Victorian Photographic Background

Ernst Dyche Studio Backgrounds, Birmingham

Victorian Photographic Backdrops

Ernest Dyche Studio backgrounds,Birmingham.

In the late 1970s I was lucky to have found the Ernest Dyche Studio at 354 Moseley Road, Sparkbrook. I had seen the studio many times as it was on a main road I often used,. I was informed that there were some interesting artefacts in what was looking like a run down property .

The owner Malcolm Dyche had ‘retired’ and lived at the property which was obviously a grand house at sometime. Mr Dyche generously showed me his studio, that he still occasionally used, the studio space was a wonderland, which I wish I had photographed, a ‘plaster cast white umbrella that seemed to be used as a reflector although no light source could be seen apart from a couple of basic tungsten lights, at the rear of the studio was a contraption made of wood and iron holding a background of off white canvas, behind were more rolls of canvas, which I was told were painted.

After a while I asked if I could possibly buy the backgrounds as I thought they would work for a commission I had in the pipeline. Malcolm and his wife kindly agreed to sell them with the stand for £200 if I remember correctly, back in the 70’s that was what I thought was a fair and quite substantial figure.

I remember taking a good half day dismantling the unit and loading my VW Combi and taking them to my studio in Digbeth (164 High Street, Deritend). I was amazed what I had found, there were also some smaller backgrounds not as large but also beautifully painted. The collection of backgrounds were used for a few tests then for the calendar commission that was produced as a stock calendar for CBE Moments who at the time were a major client.

Space was always an issue in my studio, so as the Background stand was an interesting object and the painted backdrops looked so good, I took them all home and displayed them in my lounge and that is what happened to them till 2010, they were part of my home furnishings and followed my moves to Worcestershire, Warwickshire, London then back!

I used the backgrounds for the occasional shoot, but they were usually too dominant so the subject was undermined, I did take one to the Stratford Literary festival and used it for a few of the writers and celebrities such Rev Richard Cole who was one subject that did work as he has the face that could be seen as ‘Victorian’ or at least Edwardian.

In 2010 I put the background and much more into storage as my circumstances changed drastically (Property / Banking Crash)  and I ended up back between London and Spain.

In 2013  back in Warwickshire I started to think I should get rid of the backgrounds, and simplify my storage as they were OK but taking up room. I also had an archive of 40 years photography and kit that seemed to grow every time I had to get something for a shoot.

I approached a few auction houses and spread the word, but unless I was going to give the backgrounds away there were few options. I managed to resolve my storage issues so I just had to live with the backgrounds in my new space along with archives.

Fast Forward to 2018? When I was attending a  tutor meeting in Barnsley with the OCA, there I met  Arpita Shah a fellow photography tutor who said she was working on a project with GRAIN in Birmingham and was researching the Ernst Dyche collection at the Birmingham library, she said that she was looking for the backgrounds that the collection was shot against.

I have rarely seen someone so happily shocked  as when I told her that I owned them.

Nicola Shipley from Grain and Arpita came to see the backdrops at my studio near Stratford on Avon and then  all became a little complex, as the 2022 Commonwealth Games were looming and a major exhibition at the library was planned with the Ernest Dyche collection at the heart of it, the backgrounds were certainly considered for the exhibition as they featured in most of the images that were shot in the 50’s,60’s & 70’s at the Sparkhill studio. The exhibition “From City of Empire to City of Diversity” The Exhibition was I believe devised and put forward by SAMPAD based at MAC.

The exhibition featured one original background set up as it would have been in the day when a generation of  immigrants would get a portrait taken to send home to relatives or just treasure as a celebration of their new life in Birmingham. There were also two copies that were used by visitors to get selfies, the exhibition was a great success and the backdrops are now safely in the Birmingham Archive hopefully there shall be restoration work done on the machine that holds the backdrops as 1895 was a long time since it was made.

I still use ‘canvas’ backgrounds, often painted my myself or dyed, as a devise they are as old as photography and certainly with portraiture some background shall always be required, green screen technology and now Ai can place subjects anywhere, but there seems to be a need for us to have our images with a context that informs, a surreal landscape or a glade backgrounds are going to be around for a while longer, hopefully the Dyche backgrounds shall be seen as part of photographies rich heritage  especially for Birmingham and its wonderfully diverse people.

Links : Sanpad

          Birmingham Archive



            Aripa Shah