By his son, Dr Frank Rushbrook CBE
It is good that the
photography of Alfred Henry Rushbrook is now being appreciated, and that
this brief account of his life and photography has been written by
somebody in such a good position to write it - his son, Frank,
who worked for his father from 1929 until 1937.
Frank is now trying to locate
photographs taken by A H Rushbrook, held in public collections and
elsewhere. If you know of any, please
e-mail so that I can pass on the news to him.
Alfred Henry Rushbrook was born in 2 Vine
Place, West Ham, London, on 2nd February 1867. Nothing is known of his early days
except that he left school aged 13 years and became an apprentice
The name of the photographic firm and its location is unknown, but possibly in Barking where Alfred
lived, prior to leaving for Edinburgh.
Move to Edinburgh
At around eighteen years of
age he wanted to leave London and set up business as a photographer in some
other and distant place. To this end he went to Kings Cross Railway Station
in the City to decide where he would like to settle.
Whilst in the Station he spotted a poster
with a kilted piper standing in front of Edinburgh Castle, and there and then decided that this
was where he would establish his new life.
Nothing is known about Alfred's first few
years in Edinburgh following his arrival in 1885, other than that he clearly
established a highly successful business - at its peak he employed over 20 people in his workshop called Grange
Photo Works at 161 Causewayside, Edinburgh.
This was a considerable number of
employees for a photographic business in these days and serves to illustrate
just how successful he was. This studio stood in a small part of the site now occupied by the National
Library of Scotland.
Work for the Trade
In the early stages Alfred, although doing a
lot of private commercial photography, worked mainly for the trade in the form of small
photographic businesses throughout Scotland and a large part of the North of
These photographers would send their
plates to Edinburgh and Alfred would make the requisite
number and size of prints.
The business also specialised in retouching1
negatives for those photographers who could not carry out this skilled task.
Hannah Sherwood Hunter, who had attended the
Edinburgh Art College, joined Alfred's firm as an artist and shortly after, on 12th
October 1898, became his wife. Sherwood (as she was always called by Alfred) was a master at
retouching and she continued to do this work throughout their married life.
Frank: Apprentice Photographer
They set up home in 73 Findhorn Place in the
Southside of Edinburgh and had three girls, Claire, Dorothy and Freda and three boys.
Henry (Harry), Alan and Frank (the author of this document).
Frank, in 1929 and 14 years of age left
George Heriot's School to join his father in the Nicolson Street Studio as an
In his younger days Alfred was obviously a
considerable sportsman. There are photographs showing him in boxing gear,
probably taken in his London days. Another early photograph shows him astride a racing bicycle, again
probably in London.
Later there were a number of newspaper
cuttings about his exploits as a swimmer having won events whilst a member
of the Edinburgh Warrender Baths. Many more
included his name as a member ot the Warrender water polo club.
Alfred was a keen fisherman, both salmon and
trout, which sport he must have taken up in his Edinburgh days.
Alfred: Dog Breeder
He was a great dog lover,
with Airedales his chosen breed and became a highly successful breeder. Annually, for
many years he entered dogs for Crufts in London and The Scottish Kennel Club, in Edinburgh,
gaining many awards.
Apart from the UK he also sold some of his champion dogs to a
number of overseas countries, including the USA and Argentina. The dogs, apart from one old
favourite dog or bitch which would live at home, were kept in kennels at the
He was also a keen shot, with friends who
would invite him to organised shoots. He had a beautiful Holland & Holland 12 bore shot gun
which today would be worth a considerable sum. (Unfortunately, some time after Alfred
died, his wife Sherwood sold this gun to an Edinburgh gunsmith for a few paltry pounds.)
Alfred was an outstanding photographer in all
manner of commercial subjects; the Forth Rail Bridge during the construction stages being
but one example of the thousands of plate negatives stored in his studio.
Interestingly, he had very little interest
in portraiture, that is apart from wedding photographs, which were
for him very much bread and butter affairs2.
Running a photographic business was far
from easy in the difficult economic times after the 1914/18 War.
Around 1926, Alfred closed his
Causewayside premises and purchased a studio in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh. The reason for closing the original premises was that the Carbon process3, which had been his main
source of income, had dramatically reduced and he believed that it was
necessary to diversify the business to include portraiture.
But, sadly nation-wide, portraiture would
encounter appalling conditions through massive unemployment in the
Depression of the 1930s.
Nicolson Street Studio
Alfred claimed thereafter that he made a terrible mistake in moving to the studio in
Nicolson Street and that he was "sold a pup" by the then owner, Yerbury of Churchhill,
Edinburgh whom he thought was his friend.
