Robert Leveston Graham (long thought to be his trade name, rather than his given name) was born in the East End of London in 1844, the younger of two sons born to Louisa, the unmarried daughter of Lawrence and Mary Leverston of Stepney. When their mother married, the brothers were raised with their step-siblings in Bethnal Green, where in 1861 Robert is described as ‘photographic assistant’ in the Census return for that year. Research has now shown that he may also have used the name James Graham, who, with business partner William Suter opened a photographic studio at no 6 Parade in 1868, and who, with William Suter, appears as a lodger in George Street on the 1871 Census. It was the Graham and Suter business that ‘R L Graham’ took over in 1873. He rapidly established a reputation as a first-rate portrait photographer, built new studios and extended into the building next door, combining numbers 6 & 8 Parade into one large show gallery.
The Leamington Courier of May 19th 1877 announced: “Mr Graham, the well-known photographer of the Parade has recently opened a new studio at the top end of the Parade opposite the Clarendon Hotel, which is replete with every modern appliance. The show, reception and waiting rooms are spacious and decorated with much taste. In the corridors are various exotic and greenhouse plants, whilst the studios are adapted to the production of every known effect and adjunct which the sitter may desire: comfort, elegance and taste, energy and skill.”
To most people in Victorian times the word photography would inevitably have meant such a studio. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century at least one sprang up in every High Street in the country. At the time that Graham set up in business, Leamington had a number of photographic entrepreneurs based on the Parade, Bath Street, Regent Street and Clarendon Street, hence perhaps Graham’s decision to specialise in portrait photography. Competition soon brought prices down. By 1880 R L Graham could advertise ‘cartes de visite’ (visiting card sized photographs, 2½” x 4”) for 12s a dozen, ‘cabinets’ (4¼” x 6½”) for 30s a dozen, with the offer of ‘Re-sittings given without extra payment if not approved.’
A century later, in April 1987 over 40,000 photographic glass negatives were found in the cellar of a shop in Augusta Place Leamington during repairs following burst pipes. It is not known how or when so many of Graham’s plates found their way there, so far from the studio. One of the builders contacted local historian Bill Gibbons, who in turn alerted the staff of the County Record Office. When they arrived at Augusta Place, they were confronted by an extraordinary sight: the builders had broken down a false wall in the cellar, and discovered a great pile of broken glass, containing many thousands of complete negatives, and some remnants of furniture which were thought to have been props from the R L Graham studio. As the building work required prompt removal of the negatives, weighing several tons, Mr David Graves, owner of the building, donated all the undamaged plates to the County Record Office. With the assistance of a Manpower Services Commission scheme, the C.R.O. then mounted a salvage operation, culminating in cleaning, conserving, printing and cataloguing the collection, followed up by an extensive display at Leamington Art Gallery and Museum and a write-up in the Courier, in an effort to track down surviving relatives of the sitters. Some can still be seen on the Windows on Warwickshire website.
Most of the negatives which had survived well enough to print dated from the early part of Graham’s career in the 1870s, when Graham used a collodion-based emulsion to carry the image on the surface of the glass plate. This survived the damp conditions in the cellar far better than later gelatine-based emulsions.
Graham’s studio flourished up to the First World War, and he died a very wealthy man, with a home in Clarendon Avenue as well as owning the two buildings on the Parade, property in The Strand, London, and investments in War Bonds and Chinese Securities.. He never married, and appears not to have any close family who might have succeeded him. Sadly, there was no-one to give the business a new lease of life in the changed circumstances of the 1920s and the studio finally closed in 1925 around the time of Graham’s death.
Probate was granted in June 1925 to his surviving executor, A J Odell, solicitor of Leamington, but Graham’s will, leaving everything apart from bequests to employees, friends and family to the three children of Alexander Gill, in Australia, was called into question: Alexander Gill who died in 1916, turned out to have had one son and a daughter, not three children, and his son had been killed in action in France in 1918. Eventually, the Court decided in favour of the surviving daughter, Mrs Elsie May Hodgkins, who inherited close on £3m in today’s money.
Amongst Graham’s effects, offered for sale by auction by Locke & Son on 30th June 1925 were cameras by Meagher and Thornton Pickard, photographic appointments, show cases, four safes, a grand piano by Broadwood & Sons, a number of cabinets and tables, pier glasses, watercolour drawings, Turkey, Brussels and Axminster carpets, a French mantel clock, – and a ‘wheeling-out chair’. Doubtless the props used by Graham as a background to his sitters. As Locke & Son offered for sale privately before the auction itself, any portrait negatives taken at the Graham Studios, could it be that the plates and furniture found in the Augusta Place cellar had been acquired in this way? Joe Claydon
[Portrait (above) by RL Graham, © J Claydon]
Sources: Leamington Spa Courier; National Archive Census returns: Additional Research by Pamela Blythe (Tiverton) and Richard King