Hugh Owen was born in the Somerset County of Bristol, England in 1808. Beyond that, little is known about his early years except that he served as chief cashier for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway. He married twice, had a daughter, and lost his first wife Mary Anne in a tragic home fire accident in 1846. Mr. Owen’s interest in photography began shortly thereafter, perhaps as a coping mechanism. He likely learned paper negative techniques from the master himself, William Henry Fox Talbot. He perfected the silver calotype process in experiments conducted at his Bristol residence, 3 Somerset Terrace. This laborious method involved sensitizing the paper with a silver nitrate solution to produce images upon wet plates without overexposure to the light. The rigorous process was continued by only the most ardent photographic enthusiasts.
Although he apparently kept his day job at the railway, Mr. Owen’s efforts were receiving considerable local industry attention. He joined his colleagues by founding the Calotype Club in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, and along with his French contemporary Claude-Marie Ferrier, were assigned to make 155 photographs for the Executive Committee of London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. More than 140 elaborately bound sets of reports and accompanying photographs were presented for posterity to, among others, the Exhibition commissioners, the British Museum, and Queen Victoria herself. These remain Mr. Owen’s most famous photographs, and provide some insights into how he approached his work. He tended to concentrate on individual objects and buildings, with their sharp focus effectively contrasted with shadowed backgrounds. His photographs not only command the viewer’s gaze, they demand it unabashedly.
It appears Mr. Owen never steered too far from his Bristol home base, and was rumored to have teamed briefly with fellow regional photographer John Bevan Hazard throughout the 1850s. He worked tirelessly to perfect a style, which though rooted in the Picturesque traditions of the Victorian era, also contains a more contemporary documentary perspective. He was a vocal opponent of Frederick Scott Archer’s wet-collodion process, even more so after badly staining his fingers with the chemicals in 1855. Mr. Owen ended his photography sideline years before dry-collodion plates replaced their messy counterparts. Until the end of his life, he remained active in historical preservation, wrote the acclaimed Two Centuries of Ceramic Art in Bristol, and was named a Fellow of the Society of Antiquarians. He died in 1897 in his beloved hometown of Bristol, where he is still affectionately remembered.
Hugh Owen lived in an era where there were many photographic pioneers vying for attention, and as a result his contributions have often been sadly overlooked outside of Bristol. Only in recent years have scholars paused to take another look at this talented amateur, whose works are most worthy of consideration and praise. There are several of Mr. Owen’s photographs throughout the world housed in museums and private collections. An exhibition of Mr. Owen’s landscapes, entitled “Hugh Owen Rediscovered” was held at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs in New York City in 2016. The largest collection of Mr. Owen’s works are appropriately housed within the Bristol Archives.
1897 The British Journal of Photography, Vol. XLIV *London: Henry Greenwood & Co.), p. 534.
1903 British Journal of Photography, Vol. L (London: Henry Greenwood & Co.), p. 372.
2015 A City Transformed: Unique Pictures Show Bristol at the Height of its 19th-Century Boom (URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3041770/A-city-transformed-Unique-pictures-Bristol-height-19th-century-boom-historic-centre-destroyed-Nazis.html).
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1040-1042.
2018 The Great Exhibition, 1851: Camel Gun from India 1851 (URL: https://www.rct.uk/collection/2800031/the-great-exhibition-1851-camel-gun-from-india).
2016 Hugh Owen Rediscovered (URL: http://sunpictures.com/html/exhibition-press.php?p=134).
2018 Hugh Owen Still Life Of Agricultural Implements, Egypt (URL: https://www.iphotocentral.com/common/detail.php/32/hands/4/0/0/15660/1).
2018 Sculptural Photographs by Patrizia di Bello (London, UK: Bloomsbury Visual Arts), p. 33.
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