Apparently the projected financial returns for
the studio were far below that promised by Yerbury. Money was always short and Alfred had
great difficulty in meeting his bills.
The Nicolson Street studio, about 30 by 20
feet, was upstairs and was constructed entirely of glass. There were a number of backcloths which
were interchangeable according to the subjects to be photographed.
A number of
theatre type lamps were housed in a gantry overhead and portable spot lights on wheeled
bases, each fitted with a white gauze to diffuse and soften the light.
The premises contained a large reception room
where albums of photographs were displayed, along with framed photographs on the
walls. Most of the albums were of commercial subjects, such as the Roadhouse
situated at what was called the Edinburgh Turnpike, now the Gala Casino at
the Maybury roundabout.
The architects were Patterson and Broome who designed the structure in Art
Deco/International style; of an ocean liner. This was around 1935 and was the biggest
project undertaken by Frank (Alfred's son) up to that time, using 15x12 inch plates and
providing a large number of prints and 20x16 inch enlargements when the premises reached
completion all, of course, in black and white.
One beautiful album on show in the studio
contained photographs taken in the Scottish Highlands during a rare holiday
taken by Alfred and Sherwood.
Mostly these were views of mountains and lochs but one really striking
picture was of Highland cattle grazing in the quiet shallows of a Highland loch. The water
being so still, mirror like, that the beasts' images were brilliantly reflected - the reflections being
almost as sharp as the actual subject.
Amongst the framed pictures was one showing
Admiral Madden and his officers and men - about three thousand in all - taken on the
after deck of the battleship Hood? Renown? in Rosyth Dockyard. The huge guns are facing the
camera with some of the ratings sitting astride the guns.
It is not known whether this
photograph was taken during or after the 1914/18 War. This again was taken on a 15x12 inch
plate and the detail was quite extraordinary, even the farthest distant
crew-member could be clearly recognised. The print was on carbon paper and sepia coloured.
There was also a superb photograph of Robert
Louis Balfour Stevenson, the famous author of around fifty books.
King George V
Another framed picture was that of King
George V with guests taken in Holyrood Palace, and Alfred told a very funny
story about this photograph. It was his practice after developing the glass plates to
place them to dry overnight in a wooden plate rack, which stood on a disused
Apparently there were a number of mice in the Causewayside premises and to his horror
when he came into work the next day he found that they had nibbled some of the gelatine
from the comer of the two most important plates.
The Tower of London loomed but Sherwood the
artist saved the day by airbrushing and retouching the plates so that no
sign of the damage remained and no-one was any the wiser
Death of A H Rushbrook
Alfred Henry Rushbrook died in the Edinburgh
Royal Infirmary on 13 August 1937.
About one week before and suffering excruciating
stomach pains, which had just suddenly and without warning started, he had to be rushed
to the Royal Infirmary by Frank in a hired car. (Ambulances were not all that easy to get in
He underwent an operation carried out by a surgeon he had known for many
Forth Rail Bridge
Alfred took many photographs during the
construction of the Forth Rail Bridge, some of which remain in the family to this day. But
it is sad to say that nearly all of these fascinating old photographs and
negatives became a casualty of the Second World War.
Frank joins the Fire
Following his father's death in 1937, with the business in
photography steadily going from bad to worse, Frank was invited by the Firemaster to join
the Edinburgh Fire Brigade and set up a photographic department for the
purpose of training the expanding service.
His mother, knowing full well the business position,
generously agreed to put a young man in to run the business and Frank joined the Edinburgh Fire
Brigade in 1938.
Sale of the Business
The new manager was doing quite well and giving Sherwood a small income
but some six months after the start of World War II he was called up to the forces. This
left her with no alternative but to sell the business, which she did to a Mr
K W Murray.
This, of course, meant that Frank had no further access to the Nicolson Street studio. The loss of the work of Alfred's professional
life in Edinburgh has to be one of the saddest recollections of Frank's life and still today
engenders feelings of guilt.
What has survived?
Each of the thousands of glass plates were
indexed and fully captioned. Perhaps some of these negatives might still exist in one or
more of the Edinburgh galleries or museums and Frank intends to make
enquiries from a number of these.
For example, the Writers' Museum in Lady Stair's House, off the Lawnmarket,
Edinburgh, holds Europe's finest Stevenson's artefacts, including many photographs. The
museum is run by Edinburgh City Council but unfortunately is mostly kept under lock and
Edinburgh Improvement Trust
The only substantial collection of Alfred's
photographs (other than family portraits) that Frank has been able to trace is that held by
Edinburgh Public Library of 138 silver gelatine photographs depicting the
St Leonard's area
of the Old Town of Edinburgh, taken in 1927 and 1929, and commissioned by the Edinburgh Improvement
Readers might wonder what
involved and it is difficult to describe adequately in writing.
