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Sir J. Benjamin Stone - biographical details

Biographical details of Sir J. Benjamin Stone

Photographs from the recent exhibition Knight of the Camera
in Centenary Square, Birmingham

 fireman at rick fire by Chester Road, Erdington, 1899
John Benjamin Stone, son of Benjamin Stone, a glass manufacturer, was born in Aston, Birmingham, in 1838, and was educated at King Edward's School, New Street. He entered his father's business, and eventually succeeded him as director, as well as establishing a wide range of other prosperous commercial interests.

As the representative of Duddeston Ward on Birmingham Town Council from 1869-1878, and as founder and later President of the Birmingham Conservative Association, Stone helped maintain party unity in the face of a massive Liberal majority controlled by the Chamberlain caucus. Magistrate for Birmingham, Warwickshire, and Sutton Coldfield in turn, he was also associated with many cultural and philanthropic foundations including the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Mason's Orphanage, the Children's Hospital and the Birmingham Blue Coat School - as well as being a member of the Geographical, Royal Geographical, and Linnaean Societies. He was elected Councillor for the Wylde Green Ward, and later became Sutton Coldfield's first Mayor, holding the office from 1886 to 1890. Member of Parliament

As a founder-member of the Primrose League, Stone attracted the attention of the Marquis of Salisbury, on whose recommendation he was knighted in 1892. He was elected Member of Parliament for East Birmingham in 1895, and held the seat until his retirement in 1910. Both as Councillor and MP he was unswervingly loyal to his party's cause. Described by the Birmingham Argus as a docile voting machine, he once told the girls of Duddeston Ward: Don't have any sweethearts who are not thoroughly good Conservatives. Like several earlier and later counterparts, Stone took little part in Parliamentary debates, and was much criticised for his frequent absences, even travelling abroad whilst an election was in progress.

Stones considerable income enabled him to travel extensively in Britain and abroad, at a time when foreign travel was still very much the prerogative of the rich. He was in great demand as a lecturer, and began to collect photographs in order to illustrate his lectures and travel books. Dissatisfied with the quality of many of the commercial prints he purchased, Stone decided to master the art of photography himself, employing two men full-time at his house in Erdington, The Grange, to develop and print his plates. Stone was one of the first photographers to switch from wet to dry plates, obviating the need to develop the plates on the spot as soon as they had been exposed.

As an early President of the Birmingham Photographic Society, Stone helped to establish the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, which aimed to record for posterity the country's architectural and historical heritage. The initial deposit was presented to the City in 1892. Five years later Stone founded the National Photographic Record Association, intended to fulfil a similar function on a national scale. This flourished until 1910 when the lack of government finance and the growth of local societies led to its demise. By then the collection amounted to several thousand prints, almost half of them by Stone, deposited in the British Museum.

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection

The best known of Stone's photographs are probably those portraying rustic characters and ancient customs and festivals, yet these form only a small part of the Sir Benjamin Stone Collection. The Collection comprises individual and group portraits, street scenes, ancient buildings (particularly churches and manor houses) and Royal and Parliamentary occasions. His position as an M.P. enabled him to gain entry to places normally forbidden to photographers. He made exhaustive surveys of Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey. At the Palace of Westminster he photographed not only the buildings but also the staff, the members and distinguished visitors. His crowning honour as an amateur was undoubtedly his appointment in 1910 as official photographer for the Coronation of George V.

As a typical member of late Victorian and Edwardian society (he died in July 1914), Stone displayed a marked lack of interest in most facets of urban life. He was once quoted as saying: ' I quite fail to see what record of history is to be got out of an ordinary modern house or a regulation view from a bedroom window' - which somewhat belies his belief in the value of photography as a permanent historical record: 'to show those who will follow us, not only our buildings, but our everyday life, our manners and customs. Briefly,I have aimed at recording history with the camera, which, I think, is the best way of recording it'.

The Benjamin Stone Collection
Images from the J. Benjamin Stone Collection
Photographic and other Special Collections in Central Library