Hughes and Mullins – Royal Photographers

Jabez Hughes, along with Julia Margaret Cameron, can be considered two of the great Victorian Photographers that lived and worked on the Isle of Wight. This is a look into the life and work of both Cornelius Jabez Hughes and Gustav Mullins, Royal photographers and an important part of both Isle of Wight history and photographic history. It is a more in-depth version of my notes for the talk on Hughes and Mullins that I gave at Carisbrooke Castle Museum on the 4th of February.

Julia Margaret Cameron is quite rightly lauded as a pioneer photographer who went on to produce highly regarded, emotive portraits of notaries such as John Herschel and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Cameron however was operating as an amateur, not that this should be considered a bad thing. In the late 19th century, being an amateur didn’t have the slightly disparaging connotations that it does today. Only amateurs were allowed to compete at Wimbledon and Henley Regatta for example. Cameron did have an equally impressive opposite in the professional photographer Cornelius Jabez Hughes who worked as a portrait photographer in Ryde and was one half of the very highly respected Royal portrait photographers, Hughes and Mullins.

The history of Jabez Hughes and Gustav Mullins’ careers on the Isle of Wight starts before either of them had made it to the Island, and before Mullins was even born. Photography had been invented in 1829, and Louis Daguerre announced his new photographic processes in 1839, but the technology was quick to spread across the channel, despite the licence that was imposed on English photographers. In 1842, John Frederick Goddard became the sole proprietor of a licence for photographic portraits for Southampton, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

Goddard, a lecturer on optics at the Royal Adelaide Gallery in London, had been approached by Richard Beard who had purchased the rights to produce daguerreotype photographs from Daguerre’s agent Miles Berry. Beard wanted to improve the process to make it more suitable for portrait photography, which was fast becoming the commercial use for the new artform. This was at the time when a single exposure could take upwards of ten minutes, not entirely conducive to portraits. Goddard did manage to reduce the exposure time by making the plate more sensitive to light using bromide of iodine, rather than just iodine as in Daguerre’s original specification. Lens making technology had also advanced, allowing faster, better quality lenses which also helped to lower the exposure times.

A year later in 1843, Goddard left Southampton for London where he continued to lecture, however he pops up again in the Hampshire advertiser of August 1844, advertising the opening of a portrait studio in Ryde alongside a Mr Mullins, who is presumed to be Henry Mullins, Gustav Mullins’ father.

‘…messers Goddard and Mullins from the Royal Polytechnic institution announce they have erected a glass house for the purpose – 43 Pier Street Ryde’.

This singular mention of a portrait studio in Ryde confirms Ryde as the home of the first commercial photographers on the Island. There is then a jump of eight years to 1852 when William Boyer starts trading as a professional photographer in Ryde during the summer, the first to advertise his services as such. Soon, many other photographers start competing for business by working later into the year. This was again a direct result of the improvement in photographic technology, as the need for bright summer light became less important. It was another decade on from this in 1862 that Cornelius Jabez Hughes made his way to the Island to take over the portrait studios of his friend William George Lacey from Ryde who died while visiting Hughes in Oxford Street, London.

Cornelius Jabez Hughes

Cornelius Jabez Hughes was born in London in 1819 and followed his father in becoming a tailor, but grew up taking part in debating societies. He became a teacher and lecturer on memory and started working as a secretary to the well-respected London daguerreotypeist J. E. Mayall, from whom Hughes learnt the art and process of photography. Mayall went on to have a distinguished career of his own, famously producing many images of Queen Victoria and her family.

In 1849 Hughes bought a photography business from a Mr Barnard in Glasgow and moved to Scotland to work as a daguerreotype photographer. He soon started to experiment with the collodion process, and in 1855 returned to London to work as a collodion photographer in the Strand. In the Carisbrooke Castle Archive, there is a carte-de-visite with the address 433 Strand, operating as ‘Meek and Hughes’.