Putting it simply, the aim was to take out blemishes from faces, for
example, bags under the eyes, ageing lines, etc.
This was achieved by placing the glass plate in a
holder behind which was an electric lamp. The retoucher had a
propelling lead pencil, one end of which had to
be kept to the sharpest possible point and this was achieved by means of
turning the lead delicately against a piece of fine emery paper.
The offending bags or unwanted hues showed up on the negative as light areas and
the pencil was put to work filling these in with carbon in the most minute
squiggles and thus making them disappear when the negatives were sent for
The work demanded the operator to have really
excellent eyesight. Readers need only to look at old photographs of distant relatives to notice
complexions they all had, no matter how old they were at the time -
no bags under the eyes, or age lines, can be seen!
Modem photographs will be unlikely to last without fading for a fraction of the time as did these old carbon
Wedding parties, almost invariably on
Friday or Saturday nights between 6 and 8pm, attended the studio to record
their great day. It was a sign of the
times that people could not afford to be away from work any earlier, so both
the bride and groom would have worked their normal day.
One week's holiday was the norm and
perhaps the majority had only the weekend for their honeymoon!
Apart from weddings and new babies,
people simply could not afford to have their
photos taken professionally. This was the day of the Kodak Brownie and the vast majority of family photos were taken by
this simple camera.
Alfred was apparently offered an agency by Kodak in the early part of the century whereby
he would be responsible for the developing and printing of all films from the Box Brownie Cameras
throughout Edinburgh and the Lothians. Sadly, he could not foresee any future for these toy cameras.
It is not known when Alfred began to
specialise in the Carbon photographic process which produced prints
mainly in sepia but also in other colours, for example green and blue.
It is possible that he had been trained in this process whilst in London but clearly he
also used the Calotype process as well.
Basically the carbon process involved exposing sensitised paper to a
glass negative which was placed in a frame and exposed to daylight for a given time, which varied
according to the intensity of the natural light.
The sensitised paper was then developed in warm water. By means
of dabbing with cotton wool which could be rolled tightly when wet to form a really sharp pointed end by which means
highlights could be induced at any point of the developing picture - for example in a portrait the eyes or
cheeks could be brightened with amazingly effective results.
Where broader based highlights were required he would
simply fluff out the cotton wool to cover a wider area. With commercial subjects, like silver trophies,
introducing these highlights could be extremely effective.
Another feature of this process was that it
was sometimes possible to actually remove some offending feature in picture, something no other process could
achieve. That is until the present day with the new digital process.
The great advantage that was possessed by the
carbon process was the very long life of the prints, which even when exposed to sunlight, could last for up to a hundred
and indeed more years.
Practically every household in the land must still have old photographs of
distant relatives, usually in sepia colour, tucked away in a family album and which have still retain an almost
pristine appearance for a hundred years and longer.
The few carbon prints which were processed by
Alfred after Frank joined the firm were printed in purpose made frames of different sizes according to
the glass plates used, which varied from 5x4 inch, 8 1/2 x6 inch, 10 x 8
inch and 15 x 12 inch.
The glass plate was placed in the wooden frame and the carbon paper
was placed on the glass plate, the emulsion side against the
paper, a hinged wooden board was placed onto the paper, one half to hold the paper from moving and the second
half to clip the negative and the carbon paper firmly to the frame.
Then the T frame was turned over with the negative facing upwards to
the daylight. Alfred was a wizard in knowing instinctively how long to expose the
plate to the daylight even on days where the light fluctuated between direct sunlight and and heavy clouds. Exposure time varied
from a few minutes to hours depending on the weather and the subject matter of the
Apparently, Alfred in the early stages of
x-ray photography had co-operated with the surgeon in producing 20x16 inch enlargements from the x-ray
negatives which were around 15x12 inch and he was the only photographer in Edinburgh who had an enlarger
big enough to take these large negatives.
This enlarger ran on rails which were at least 20 feet long and had
a 30 inch condenser and was powered by carbon arc. The easel also ran on rails so that the register
between negative and the photographic paper was absolutely accurate.
Frank does not recall the actual weight of
the glass condenser but only that, as a 14 year old, it was just about as heavy as he could lift when he had to take
it out for cleaning, an operation which was carried out using cotton wool and methylated spirits.
By the time Frank joined his father's
business the need for these enlargement prints had ceased as surgeons could read and interpret the negative itself.
Dr Frank Rushbrook, CBE, Edinburgh. August 2006