Herbert Bell was a native of Ambleside. His father was the local chemist and mineral water manufacturer with a shop on Lake Road. Bell was educated at Eller How and Rothay Garth Schools in Ambleside and later at Stramongate School in Kendal. After this he joined the family business, becoming an apprentice at his father‘s shop preparing chemicals for medicines to treat the local community. It is likely that Bell‘s first encounter with photography would have been as a developer using the materials then widely available in a chemist‘s shop. As his interest in the new art form grew, Bell decided to set up his own business, finally opening a studio in Market Square in 1894.
Bell had immediate success as a tourist photographer during the arctic winter of 1894/1895. During the unusually cold spell, Lake Windermere was frozen with 18 inches of ice for seven weeks during February and March 1895. Vast numbers of tourists arrived from Manchester and Lancashire to view the seven foot snow drifts and icicles dangling more than ten feet. Bell spent the entire period outdoors photographing the tourists at the lakeside. The stunning snow scenes produced established his reputation in the growing field of photography. His status was such that he was called upon to record the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm in August 1895. Bell photographed the private visit and the rapturous reception given to the Kaiser throughout the Lake District.
Bell also distinguished himself through his serious photographic work, compiling a record of all the farms and memorial halls of Cumberland and Westmorland. This work created an important collection of sensitively produced photographs of immense value to architectural historians. Alongside this, Bell was also a perceptive social commentator, using his camera to record the real face of everyday life in Ambleside. He produced a collection of starkly realistic photographs of ordinary people from washerwomen to sheep-shearers going about their daily tasks. The work provided a dramatic and telling contrast to the romantic image of Ambleside.
In later life Bell was embraced by Lakeland society. He was a member of the Dove Cottage committee and the National Trust. The Ruskin Society convened in his studio where he would meet Canon Rawnsley, Albert Fleming and Mary Armitt for lively discussions. He was an active member in the Armitt Library from its inception and served as honorary librarian, a post he occupied until his death at the age of ninety in 1946.
Herbert Bell Obituary – November 1946
On Friday last, Herbert Bell, at the age of 90, passed away (writes E.F.R.). He will be long remembered by all who knew him. His home throughout his life has been at Ambleside, of which he had a wide knowledge.
Instinctively one would refer to him for information on any local matter, and there are many who will recall the kind courtesy and infinite trouble he would take to help inquirers. Contact with his gentle, quiet spirit was always a refreshment, and his knowledge of the countryside, its literary association, history and flora, was surpassed by few.
Like Mrs Humphrey Ward, he was at school at Eller How under the tuition of Mrs Clough, who later became first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge; and later he was at Stramongate School, Kendal, after which he turned his attention especially to photography. He tramped the fells carrying a heavy camera, for this was in the days of wet plates, securing beautiful pictures and gaining an exhaustive knowledge of the countryside. He made a valuable collection of photographs, including studies of the old Manorial Halls and farms of Westmorland and Cumberland, of which he could always relate the history and traditions. Few people knew the fells more intimately: he would tell of many walks on Scafell Pike – the first when he was ten years old, and the last when he was eighty.
The Ruskin Library, founded in 1882, owed much to him, and from its inception the Armitt Library has been his constant care. He was a valued member of the local committee of Dove Cottage, Grasmere, and also of the local committee of the National Trust.
No-one who knew Herbert Bell will forget his beautiful presence; the fine features, the far-seeing blue eyes, the gentle courteous manner and the well-stored mind from which he would in a self-depreciating way bring for the many riches.
“Our very first in eminence of years,
This old man stood, the Patriarch of the Vale”.
Further Photographic collections at The Armitt can be found using the links below: