Dent’s Birmingham

DENT’S “BIRMINGHAM PORTRAIT GALLERY“ of 1880

Figure 1

Figure 1

My interest in the history of Birmingham began a few years ago when my wife and I visited an antique shop and found scattered around loads of plastic bags containing what appeared to be magazines. They were due to be sold next day at Birmingham Market for £10 each. It soon became apparent that they were all parts of “Old and New Birmingham”, which we had never heard of. In all there were 27issues. Then in examining them we found under the cover a sheet of tissue paper, and under that a portrait under the heading “Birmingham Portrait Gallery”. Each issue had one so there were 27portraits, all photographs. They were identified as what are called “Woodburytypes” by their chocolate brown colour and the fact that they were mounted on the page, and they were beautiful!

Woodburytypes were popular for book illustrations between 1870 and the late 1890s. The rather special process was patented by W B Woodbury in 1865 and one important characteristic was that the print showed no grain or image structure. We thought we were on to something special so got in touch with City Library, who said they had loads of copies, and with Archives, who said they would ring back, and didn’t.

Figure 2

Figure 2

We then did a deal with the antique dealer, and so have the complete magazine issue of Dent’s book, a bit distressed, but all there. The front cover of No.22 of 27parts is shown in Figure1, priced at 6d, but with no date. Each issue is of some 24pages as printed in the book, with no editing between issues.  Some time later we found parts of a second issue, with covers as shown in Figure2. In this issue, costing 1d, there were no photographs, and the book was simply chopped up into 79 issues of just 8 pages. The cover of the 79th issue is shown in Figure 3. The price for this one is now 3d, doubtless because of an index and the like. It seems that the single volume will be available at 12/6 and that two volumes of engravings will also be published.

Figure 3

Figure 3

In the Gallery you can view all of the portraits, with a brief note on each sitter. As mentioned, a characteristic of the woodburytype is an absence of grain or image structure, which is very helpful when enlarging. A3 prints of all 27 photographs have been displayed at St Paul’s Church during Heritage week ends. They are now available for display. All of the original photographs were taken by Whitlock or Thrupp , leading Birmingham photographers of that period.