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Directory of Early Photographers, Studio Folder, Sawyer and Bird, Norwich and Elsewhere

Sarony versus Sawyer

Canadian by birth and an adept self-publicist, Oliver F X Sarony was an itinerant daguerreotypist and (from 1855) collodion photographer. He was in Norwich, with his mobile portrait rooms, from January to November 1856. An advertisement by J R M Sawyer and an article praising his work seem to have caused Sarony some irritation.

The offending Sawyer advertisement appeared in The Norfolk Chronicle, 15th March 1856:

Mr. Sawyer, 42, London Street, (opposite Miller’s) Avails himself of this opportunity to thank those Friends who have honoured him with their patronage during the last three years, and to inform them that he now executes large-sized Photographic portraits on Paper, 11 in. by 8 in., which he finishes In Sepia or Water Colours, So as to combine all the beauties of a first-class Painting, with the minute and life-like accuracy of detail peculiar to Photography. It is impossible that these Pictures can fade; they cannot be broken; they may be seen in every part of a large room, and altogether form one of the most acceptable presents which can be given.

Prices from 15s. to 25s. – about half the price now charged in this city for the same class of portrait

(It should be noted in passing that Sawyer had been at 42 London Street since 1853.)

The same issue of the paper included an article praising Sawyer’s work and referring to:

… some very beautiful specimens, executed at his (Sawyer’s) establishment, of photography and art combined.

It is perhaps this article that prompted the sneering reference to Sawyer’s ‘friends’ in an anonymous letter that appeared a week later. But before the letter is quoted, there is Sarony’s response to Sawyer’s advertisement to be noted. This formed the substance of a Sarony advertisement in The Norwich Mercury of 22nd March 1856:

Mr. Sarony recently had the honour of introducing into this city a perfectly novel style of Photographic Portraits, so thoroughly unique and so exquisitely beautiful as to excite the greatest admiration in all to whom his Specimens were submitted, no such productions having been before seen in the provinces

The natural result was, that a spirit of emulation was aroused in the city, and attempts were made, both by Amateur and Professional Photographers, to imitate what they could not hope to excel. So far all was fair, and Mr. Sarony had no cause for complaint; these efforts affording him additional evidence, if, indeed, any were needed, of the great perfection to which he had succeeded in bringing his art, by years of labour and research, by an unsparing outlay of capital, and by the employment of the most able and talented assistants to be found in the country. Had his competitors, by the same honourable means, achieved a like success, he would have cheerfully submitted to the necessities of the case, and have shared with them the public patronage without complaint.

An advertisement, however, which appeared last week in one of the Norwich Journals, makes it imperative that he should caution the public against professions by which some people might be deceived. The Advertiser evidently wishes the public to suppose that his productions are of the “same class” as Mr. Sarony’s; but Mr. Sarony’s Portraits could not be produced for such prices as those announced as the amounts stated would not even recompense the Artist alone for the time and labour necessary to finish the Photograph in a creditable manner; and Mr. Sarony has had sufficient experience of the public to know that they would greatly prefer a first-rate production at a reasonable price to one that has no other merit than that, being good for little or nothing, it can be purchased for a trifle.

Mr. Sarony distinctly asserts

That the Portraits of the Advertiser already alluded to are not of the “same class” as his own;
That in this city Mr. Sarony’s portraits alone “combine all the beauties of a first-rate painting with the minute and life-like accuracy of detail peculiar to photography”:
And he challenges the gentleman who has put forth the advertisement referred to, to place half a dozen of his best productions in the hands of a competent committee of judges, and Mr. Sarony will agree to do the same. Let the decision of these gentlemen be advertised, and then the public will be secured from the risk of spending their money in a way which they might afterwards regret.

Whilst Sarony didn’t identify Sawyer by name, his quotation of phrases from Sawyer’s advertisement leaves no doubt about the identity of his target.

The same issue of the paper carried the following anonymous letter:

Perfection and Mediocrity.

