Jane Martha Hicks Beach was born in Gloucestershire, England on July 24, 1801. The youngest daughter of land baron Michael Beach and his wife Henrietta Maria Hicks Beach, she enjoyed a childhood of wealth and privilege. She remained close to home and family for much of her early adult life, managing the household of her older brother William and his family and serving as her mother’s caregiver until her death. Miss Beach was a gifted artist, and after she married Edward St. John in 1848, it is believed she was introduced to the relatively new art of photography through her social friendship with Emma Llewelyn is believed Mrs. St. John received her only formal instruction from Emma’s husband, John Dillwyn Llewelyn.
Mrs. St. John became quite adept at calotype and collodion processes, and she painstakingly created family portrait albums from her own original prints. On an extended holiday in Europe in 1856, she found herself profoundly inspired by Italy’s cultural landscape. Her chronological vacation album reveal the extent of her evolution as a photographer. Her early efforts in Genoa are amateurish at best, but by the time she arrived in Naples, her aesthetic sensibilities developed along with her stereo views. Although there is little doubt she had been influenced by contemporaries William Henry Fox Talbot and Calvert Richard Jones, Mrs. St. John’s emphasis was on capturing an honest moment in time without the imposition of Victorian photographic conventions. Her photographs of Italian landmarks, while often unbalanced in composition, reflect the tourist’s perspective of these imposing structures. She used her camera as an instrument of free expression, manipulating angles along with natural light and shadow to enhance the visual appeal of her architectural subjects. Her liberating style is particularly evident in her views of the Colesseum and the Santa Maria Maggiore. In a society where women were often suppressed and objectified, Mrs. St. John used her camera as an instrument of emancipation. In time, due in part to her pioneering efforts, photography became one of the few professions that welcomed women into their exclusive ranks.
Eighty-one-year-old Jane St. John died in London on November 18, 1882. Although she considered herself nothing more than an amateur photographer, her creativity and artistic inclinations are evident in her images, and have earned increasing critical praise by photographic historians. Several plates from her Italian sojourn are featured in the 2007 text, Impressed by Light: British Photographers from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860. Other samples of her work can be found at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, and the Swansea Museum in Swansea, Wales.
2018 The Caesar of Paris by Susan Jaques (New York, NY: Pegasus Books), p. 46.
2007 Impressed by Light by Roger Taylor (New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 112-117, 367.
2019 Jane Martha Hicks Beach [later St John] (URL: http://ww3.gloucestershire.gov.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=D2455%2F5%2F3%2F3).
2013 Jane Martha St. John and sister-in-law Julia, c. 1860 (URL: http://britishphotohistory.ning.com/photo/jane-martha-st-john-and-sister-in-law-julia-c-1860/next?context=user).
2015 Mythology: Who's Who in Greek and Roman Mythology by E.M. Berens (New York, NY: Quarto Publishing Group/Wellfleet Press), p. 42.
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