When modern viewers look upon the marvel that was the R.M.S. Titanic, they might not give much thought to the people who photographed her. However, if not for these talented and passionate individuals, all historians may have had today are visual and verbal accounts that may not ignite the imagination the way photographs do.
While several individuals contributed to the visual preservation of Titanic’s history, it was Scotland’s Francis Goldophin Osbourne Stuart (aka F.G.O. Stuart) who made major contributions to the ship’s photographic archives. His legacy not only allows today’s historians to view TItanic as she was but also gives them a detailed glimpse into what life was like in Southampton, London and the surrounding areas during the late 19th and 20th century.
F.G.O. Stuart was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on October 3d, 1843. Little is known about his childhood, other than his father was a gamekeeper for a local duke. As he grew into his teens, Stuart worked briefly as a draper’s assistant before becoming interested in photography. The medium was then increasing in popularity, so Stuart moved from Scotland to London, where he set up shop selling postcards with photographs featuring portrait and photos landscape subjects. He also created stereoscopic images, which allow viewers greater depth perception when viewed through a stereoscope.
Once in London, Stuart set up his own photography shop and married Agnes Reed. Some reports note that Reed and some of her relatives might have even moved from Aberdeenshire with him to settle in London as well. During his time in London, Stuart began to build a reputation as a landscape and portrait photographer. He also specialized in cabinet cards, a practice that featured photographs mounted on measured cardboard so they could be displayed on mantelpieces and in cabinets, hence their name. Stuart moved his shop at least four times during his sojourn in London and employed several individuals to assist with the daily tasks of running the shop.
Around 1880, Stuart was granted membership into the Royal Photographic Society and exhibited a collection of wet collodion photos, including photos of Albert Hall, the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey and the House of Lords. These photographs were created with glass plating and collodion solution, which was a popular photography style at the time, having only been created a few decades previous.
A Move To Southampton
In 1882, Stuart and his family abandoned London for Southampton, presumably to set up a combination home and studio. He bought several pieces of property there, near the town’s epicenter, and established the National Photographic Company. During this time, the popularity of postcards began to rise, and Stuart took full advantage by creating and selling his own. He produced both color and black-and-white postcards, producing several series starting in about 1901.
Stuart spent a great deal of time at the Southampton docks, working as a government photographer. He was in his early 70s at this point but continued to take photos. In 1912, he had an opportunity to photograph the R.M.S. Titanic as it left Southampton in its maiden voyage, and these images are still admired today. The photographs viewed by millions of people all over the world have been recreated in drawings, paintings and other forms of media by those inspired by Stuart’s incredible photos. Sadly, Titanic would never return to Southampton; she struck an iceberg on her way to New York and sank in the icy waters of the Northern Atlantic in the early hours of April 15th, 1912.
A Life Well Lived
Stuart and his family remained in Southampton, where he continued to sell postcards that featured countrysides, shipping themes and everyday snapshots of life in the city. He, his wife and his daughter Flora, who married a man called Charles Dowson, continued to run his studio on Cromwell Road. Stuart died at age 80 in his home, and afterward, Flora and Dowson continued to run the National Photographic Company until the business declined in the mid-1930s due to a decreased demand for postcards. The original buildings that housed the family and studio were destroyed in the firebombings of World War II, and Flora passed away in 1957, leaving no children to carry on the business.
Titanic historians and those who admire the great ship owe a boon to Goldophin Osbourne Stuart. Without his talents and passion for capturing life in Southampton, the history of the great ship would be missing a key visual element that ignites the imaginations of all who view these photos.
Note that we offer several t-shirts, including one that uses an image from F.G.O. Stuart. You can find our Titanic T-Shirt here.