C A Mathew At Brightlingsea
In September 2010, I wrote speculatively about the obscure photographer C A Mathew who took an extraordinary set of pictures in Spitalfields in April 1912 – now preserved at the Bishopsgate Institute – and how he succeeded in capturing the life of the streets with a spontaneity unlike any other photographer of his era. Subsequently, his work has grown in popularity as his photographs have gained wider exposure and a new exhibition opens next week at Eleven Spitalfields in Princelet St.
My account of C A Mathew At Brightlingsea follows his journey when he left Spitalfields on the day he took the photographs and is the first in a series of features which draw upon new research by Vicky Stewart, revealing more about the photographer and proposing a better understanding of his intentions in taking the pictures that are our most vivid visual record of street life in Spitalfields a century ago.
Wreck Warehouse, Brightlingsea
He sat on the train with the camera on his knee and realised he was no longer young. The hawthorn glowed in the April dusk as the train sped through Essex leaving the grimy terraces of Stepney behind. It had been a long day, taking twenty-one plates and measuring the width of each dusty street to the nearest inch.
Ellen, his wife of sixteen years, sat dozing peacefully against the window, cradling the box of glass plates. The train journey from Liverpool St to Brightlingsea was barely more than an hour but it traversed two worlds, he thought – as they passed through Romford where he recognised the streets of his childhood, where his father had once been a letter carrier.
He could no longer have done the job alone, he realised. All those years he worked as a surveyor’s clerk, following his father’s final profession, he always needed someone to hold the other end of the tape measure. He had done it sometimes for his father as a youth but, in this instance, someone had to keep the children back at least fifteen feet from the camera too.
They were like hungry seagulls the way they descended upon him in Artillery Passage and Frying Pan Alley, and he was relieved when the pictures in the narrow lanes were done. He had chosen Saturday because an empty thoroughfare suited his purpose better, yet he had not reckoned on the hordes at play who delighted in the novelty of his camera.
As he watched her sleep, he was grateful for Ellen’s strength of character, marshalling the crowd, leaving him to fuss with the plates and calculate the exposures. The morning had been occluded but the sun broke through bringing bold shadow to the streets later in the day and he was relieved that the heavy showers threatened in yesterday’s Gazette had not materialised.
Ellen woke when the ticket inspector appeared, as the train pulled out of Colchester and the fields outside merged into the spring night. She had encouraged him to take on Charles Humphreys’ photographic studio at 33 Tower St when it became vacant just fifty yards from their house at 158, a year earlier. He was forty-seven years old and she told him it as an opportunity not to miss.
Photography had always been his hobby and his aspiration and, with her support, he believed he could make enough to keep the two of them in their modest terrace home, by taking portraits. Already, there had been a steady flow of custom through the studio and he had done schools and cricket clubs and football teams, but this commission taking him up to London was his largest undertaking.
On Monday, he would go into the studio and develop the plates. Ellen had obtained a stack of strawboard cards that she would mount the prints upon and he would annotate them with the street widths in his precise and legible, yet undemonstrative, handwriting which he had refined over years of making out surveyors’ reports.
As they descended from the train at Brightlingsea, Ellen suggested a detour to the fishmonger on the way home and, in spite of his weariness, he insisted upon accompanying her. They trudged up Station Rd into Victoria Place in the dark, as the drizzle moved in from across the estuary, past the King’s Head – a curious long medieval structure with a pair of prim Victorian bay windows interpolated at the far end. Turning right into the High St, they passed The Brewer’s Arms with its picturesque sagging roof, and arrived at the fishmongers just in time to carry off a piece of smoked haddock before the shop closed for the weekend.
Coming out of the shop, he stopped in his tracks in exhaustion and looked across the street in wonder at the magnificent structure of Jacob’s House, reputed to be England’s oldest timber frame building. From all those years as a child walking around Romford accompanying his father delivering letters through to his own work as a surveyor’s clerk, he had grown fascinated by buildings and places and the stories they told.
He and Ellen walked slowly down Tower St towards the harbour, past the whimsical pairs of Victorian villas – Dahlia, Rose and Primrose Villas – past the Sailmaker’s Loft and the Salvation Army Hall. Arriving at his studio next to the Masonic Hall, he hastily unlocked the door and they were glad to leave the camera and box of plates there upon the table.
They walked arm in arm down to 158, she opened the gate and he unlocked the door. He took a last breath of sea air before he closed the door. He found it a tonic after the filthy atmosphere of London and the smoke of Liverpool St Station.
Their house at the easterly end of Tower St was beside the harbour in Brightlingsea Creek where the oyster smacks and crab boats unloaded their catch daily. In the next street was the wreck warehouse attesting to the history of this ancient cinque port. As its name suggests, Brightlingsea was a remarkable place for a photographer to live. The light reflected off the sea into the sky and created a luminosity in the air which intensified colour and definition of form. Sometimes he dreamed he was living in a photograph.
He and Ellen commonly walked together along the sea wall and he was entranced by the sparkling effects of sunlight upon the water, though they both agreed it was a subject better suited to painting than photography. Sunday morning dawned bright and clear, and they took their customary stroll along the Western Promenade past the ramshackle beach huts as far as Bateman’s Tower.
He had overcome his weariness of the previous day and was happy that – against the odds – the commission had been fulfilled. He did not know that Ellen would die at the age of fifty-five, just four years later. He did not know that he would continue with the studio in Tower St for only another six years and then move to Wood Green to live with his sister Winifred, before establishing another studio in Wallingford in Oxfordshire and working there until his death in 1923.
He had been asked to take some photos for ‘A History of the Town of Brightlingsea’ to be published in 1913 and – in April 1912 – he was looking forward to the prospect of his nascent career as a photographer, but he already knew that the commission in Spitalfields was the last and only one of its kind that he would chose to undertake. He was curious to see how those photographs would turn out.
The Brewer’s Arms, High St
Winkies Fish & Chips, New St
Jacob’s House, High St – reputedly England’s oldest timber frame house
Turret staircase at Jacob’s House
Georgian cottage, High St
Victorian villa in Tower St
Sailmaker, Tower St
Gambo Cottages, Tower St
C A Mathew’s former studio, 33 Tower St
Salvation Army Hall, Tower St
C A Mathew’s house, 158 Tower St
C A Mathew’s front door
Wreck Warehouse, Sydney St
Hotel at Brightlingsea Harbour
Boat shed at Brightlingsea Harbour
West Promenade, Brightlingsea
Beach huts dishevelled by the storms
View towards Bateman’s Tower from West Promenade
Bateman’s Tower looking towards Brightlingsea Creek
One of the twenty-one photograph taken by C A Mathew in Spitalfields on Saturday April 20th 1912
C A Mathew photograph © Bishopsgate Institute
Take a look at C A Mathew’s photographs and read my earlier stories