THE identity of the handsome Victorian gentleman who forms the subject of this photograph is unknown, but the card is dated September 1877 and bears the imprint of Sarony of Scarborough.
The 1851 Census returns for Thirsk Market Place record that resident at the Blacksmith’s Arms on the night of March 30 were Oliver Sarony, a native of Quebec in North America, and his wife Elizabeth, born in Goole. Aged thirty-one, Oliver Sarony is described as a ‘photographist’, while his wife is acting as his ‘assistant’.
From this single reference, it is not clear whether the couple were lodging at the inn or merely passing through; we do know that it was not until 1870 that a photographer established a permanent business in Thirsk, and that person was Joseph Clarke from Stockton.
The name of Sarony, however, is a celebrated one in the early history of portrait photography.
In 1857 Oliver Sarony set up a studio in Scarborough that was to become famous. By the time this portrait was taken, Sarony was working from buildings that stood in a square that was named after him; the studio complex included high-class tea rooms, dressing rooms, rest rooms, as well as developing and printing workshops.
Folk went to Scarborough to have their photograph taken by him; his clients included society celebrities and even members of the royal family. Having ones photograph taken in mid-Victorian times could be a stressful experience, the long exposures required meant that the subjects had to remain perfectly still and were even held in the desired pose by neck clamps. It is said that ladies of nervous disposition were sometimes sedated before facing the camera.
Born of French Canadian stock, Oliver had a younger brother magnificently named Napoleon who achieved even greater fame.
After working for some time in England, he moved to New York and set up his studio there, establishing a worldwide reputation, photographing many celebrities from literary and theatrical circles.
One of his most famous portraits is that of Oscar Wilde taken during his visit to the United States in 1880.
This was the occasion when, arriving in New York customs, Wilde announced that he had nothing to declare but his genius!