Henry Dixon's London

Henry Dixon's London

Who was Henry Dixon? He was not a pioneer of early photography like Henry Fox Talbot or the Frenchman, Louis Daguerre. He did not take photographs for primarily artistic purposes like Julia Margaret Cameron. His importance lies in the subject matter of his photographs - London in the 1860s, 70s and 80s - and the expertise he brought to them.

Dixon recorded the Holborn Valley Improvements, one of the largest building projects undertaken in mid-Victorian London which altered the face of that section of the City. Most famously he photographed London's threatened buildings in the 1870s and 80s. His photographs for the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London record a heritage on the verge of destruction as Victorian London re-invented itself. Amongst the subjects recorded were the galleried coaching inns which had existed in some form since the time of Chaucer and which were swept away by the coming of the railways. Most ended their days as slum dwellings before being demolished. Only one, the George, now survives.

Dixon also captured the atmosphere of humbler streets for the City Sewers Commission with a series of photographs which now only survive as glass-plate negatives in the Guildhall Library.

Dixon originally trained as a master copper-plate printer and joined the very first wave of high-street photographers. As a commercial photographer the range of his commissions was wide - from portraiture to photographing pianos, from photographing the animals in London Zoo to the Arctic Expedition of 1875 on the eve of its departure from Portsmouth. It is for his London photography, however, that he is now best remembered.

Dixon brought a technical excellence to all of his photographs as well as an eye for composition. He was a master of the beautiful and permanent carbon process (all of the SPROL images are carbon prints) which many photographers avoided for its difficulty. Dixon seemed to thrive on such challenges and even published articles on new technical developments. Defying the London smog, the jostling crowds, the dirt, the dust and the complicated and volatile processes of the camera Dixon preserved a London in transition. Here it is, captured in the vulnerable yet surprisingly permanent medium of the photograph.