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J W Brunskill

The Brunskill Collection

Richard and John William Brunskill were born in Sedbergh. By the early 1860’s they had moved from Sedbergh to Kendal, and then to a studio in Bowness-on-Windermere.

The Armitt Museum and Library holds a vast photographic collection prominent amongst which is the vast archive of 17,800 glass photographic plates, largely portraits, representing the life’s work of the Brunskill brothers. Just occasionally, the whole body of a competent studio’s work is preserved either by design or chance so giving an invaluable insight into the Victorian world and its inhabitants, and also into the workings of an early photographic studio. The photographic portrait work of the Brunskillfamily of Sedbergh and Windermere, is just such a case.

This period of photographic history demonstrates a revolution in artistic representation and social thinking. For the first time in history people could look at and scrutinize a likeness of themselves and others. To those unused to the process this must have been an unnerving experience. The visit to the studio, facing the eye of the camera lens whilst being braced with steadying-clamps, the apprehension of the sitter is often caught. Then to view that frozen moment  reduced to a hand-sized image, was perhaps almost incomprehensible. It took a consummate photographic artist to successfully encourage the sitter to relax. The sometimes cruel accuracy of the photographic image and the rapidity of execution of the photographic process also amazed the population who were more used to the less imperfection-revealing results and the tardiness of conventional art.

On the surface it seems that these images are no more than a representation of the personal and aspirational, the careful production of an ideal, such as the happy family, or the successful businessman and yet if we look deeper it is still possible to glimpse beyond the social façade to the reality of individual experience. The mechanical nature of photography records indiscriminately; it has a random inclusiveness that can destabilize the intended meaning to create what have been described as ‘points of fracture’ allowing other possible readings of the photograph to emerge. These austerely evocative monochromatic images are rich in forensic detail and are yet still fugitive, retaining their power to astonish; they exude a powerful stillness that used to be common in photographic portraiture but is rare in the digital age.


Further Photographic collections at The Armitt can be found using the links below:

Abraham Brothers   Herbert Bell  Moses Bowness   Charles Walmsley