I was a collector of photographs for my scientific and archaeological pursuits long before I had any practical acquaintance with the camera.
Reminiscences of Birmingham’s Public Men, June 8, 1907
John Benjamin Stone was born in Aston, the son of a glass manufacturer and was a businessman, philanthropist, magistrate and politician.
As a young man in the 1860s, Stone’s interest in antiquities and the natural and social sciences led him to collect photographs. He also purchased cartes de visite, cabinet prints, stereographs and large format prints from studios at home and abroad.
Stone's considerable income enabled him to travel extensively 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.
He continued to acquire photographs throughout his life, commissioning and purchasing work from commercial photographers, exchanging images with fellow scientists and antiquarians and through the receipt of gifts from colleagues and fellow photographers. Stone stored, catalogued and examined these prints alongside the other objects and artefacts which filled the library at his home, The Grange, in Erdington.
However, frustrated by the fact that he could not always buy the photographs he wanted, he decided to learn to take photographs for himself, employing two men full-time at his house in Erdington 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.
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 MP 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.
Stone recognised early on that photography would be an important tool for recording not just events of historical importance, but also the life of ordinary people through the ages. Photography would, he claimed, '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.