Image showing magazine cover promoting Sir Benjamin Stone's pictures

A life in pictures

Between 1890 and 1910 the Conservative MP, Sir Benjamin Stone, was a household name. He was often known by the affectionate nicknames given to him by the Press on account of his keen, even obsessive activities as an amateur photographer. He was playfully dubbed ‘Sir Kodak’, ‘Sir Snapshot’ and ‘The Knight of the Camera’.

Born the son of a local glass manufacturer in 1838, the year of Victoria’s coronation, John Benjamin Stone was a product of the confidence of Victorian England and the industrial power and wealth of the new industrial city of Birmingham. After completing his education he moved into his father’s business and some time later became a partner in the paper firm of Smith, Stone and Knight which had large paper mills in Birmingham. He married Jane Parker in 1867 and moved into The Grange, Erdington. They had six children - four sons and two daughters.

An ardent Conservative, he was elected to Birmingham Town Council in 1869 and was, for ten years from 1874, President of the Birmingham Conservative Association. He also served on Sutton Coldfield Town Council and in 1886 he was chosen as the first Mayor of the Borough. He was knighted for his services to politics in 1892 and three years later was elected to serve as an MP. During his time in Parliament, Stone photographed many of its members and documented its traditions and ceremonies.

Stone’s interests outside business and politics were many and varied. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society, the Linnaean Society, the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, the Society of Arts and the Royal Astronomical Society. However, as one Birmingham newspaper noted, ‘his ruling passion for photography…swallowed all the rest.’ Stone is thought to have spent as much as £30,000 on photography during his lifetime: a figure equivalent to well over £1 million pounds today.

Stone was an enthusiastic traveller and visited China, Japan, the West Indies, South Africa and North and South America, as well as most of Europe. He published a number of books in relation to his travels along with many papers in the specialised scientific press concerning his varied interests in the arts and sciences.

As a young man in the 1860s, Stone’s interest in antiquities and the natural and social sciences led him to purchase and collect photographs. He began collecting photographs at a young age, purchasing cartes de visite, cabinet prints, stereographs and large format prints from studios at home and abroad. Stone stored, catalogued and examined these prints alongside the other objects and artefacts which filled the library at his home. However, frustrated by the fact that he could not always buy the photographs he wanted, he decided to learn to take photographs for himself.

In addition to collecting and taking photographs, Stone, in his role as first President of the Birmingham Photographic Society and then, in 1897, as founder of the National Photographic Record Association, actively encouraged his fellow amateurs to engage in what he saw as the vitally important work of preserving ‘history photographs’ of the Victorian era.

Stone died at his home on July 2, 1914 - on the same day as Joseph Chamberlain - at the end of an era that he epitomised and photographically documented for posterity.

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