In 1851, 30-year-old Thomas Ottewill opened a business at 24 Charlotte Terrace in London that was initially advertised as a manufacturer of daguerreotype apparatus. He could have scarcely known at the time that this modest specialty firm would become one of the most successful and influential makers of cameras and equipment history. What distinguished Ottewill was its uncompromising wood and brass workmanship, using only the finest Spanish mahogany for its products. Its first commercial success was the double-folding camera that was described in an 1853 issue of The Journal of the Photographic Society as an instrument that “fully combines the requisite strength and firmness with a high degree of portability and efficiency.”
Maintaining a delicate balance of mechanical precision and artistic innovation, Mr. Ottewill and a succession of partners grew a business that set the industry standard for both invention and improvements to existing camera design. Ottewill transformed Captain Francis Fowkes’s vision of a ‘monster camera’ into an impressive reality, manufacturing a unique camera that was surprisingly portable. When Scottish photographer C. G. H. Kinnear invented the revolutionary compact camera with tapered bellows, Ottewill enhanced its portability by adding a swing-back. It teamed with Frederick Scott Archer (inventor of the wet-plate collodion process) to produce his folding camera.
Despite frequent leadership changes – the name changed to Ottewill & Morgan with the addition of partner William Morgan – the corporate growth continued at a dizzying pace, increasing both its physical space (now occupying both 23 and 24 Charlotte Terrace) and its inventory which now included both cameras and a large selection of custom-made equipment. In 1856, the firm advertised the construction of “extensive workshops” and boasted it was now the largest camera maker in England. It became a major equipment manufacturer for several well-established companies, which included the Ross lens manufacturer. The firm, now calling itself Ottewill & Company, attracted the attention of author and photography enthusiast Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll. So impressed was Dodgson with his Ottewill double-folding camera, he immortalized it in the poem, Hiawatha’s Photographing.
Throughout the rest of the decade, the company manufactured the standard single and stereoscopic box cameras, portrait and studio cameras, but also produced some quirky devices such as a miniature camera based on Thomas Skaife’s Pistolgraph camera. However, by 1864, the company had declared bankruptcy, which perhaps could be blamed on its rapid growth. Nevertheless, within a year, it was advertising itself as the primary equipment manufacturer for England, India, Italy, Switzerland, and “the Colonies.” Now under the moniker of Ottewill & Collis with the addition of a former Ross employee, the firm seemed to be back on track. But by 1868, all advertising or trade publication mention of Ottewill & Collis had ceased. What happened? Perhaps the company emphasized quality over quantity and priced itself out of the consumer market. Or maybe its innovation peaked too early, as critics were later complaining that Ottewill was simply remaking its original designs. This may well prove that one cannot improve upon perfection. What is clear is that several future camera makers – including John Garland, George Hare, and Patrick Meagher – received their professional training at Ottewill. Despite being in operation for less than two decades, there is little doubt that the entity Thomas Ottewill founded in 1851 “may be regarded as the source to which the best school of English camera-making traces its origin.”
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2011 The Alice Behind Wonderland by Simon Winchester (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.), p. 49.
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1033-1034.
2010 The Development and Growth of British Photographic Manufacturing
and Retailing 1839-1914 by Michael Pritchard (URL: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/29076324.pdf).
2018 Fowke's Bellows Camera (URL: http://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co15043/fowkes-bellows-camera-bellows-camera-plate-camera).
1984 History of Photography, Vol. VIII (Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis Group), pp. 175-177.
2015 History of Photography Timeline Through Technology by Adam Ryder (URL: https://www.americanphotomag.com/history-photography-in-50-cameras-explores-more-than-just-cameras).
2018 Improved Kinnear Camera, 1860s (URL: http://www.antiquewoodcameras.com/ottewill.html).
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