Sir, – I abhor mediocrity in the fine arts, equally as I do in music, and I hope I shall always feel a desire to repress any intention, however good-natured it may be, to exalt the imperfect, at the expense of perfection. It appears to have become a system among the managers and writers of the newspaper press to succumb to any request made to them to speak highly of inferior things, to declare to the public that a man is a musician when he is a learner – an artist, when he is in ignorance of principles and devoid of experience, in fact, when he is a student only. I make these remarks, especially at this moment, because attempts have been made to depress the works of one of the finest masters in portraiture (Mr. Sarony) who has ever visited this city, and to praise the efforts of another, who, as a student, has a long distance to travel before he approaches the results of the man he imitates. I admit that Mr. Sarony has nothing to fear from such forced competition – if competition, the proceeding can be named. The other person should regret the juxta-position in which some of his friends appear desirous of thrusting him, the more so, when his crude beginnings are lauded in the columns of contemporaries whose lucubrations on the subject would seem to have been penned without the slightest knowledge of the things spoken of. Both gentlemen are comparatively strangers in this city, and I perceive are each advertisers in your columns; both, therefore, stand on an equality, but there exists a difference so vast between the merits of the men as artists, that the attempted exaltation of one by the depression of the other is ludicrous, and calls for notice. Without especial reference to this matter, I cannot avoid saying, that it would seem some systematic attempt prevails to pull down old Norwich, and all which it contains, to the level of mediocrity. I hope I shall never be found aiding and abetting so suicidal a course, and I trust I shall never find you either doing that to which I now urge objection, or defending such a proceeding, – but, on the contrary, abiding by the highest standard, whether in music, in literature, or in the excellence of one artist above another. I beg to state that Mr. Sarony has no knowledge that I have written one word in his defence, nor that I have any knowledge of him beyond that which the admiration of his talents has given me.

I am, Sir, yours truly,
A Lover of Truth.

The two gentlemen were, incidentally, not both ‘comparatively strangers to this city’. Sawyer had opened his studio at 42 London Road in 1853, and may even have been in business in Norwich before that. Sarony had been in Norwich less than three months.

It seems, however, that Sawyer had the last laugh, as is suggested by his advertisement in The Norfolk News of 11th October 1856:

‘Having returned from Paris and London’ he informs ‘the Nobility, Clergy, and Gentry of Norfolk, that he has opened the shop lately occupied by Mr Sarony, No. 42 London Street.’

There is something puzzling about Sarony’s attack on Sawyer. At the end of the advertisement in which he berated Sawyer’s presumption, he gave two addresses. The first was, ‘Portrait Rooms – St. Stephen’s, Opposite Jolly’s Coach Manufactory’. This was where his two wagons were parked and where his photographs were taken. The second was, ‘Photographic Depot and Specimen Rooms, 42, London Street’. This was an address where – as at three King’s Lynn addresses later in the year - Sarony was given space to display his work (and perhaps leave completed orders to be collected). But it was also the address, both before and after Sarony’s visit, of John Sawyer’s studio. Why should Sawyer help a competitor to promote his wares? Was Sarony really biting the hand that, if not actually feeding him, was giving him space in its larder? Was there, improbable as it seems from Sawyer’s point of view, some sort of collusion between the two men, and was the whole dispute being stage managed on the basis that all publicity is good publicity? The idea seems a little improbable.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that the premises at 42 London Street offered accommodation for more than one business, and that Sarony had managed to secure some promotional and office/retail space in the building where Sawyer was already running his photographic and other businesses. If so, Sawyer eventually managed to take over his rival’s territory, since later that year – and while Sarony was still in Norwich – he was able to make his announcement that he had ‘opened the shop lately occupied by Mr Sarony’. If this means that Sawyer was taking up a second unit within the same building, the extra space would certainly have been very welcome to a man who was a cutler, an optician and a surgical instrument maker as well as the proprietor of a growing photographic business. What it can’t mean, however, is that Sawyer’s working from that address was something new.

An alternative explanation is that Sawyer gave up his occupation of 42 London Street to make his visit to Paris and London, that Sarony rented the premises, and that Sawyer then reclaimed them on his return. But a temporary abandonment of the address would disrupt his cutlery and optical businesses as well as his studio work. This, therefore, seems highly unlikely.

In the light of doubts raised by the common address, it may be that the ‘Lover of Truth’ letter also deserves a second look. First, there is the hysterical suggestion that Sawyer’s admirers were conspiring to bring an end to civilisation as Norwich knew it. This does perhaps suggest the tones of a local worthy with a bee in his or her cultural bonnet. But it will also be noted that preoccupations with ‘admiration’, ‘perfection’ and ‘imitation’ – along with a generally orotund style – are common to both Sarony’s and the anonymous correspondent’s pronouncements of March 22nd. This may not be enough to cast doubts on the authenticity of the ‘Lover of truth’ letter, but the letter’s earnest disavowal of any connection with Sarony himself may look a little like protesting too much.

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www.earlyphotostudios.uk is a non-commercial web site for local and family historians, listing photographers operating 1840-1916, in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Rutland and Suffolk. The original site was researched and written in 2011 by the late Robert Pols, photo historian and author, and this re-constructed site is dedicated to his memory.

This page was last modified: 04 September 2022, 09:27

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