H P Robinson, one of the foremost Victorian photographers, ran a studio for several years opposite the Regent Hotel in Leamington.
Robinson’s life is described in historian Alan Griffin’s book Leamington Lives Remembered (Feldon Books £6.95).
Henry Peach Robinsonwas born in 1830 in Ludlow, where his father was Master of the National School. As a young man he was a gifted sculptor and artist and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852.
But, after serving an apprenticeship in printing and bookselling, he came to Leamington in 1853 to work for Joseph Glover, a local bookseller who also published the Leamington Courier.
While working for Glover, Robinson became enthused by photography and set up his first studio at 15 Upper Parade in January 1857, with the help of a £100 loan from a former patron in Ludlow.
His first winter in business was very difficult with processing solutions freezing and bottles bursting in the cold weather. And when the first family came for a group portrait Robinson had a bad attack of “studio fright” and ran out of the studio in something of a panic. He returned a few minutes later to face his perplexed customers and took their picture. He was, by all accounts, accident prone and on one occasion managed to set the studio on fire. In the early days, the portrait side of the business did not flourish and Robinson was sustained financially by the proceeds from a book, Warwickshire Illustrated, and by the sale of local views. He bought a pony and van which he used as a travelling darkroom and took many photographs of views in and around Leamington.He developed a technique known as combination printing in which any number of separate negatives could be printed onto a single sheet of light-sensitive paper.
In 1858 he produced his most famous picture which he titled Fading Away, using costumed actors, depicting the peaceful death of a young girl from consumption (tuberculosis) with the family gathered around her. His young model for the dying girl was one of the teenage daughters of a Wellington Street (Regent Street) grocer, George Cundall, who was frequently used by him and was his favourite model.
When Prince Albert purchased a copy of this picture it sealed his reputation and helped to ensure the financial success of the business.
Sadly, the strain involved in running the business, allied to the detrimental effects of constantly inhaling the noxious fumes from the photographic chemicals took a toll on Robinson’s health. He gave up the business, which was carried on by Mr Netterville Briggs.
Robinson retired to London aged 34 with his wife Selina and their four children. He regained his health and set up a business in Tunbridge Wells. He died in 1901, aged 70, after a stroke.
Pictured: An H P Robinson albumen print titled ‘Dawn & Sunset’ produced in 1885.