Hughes was elected into the Photographic Society in 1858, and his reputation started to grow. Aside from being a photographer, Hughes was also interested in the processes and techniques of photography, as was seen in his experiments with collodion. In 1860-61 Hughes wrote the book ‘The Principles and Practice of Photography’ which ran to twelve editions and became the foremost manual on the art of Photography. He also published many papers on photography, including how to write photographic papers, how to become a professional photographer and why more women should take up photography.

Working in London proved to be an unsuccessful venture, so he looked for another photography business to buy. His friend, the photographer William George Lacey of Ryde, died suddenly while visiting Hughes in December 1861, leaving an opening for Hughes to buy his business and move to the Island, setting up in Lacey’s old studio in the Arcade, Ryde. This move to the Island could be considered a defining moment in Hughes’ career, for in 1862 some of the first photographs that Hughes took were of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Leopold. The Queen was said to have liked the photographs which lead on to more Royal commissions, and the ever business savvy Hughes soon started to brand himself ‘Photographer to the Queen and HRH the Prince of Wales’ and his studio a ‘Royal Photographic Studio’.

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

This may seem a large jump to arrive on the Island and suddenly be taking photographs of members of the Royal Family, but I think that this may have been due to the influence of Hughes’ former boss, J. E. Mayall. Mayall was a respected Royal photographer so may have recommended his former employee to the Queen on her next visit to the Island. Queen Victoria was very conscious of the power of photography and how to represent herself, so would have been keen to have a recommendation on the Island. While I can find no evidence of this, it seems too much of a coincidence considering Mayall’s connection to both the Queen and Hughes.

By 1866 Hughes’ business was growing in popularity. This was helped by the relative closeness of Ryde to Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s Island home, but also from the commercial sale of carte-de-visites, and later cabinet cards of the Royal Family. Not to mention the prestige of having your portrait taken by the same photographer who photographs the Queen. This growth lead Hughes to build Regina House in Union Street, Ryde. Even today this is still a grand building: Four stories tall with four statues on the top façade. In 1866 it housed darkrooms, waiting rooms, changing rooms, show rooms and living quarters. The enamel blue ‘Hughes and Mullins’ sign is still in place on the south wall, visible from the top of Union Street.

Earl of Beconsfield by Jabez Hughes
© Carisbrooke Castle Museum / NETCC:2016.612

Hughes’ greatness and success as a photographer only really became evident after his death in 1884. He photographed many members of the Royal Family, as well as prime ministers, nobility, and socialites. On his death, his estate was valued at £9402 18s 5d – in today’s money £1,177,109. This only goes some way to showing how respected he was as a person and photographer, but also as a businessman. Unfortunately for Hughes’ what would have been his crowning achievement, a Royal Warrant, only came after his death in 1885, but the brand he built up continued for another 25 years under the work of his assistant and later business partner, Gustav Mullins.

Gustav Mullins

Gustav Mullins was born in St Helier, Jersey, in 1854. Son to the photographer Henry Mullins, probably the same Mullins who opened a photographic studio in Ryde with Goddard in 1844. But Gustav doesn’t appear on the Isle of Wight until the 1881 census where he is listed as ‘Photographic Operator’ – this would have been to Jabez Hughes, although we don’t know how long Mullins had been in this post prior to the census record. Mullins became a partner in the business in 1883, leading to the now famous brand of ‘Hughes and Mullins’. However, this partnership was very short lived as Hughes died a year later in August of 1884.

© Carisbrooke Castle Museum / NETCC:2016.281

This photograph of an unknown gentlemen, probably a mayor or similar official, is marked Jabez Hughes and Gustav Mullins, the only one in the collection at Carisbrooke Castle museum. I believe that this equality in the names dates the photograph to 1883 when both men were operating as business partners. Previous images have ‘Jabez Hughes and Mullins’ and subsequent ones ‘Hughes and Mullins’.

My own view is that Hughes may have wished his son to follow him into the business, but he died in 1878 to which Hughes never fully recovered. Hughes may have seen Mullins as a sort of son and successor. On Hughes’ death, Mullins became the sole proprietor of the business and continued to trade under the name Hughes and Mullins – now a well-respected brand.  I think Mullins wanted to continue under this name not just from a marketing point of view, but also out of respect for Hughes.

