They Lived in Headingley

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941): the Whitby Photographer

In the public mind Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and Whitby are virtually synonymous, reproductions  his photos of the local fishing community and neighbouring farm workers can be found amongst the usual tourist souvenirs, but Frank Sutcliffe (or to give him his proper name, ‘Francis’) was not born in Whitby, his birthplace was in Cottage Road, Headingley. Frank’s father, Thomas Sutcliffe (1828-71) was a painter who had trained at the Royal Academy School and his mother, the wonderfully named Sarah Lorentia Button was the daughter of a druggist who had worked for the Royal Dockyards in Chatham before moving to Leeds. Cottage Road at the time was born was a relatively new road, built as a result of the enclosure of Headingley Moor in the 1830s. It was not a particularly grand street which suggests that his father was earning a modest and probably unpredictable income from his art despite exhibiting at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Water Colourists. Frank’s mother had always told him since his early childhood that ‘she would smother me like the Princes in the Tower if I showed any inclination for being an artist. She thought all artists little better than lunatics’. (actually her second son, Horace Lester did become a painter)

We do not know where Frank was educated, Michael Hiley, a student of his life and work, writes of a minimal education at a local dame school but there was a parish school round the corner at the top of Hollin Lane (established in 1839) so he may well have attended this school. We know little of his early childhood except that his father took his four children for long walks in the countryside, and encouraged them to develop their artistic talents and that they spent time producing their own illustrated story books. Thomas Sutcliffe owned what was probably one of the first cameras in Leeds – many artists saw that photographs might be useful aids to painting – and in his early teens when Frank showed an interest in photography, his father gave him a huge mahogany camera and cleared half the family hayloft to use as a dark room. By this time, Frank was working as a clerk at Tetley’s Brewery, a job he hated.

In 1870 the family moved to Whitby where they had often gone on holiday. One of Thomas’s specialities was marine paintings (he completed 50 paintings of the coastline between Hull and Redcar), and he may well have believed that the market for his work would be better in this burgeoning seaside resort. In the 1871 census, the Sutcliffes were living at Ewe Cote Hall, Ruswarp and Frank is described as a photographer and artist’s assistant, presumably to his father. Later in the year however, his father died leaving the eighteen year-old Frank as the family breadwinner. His father’s friends commissioned him to take photographs of the Lake District and the famous commercial photographer, Francis Frith employed him to photograph the North Riding. Impressed by one of his photographs, John Ruskin even invited Frank to take pictures of Brantwood, his home by Coniston Water. But occasional commissions of this kind hardly amounted to a regular income particularly important now that Frank married a Whitby girl, Eliza Weatherill at the young age of twenty. In 1875, Frank and his wife left Whitby to establish a photographic studio in Tunbridge Wells, a spa town in Kent where perhaps his mother had family connections. Whatever the reason for the move, it proved to be a financial disaster and a year later, they were back in Whitby with their young son. Here he established another photographic studio in a disused jet workshop in Waterloo Yard.

Earning a living as a photographer meant taking portraits – thousands of them over the years, the photographs that were to make him famous of the port of Whitby and its rural hinterland were a hobby, admittedly one that earned him the admiration of his fellow-photographers and those who saw photography as a new art form. In 1886 Frank took what is probably his most famous photograph, The Water Rats of naked boys playing in the sea. It was exhibited the following year at the British Photographic Society Exhibition where the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, saw it and had an enlargement made to hang in Marlborough House. Back in Whitby the local clergy publicly criticised Sutcliffe for ‘showing this print to the corruption of the opposite sex’. 

Today Frank Sutcliffe’s work has made Whitby famous around the world, his photographs hang in international art galleries and fetch thousands of pounds when they appear at auctions but for us he is a local lad and the genesis his evocative photography goes back to a hayloft on Cottage Road.

 Janet Douglas