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George Davison –  A pinhole photography hero, millionaire and political activist from Kirkley, Lowestoft

Portrait of George Davison

A pinhole photography hero

Whilst reading about pinhole camera photography  I stumbled across Lowestoft’s own pinhole camera hero, George Davison.

George Davison

George Davison was born in Kirkley, (19 September 1855). He was the fourth child of William Davison, a shipwright and carpenter, originally from Sunderland. His mother, Eliza, (born Miller) supplemented the family income by running their home and the next door property as a boarding house. The houses numbers  36 and 37 Marine Parade still stand to this day. At the time they would have been newly constructed as part of  Morton Peto’s masterplan for Lowestoft.

George attended a local elementary school before going on to the secondary school, St John’s, Lowestoft. He continued his studies at evening classes and by the age of 20 had passed exams to enter the civil service. He moved to London in 1875 to take up a position at Somerset House.

Success as a photographer

At the age of 31 George Davison became interested in photography and joined the “New Camera Club of London” . Within a year he exhibited eight photographs in the 1886 annual exhibition for the Royal Photographic Society. This included two images of Lowestoft Harbour.

Lowestoft Harbour Entrance, George Davison
Lowestoft Harbour Entrance, George Davison

In 1887 he exhibited a further seven photographs. The next year he included a Fishing Fleet image as one of his six exhibits. In 1889 he included a photograph of Lowestoft Harbour at sunset as one of his twelve images.

By 1890 George Davison had turned away from purely naturalistic photography and begun to experiment with different techniques.  He developed an interest in the use of pinhole cameras to create more painterly and artistic effects. Using a pinhole camera he created a photograph of an old farmstead, later titled “The Onion Field” With its crude paper and strong painterly image it caused both aclaim and controversy when it was exhibited as one of 13 of his photographs at the Royal Photographic society in 1890.  As a result of the controversy George left the Royal society and co-founded “The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring “ A photographic society which was dedicated to “bringing together those who are interested in the development of the highest form of Art of which Photography is capable” The society flourished until 1910.

The onion field, George Davison
The Onion Field, George Davison

Financial success

Meanwhile George’s passion for photography had introduced him to George Eastman a successful businessman and photographer.  This allowed him to leave the civil service in 1897 and ultimately led him to a position as a director at Kodak.  One of his first projects with George Eastman  was to help popularise photography through organising an amateur photographic competition in 1897. This was a huge success attracting to the exhibition of the winning entries over 25,000 visitors  in just three weeks. George Davison continued to exhibit photographs until 1911. He remains one of the most important pre First World War British photographers.

One of George’s photographs from this period in the Kodak Collection at the National Science & Media Museum is a panoramic photograph of the Lowestoft seafront taken in 1905. Whilst not a pinhole image it was taken with a No 4 Panoram Kodak camera, (introduced in 1899) illustrating his continuing fascination with exploring new techniques.

Socialist activism

Alongside his success as a photographer George’s passion and commitment to social reforms led him to start an anarchist magazine. A step too far for Kodak, he was asked to step down from the position as director in 1908. In 1912 George retired from Kodak at the age of 58, moving to Harlech in Wales.He had commissioned a mansion “Wern Fawr” designed by an architect friend  a few years earlier.

In Wales George Davison further developed his zeal for social reform. He used his considerable wealth as a shareholder of Kodak to help fund the Central Labour College in London and also the “White House“ in Ammanford, a study centre for welsh miners. The White House  nurtured many left wing political activists who went on to become both committed first world war pacifists and early members of the emerging labour and communist parties.

Ill health later forced George Davison to move to move to Antibes in Southern France  in 1930 where he died later that year.

George Davison
George Davison

For more information about pinhole photography see the world pinhole photography day website.

The next world pinhole photography day is on 23rd April 2018

Read more about pinhole photography

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