In 1885 Mullins was awarded a Royal Warrant and went on to capture some of the most famous images of Victoria and her family at Osborne. In 1891 the publication of Industries of the South Coast and West of England noted that Mullins used the latest artistic developments including the platinotype, saying the ‘beauty and tone and general artistic merit are not excelled by the best work of other establishments in England’ and ‘within the last four years, almost every member of the English Royal family as well as many of the Imperial family of Germany have honoured the firm with sittings’ (Turley 2001). With plaudits like these it’s clear that Mullins was not just operating on the back of the famous Hughes, but was also a skilled photographer, able to continue the high standard of portraiture that Hughes had started in 1862.

© Carisbrooke Castle Museum / NETCC:2016.610R

The notoriety and popularity that Mullins continued after Hughes’ death was evident again in 1897, when at a dinner for the poor held at Ryde Town Hall in celebration of the Royal Jubilee, Mullins presented a cabinet card of Victoria’s portrait for everyone present. However, this was not to last and the success the Mullins had enjoyed soon faded. Hughes had built up an unsustainable empire and had over-valued the business. Queen Victoria died in 1901, and with her passing the Royal Family left Osborne, as did many of the visitors who would have been buying photographs of them.

In 1910, Mullins filed for bankruptcy with liabilities of £2235 11s 6d (£265,243). The Receivers said there had been too much reliance on past business and not moving with the times. The technology that was absent for the general public and allowed Jabez Hughes to flourish was starting to trickle down causing Mullins’ demise. The Box Brownie was invented in 1900, and an improved version was on sale by 1901. People didn’t need to visit a portrait studio anymore, and the portrait photographers’ businesses needed to adapt.

Mullins continued as a solo photographer, as well as entering into partnership with Newton Barrie of Ryde. Gustav Mullins died in 1921 after not fully recovering from an operation the previous year. His effects were valued at £622 11s 11d (£30,677 in today’s money), which compared to Hughes’ £1.1 million equivalent showed how little financial value he had.

At first glance it may seem like Mullins was taking the business and its reputation that Hughes had built and living on that for as long as he could. But by looking at the images taken after 1884, they are of equal quality to those that can be attributed to Hughes alone. According to contemporary accounts, Mullins was a top photographer in his own right and deserves to be mentioned alongside Hughes, despite them only working as partners for a little over a year.

Legacy of Hughes and Mullins

So, what is the legacy of Hughes and Mullins?

In the Royal Collection there are over 1500 images attributed to Hughes and Mullins. The National portrait Gallery holds 40 images, at Carisbrooke Castle Museum we have around 50 attributed to them. This doesn’t take into account the many thousands lost over the years or that are in private collections.

It may have been Hughes’ ability to be in the right place at the right time, but he was also able to back this up with skill, ability and knowledge, as evidenced by his many published writings. This I believe is what ultimately singled out Jabez Hughes. It was also his knowledge of photography and expertise as a teacher that allowed him to pass his highly successful and regarded business to his assistant and later business partner, Gustav Mullins, who continued it successfully for another 27 years.

There were other photographers on the Island who photographed Royalty, but none to the extent of Hughes and Mullins. This patronage led to a wealth of images of Victoria’s Royal Family, which in turn has given us a glimpse of them at work and in more informal settings. Or as informal as Queen Victoria would allow. Many of the images are taken in Osborne or in the grounds have helped us to understand more about Victoria’s life and her family.

It was the economic and technological circumstances that ultimately led to the demise of the business, but Hughes and Mullins left a legacy as the foremost photographic outfit of the Isle of Wight, and an important part in Royal portrait photography nationally.

Further Reading

Tagg, J., 1988, A democracy of the Image: Photographic Portraiture and Commodity Production, in The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. London: Macmillan

Turley, R., 2001, Isle of Wight Photographers, 1840-1940, Southampton: University of Southampton