Benjamin Stone: Old Blue Eye

On Monday, David Cameron is taking time out from his party conference to open a new exhibition of the work of Sir Benjamin Stone, the Tory grandee who was the leading photographer of his day. Sheridan McCoid reports
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The Independent Culture

Whatever the subject, Sir Benjamin Stone only ever had one purpose in mind when taking photographs: to create a record for future generations. He would, no doubt, have been delighted to know that a major outdoor exhibition of his work officially opens on Monday in Birmingham, the city where he was born in 1838.

A product of the confidence of Victorian England and the wealth and power of the new industrial city of Birmingham, Stone's early business success freed him up to throw himself into local politics and travel around Britain and the globe. Initially, he collected photographs and it was the frustration of not always being able to find the picture he wanted that led him to start taking them himself.

For 20 years he took his camera wherever he went, capturing customs and festivals, architecture and individuals around Britain and abroad, always in his straight-forward style.

"Benjamin Stone is a national institution," a journalist wrote in The Strand magazine in 1910. But after he died in 1914 his work was largely forgotten until the 1970s when it was rediscovered by photographic historians, curators and photographers, such as Tony Ray-Jones and Homer Sykes, who were reinvigorating British documentary photography.

"Stone's work is incredibly unusual for that time," says David Campany, Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. "Certainly, nobody else was documenting daily life, human behaviour and ritual on such a massive scale. And there's always something fascinating going on in the frame. Was it typical or untypical? It's impossible to say. Was it usual to stand like that for a portrait? Did the people in the picture always dress like that or had they dressed for the occasion?"

An ardent Conservative at a time when Birmingham was a Liberal stronghold, Stone was knighted for services to Conservative politics in 1892 and became MP for East Birmingham in 1895.

Over the next 14 years he took pictures of as many Parliamentarians as would agree to be photographed, including Joseph Chamberlain, Keir Hardie and Lloyd George, and visitors, such as the Aga Khan, Marconi and Mark Twain. Initially, though, he had to tread carefully, as he explained in a newspaper interview in 1908: "Almost directly after I got to the House of Commons I placed my camera on the Terrace. I assure you it required more moral courage than anything I had done before in my life. Photography was looked on askance at the time, for Kodaks had hardly been introduced, and Royal personages had not taken it up as a hobby. When the camera was in place I said to my friend, the late Sir Matthew White Ridley, 'I wish you would come and stand and let me take your photograph.' I thought he did not like the idea, but he manfully went through with it. So did I, in spite of the inquisitorial attitude of the people who were standing around."

Stone's photographs from the Franco-British exhibition in 1908, held to celebrate the Entente Cordiale signed by Britain and France, provide curious insights into our colonial past. One of the most popular attractions at the exhibition were the "villages", including the Cingalese Colony, a supposed replica village for a group of people brought over to work in a "Ceylon Tea House" and Ballymaclinton, a sort of Irish theme park, complete with "smiling Colleens" posing in cottage doorways, a Blarney Stone and a small herd of Kerry cows.

In 1911, Stone was appointed official photographer for the coronation of George V, much to the delight of one writer in Amateur Photographer magazine: "It caused a curious little thrill of content the other day when it was announced that the official photographs of the Coronation were to be taken, not by some West End professional, who could be depended on to turn out a dazzling series of groups with what the boot-polish advertisements call 'the finishing touch of elegance', but by an amateur possessed by the true amateur spirit. There are many who will be present at the Coronation by the virtue of some long-dead ancestor, but Sir Benjamin Stone will be the representative of the living present and the generations that are to come: and his photographs will be scanned – with what wonderful interest! – when they crown George XV."

"I've been working on Stone with a couple of colleagues off and on since the late 1980s and it's almost impossible to select just 100 or so images from such a vast collection," says Pete James, head of photographs at Birmingham Central Library, who has curated the exhibition. "In the end, I went for a selection that reveals the scale and scope of his work, including photographs he commissioned and collected."

The collection, housed at Birmingham Central Library, is indeed vast, consisting of 22,000 photographs, 600 stereoscopic prints, 17,000 glass negatives and over 100 albums of collected prints, press cuttings, invitations and his Parliamentary diaries. "I'm fascinated by his attempt to create a visual inventory of the social and physical world with the camera," says James, "and his desire to make and hand down an authentic record of his times for the benefit of future generations."

' Knight of the Camera: the Photographs of Sir Benjamin Stone', will be officially opened by Rt Hon David Cameron MP, on Monday in Centenary Square, Birmingham