Sir John Benjamin Stone (1838 – 1914) was an Aston-born industrialist and politician. He was also a prolific amateur documentary photographer and collector of photographs. The Library of Birmingham’s Benjamin Stone Collection contains more than 20,000 photographs and 50 photo albums, with subjects ranging from the people and places of the many countries he visited, to British folk customs and traditions.
I first became aware of Album 31 last year when it was used as the inspiration to an exhibition by artists Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl. The album is a collection of “miscellaneous” photos which didn’t fit into any of Benjamin Stone’s existing albums or series, but which he considered interesting enough to want to keep and to present as part of the album. There is no clear structure to the way the photos are organised making for some strange and surprising discoveries.
It turns out that there are actually four albums of miscellaneous photos, dated 1862 – 1879. Album 29, like other parts of his collection, documents Stone’s travels around the world, in this case taken on board an Austrian ship on an expedition around the Arctic Circle in 1872. Another recurring theme in Stone’s collections is portraits of people from around the world in traditional dress; this album features people from Fiji and Japan in traditional dress.
Album 30 mostly features famous landmarks from around Europe and Britain, but pride of place has also been given to some scenic shots of Treton Falls in New York. Though many of these photos are landscapes they’ve often been slotted sideways into oval frames designed for carte-de-visite portraits.
Conversely Album 32 features a large number of portraits slotted sideways into landscape frames. It’s not clear if anything connects the people in the portraits, but some of them are labelled as being in costume, so perhaps they were well know actors and performers of their day.
Album 31 features by far the most varied mix of images. There are photos of beautiful scenery; pictures related to famous court cases of the period like the Tichborne case; there are photographic experiments; images of people with conditions such as dwarfism and conjoined twinning, plus strange and sometimes disturbing images of sufferers of famine, and one showing the severed heads of “seven Greek brigands”. This last photo, and many others in the album, was not taken by Stone himself but purchased from photography companies, or taken from the pages of a magazine.
It also includes three photos connected with another of our collections, the Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes, tracing a young girls progress as she was taken into the homes and then sent to Canada.
The album seems as though it might have been put together to provoke the maximum of interest or surprise in the person viewing it; like an early “coffee table book”, or cabinet of curiosities.