Carte de Visite
Victorian Albums





ca 1855-1857
London, UK
John Henry Greatrex
Full case



Attributed to John Henry Greatrex.

The chair is the same one as used by Greatrex. The light comes from the same source, and the same passe-partout has been used.

The two case halves don't match up. The front, which usually displays the name Greatrex, has been replaced.


Also by Greatrex:


John Henry Greatrex

John Henry Greatrex (1827-1876) was the son of Mary Ditchburn and Charles Butler Greatrex, Surgeon and Lieutenant in the Royal Marines.

Greatrex was only 18 when he was first convicted of stealing money. He was shipped off to Tasmania, where he ended up on stage. It wasn't long before he was caught again, this time stealing a magic lantern, followed by a dray load of tea and sugar.

He fell in love with a Scottish woman called Jessie, and while they were on a ship back to London, she gave birth to a son. They'd end up having 4 children: Charles Arthur (1854-1938), Mary Elizabeth (1855), John Henry Jr. (1857-1860), and Lewis Edward (1859).

Back in London, Greatrex went into photography and opened his first studios in 1855 on 70 Regent Street and 196 Piccadilly, where he produced ambrotypes.

His brother George William Greatrex (1831-1881) was also a photographer on Regent Street, which may have been his inspiration.

Greatrex went into partnership with Richard John Hicks and moved to 70 Quadrant in 1857. It didn't last long. Three years later he went bankrupt and moved to Glasgow, where he struck up a new partnership with Joseph Brown.

They were located at 263 Hope Street and 76 Sauchiehall Street, where they made carte de visite. With 42 other studios in Glasgow in 1860, there was some stiff competition.

In 1864 a fire broke out at 263 Hope Street, and the partnership ended. Greatrex went on alone at 97 Sauchiehall Street, hiring the 21 year old Jane McPherson Weir from Aberdeen. Greatrex, 16 years her senior, manipulated her into an affair.

Business was not going well, and when Greatrex met the brothers Grimshaw, they came up with a plan to make a lot of money. Literally.

Together they forged 1500 fake Union Bank £1 notes using the photographic process of lithography, about £50.000,- today. They only got to spend 200 of the 1500.

After the Grimshaws were arrested, Greatrex and Jane fled to America. They were followed by a detective from Glasgow, Superintendent Alexander McCall.

After putting an add in the paper asking for a young lady with experience to be a photographer's assistant, Jane replied, and Greatrex was arrested. He was sentenced to 20 years penal servitude in 1867, while the brothers Grimshaw each got 15 years.

9 years later, in 1876, Greatrex died of bronchitis. His wife Jessie died two years after that. Their 3 surviving children all emigrated to Australia.

Film and photography historian David Bruce wrote the wonderful book "Greatrex, Forger and Photographer", which is available for purchase here.




Different studio labels used by Greatrex on his ambrotype cases.

1855-1857 - 70 Regent Street / 196 Piccadilly
1857-1860 - 70 Quadrant
1860-1864 - 263 Hope Street / 76 Sauchiehall Street
1864-1866 - 97 Sauchiehall Street


(most images were taken from auction websites)
Number 6: Jason Wright at Silver Shadows



To get an idea of what Greatrex was like as a photographer, I've put some of his known images side by side for comparison. I've been able to track down 14 ambrotypes by Greatrex, 12 are shown above. Another 2 have not yet been digitalized: a portrait of a young man in an archive in Texas and a portrait of a woman in the V&A collection.

Numbers 1-8 were all made at Regent Street / Piccadilly, while 10+11 were made at Quadrant. Number 4+9 are unknown, and number 12 was also made at the first studios, despite the style fitting right into the second address.

His style was extremely consistent. He made everyone face the same way, hold the same pose, and sit in the same chair, by the same table. He cropped everyone at either half or three quarter lenght, and he used the same style passe-partout every time.

The light source was a large window, just to the right and slightly higher up, which left dark shadows on the sitters' faces. By having the sitters face to the left, they almost had their backs turned towards the light.

The backdrop, a dark piece of cloth, created a deep rich contrast, but also a pale ghostlike appearance. Sometimes a curtain was being used to liven up the composition.

Greatrex seemed to understand some basics of photography, but lacked the skills of a great artist. Despite his portraits being simple, it was a difficult process to create them, and he succeeded at that. His clients would've been pleased with the results.

From all of the above, number 3 stands out to the point I even doubt if it's by Greatrex at all. The light is spread out evenly from above, making the image softer in tone. The background is light instead of dark and he's seated on a chair not used in the other photographs. It's possible the image was not original to the case, but it's hard to tell with so few examples to compare it with.