigzag paths surmount the sylvan scenes, giving reach at various altitudes to the professor’s Swiss-like studios and workshops. Here nobody would suspect the near presence of the gaunt chimney-stalks below, or the inartistic building arrangements of a prosy little town.

James Bamforth served his time with an obscure painter and decorator. He set off to London “to make a fortune,” where he soon found himself penniless and starving. Reaching home again at length, he set up business on a capital of 8d. I believe it is a fact, too, that he married on 2s and a copper, but the marriage did certainly not militate against his opening career. Half an hour’s talk with James Bamforth will convince anyone that he is a born wit, a born genius, a charming conversationalist, a persevering, never-say-die sort of a man. He is deserving of his success. For what do we find him now but the very king of lantern-slide producers? and there is probably no lantern-slide catalogue in the English language which does not include some of his productions; while, I dare venture to say, in life-model work he has practically a monopoly of the trade. The humdrum of monotony never ticks off the minutes of his existence; the world is richer for his labours, which are the reverse of sordid. Few men in the county have a more engrossing life-work; and if glass were only less perishable it would live throughout the civilised world to perpetuate the name of James Bamforth. Children, maidens, and old men must necessarily yield to the charms of Bamforth’s work; but it has precisely the same value for thousands who do not possess a syllable of the English language. One can, therefore, understand that the subject of this sketch is not only a credit to the microcosm of the Holme Valley, but to all the ever-expanding photo-graphic world and the entire area of polite Yorkshire.

Though abounding in theatrical devices and trapdoors, where one might look for Mephistopheles popping up, the studio is not, of course, to be compared with such a magnificent scene as Hilarius’s doll-shop in “La Poupee.” But it is, nevertheless, the workshop of a master-craftsman who does not flick his coat-tails like Hilarius, and make queer noises and terrific bombastic boasts; it is rather the workshop of one who works assiduously in retirement, and has no end of startling good work to show for his labours by the beginning of the magic-lantern season in October. I was interested to hear that two more life-model studios were about to be built. There is a view given of the present compartment in “The Photogram” for February last, showing Mr Bamforth at work. I had expected to find it a more elaborate compartment, but the cubic space was certainly very much curtailed by medley property of the stage kind, including life-buoys, beer-pulls, ancient clocks, and even less graceful things which the sedate editor of “The Optician” had raised jokes about while wandering there quite recently. At each end there are a scene dock and a property room. The endless varieties of backgrounds which James Bamforth’s skill enables him to obtain at a few hours’ notice come out so remarkably well when photographed that it is quite impossible for the export to draw a line of demarcation between the real life-models and the artificial backgrounds.

The presiding genius finds no insurmountable difficulty in accommodating the characters at his disposal to the scenes which he wishes to portray. “The Photogram” critic remarks that to most “genre” photographers the task of making up pictures from such improvised models would seem hopeless; yet a great deal of James Bamforth’s success depends upon his skill in adapting himself to untrained material. How comes it about, asks the outsider, that the sitters for the multitudinous and ever-varying pictures of lantern-slide life can all be drawn from the inhabitants of an inconsiderable West Riding manufacturing town? They are usually themselves all over again when transferred to glass, and in their proper habits, too; but Mr Bamforth can, if he likes, recite some amusing home-adventures with his oft uncouth neighbours when trying to imbue them with the necessity of an accurate pose. Sometimes a stranger with special physiognomy, and conscious of his bland professional air, has to be waited for coming along; but such occasions are rare, as the handiness of the artisan element decided Mr Bamforth to pay careful, if not undivided, attention to homely themes. Thus it comes about to his lasting credit that the simple character of his stories, combined with the perfect naturalness of the leading figures in them, has endeared his life-model sots to millions of children and adults. These critics (says James, quoting his “Photogram”) are strong realists with no great amount of “art” prejudice, hence they at once recognise a real policeman, and like him much better than the policeman of the opera stage or the artist’s studio. The artist’s own son has a unique repertory of poses, and he appears time after time in very different guises.

The slides on view and sale must number some thousands. Most of them arc coloured by piece-work at the young workers’ own homes in the little town below. “The Photogram” for February and March, 1899, has devoted a couple of pages to mosaics of “Life Model Studies,” which testify to the fruitfulness of these cliff-side studios. No layman would dare to suspect that the mosaics were not derived from Royal Academy pictures; whereas practically every life-study is Holmfirth-born, and has tasted the compliment of James Bamforth’s patronage. Take, for instance. “The Lost Chord,” where the St. Cecilia-like figure at the organ is none other than “the fair maid of Holmfirth,” though she admittedly “makes up” better than many a professional model. George R. Sims is represented by his pathetic signalman’s story, and I heard that the humorous sketches by Carter Platts were about to be reproduced. Bamforth holds twenty-seven or twenty-eight copyright poems and stories specially written for illustration. The beautiful scenery of several counties is provided for in a series of slides, with printed descriptive matter to accompany each set. Publishers, too, have discovered the advantage of lantern slide publicity, and often seek to co-operate with Mr Bamforth in his departure.

We are all familiar with the individual who, returning from a holiday tour — and especially one in tolerably distant lands — relates his experiences to his friends and neighbours through the medium of a magic-lantern entertainment given in some convenient schoolroom. All the great tourist agencies now keep lantern slides dealing with every place of interest on the globe; indeed, one agency boosts that it possesses half a million of such slides, and these are lent at a very small fee to all those who have undertaken a tour with any particular agency. Suppose, for instance, that a tour up the Rhine has been undertaken by Mr Blank, he can secure for an insignificant few shillings a goodly assortment of slides dealing with the whole route. So complete are these sets of slides that he must inevitably receive pictures of places that he has not visited but this fact does not necessitate his leaving them out of the lecture. A regular artistic staff is kept constantly employed by the tourist agents in preparing new and touching-up the old slides. Agents apart, and such bona-fide workers as James Bamforth of Holmfirth, there are opticians making a specialty of this sort of thing, some of them have as many as from half a million to a million pictures giving views of every place of interest in the world.