Neal Paulsen, a long-time resident of Scarborough, Maine, has donated a camera owned by artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. The camera joins an extensive collection of archival material at the Museum related to the life and art of Homer, including nearly 100 vintage photographs.
The camera is a quarter-size dry plate camera manufactured around 1880 and sold by Mawson & Swan, a photography business in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England. Designed for the serious amateur rather than the studio professional, it was notable in its day for its portability and its ease-of-use. The camera produced images that were approximately 3 x 4 inches. Homer likely purchased this camera during a two-year period (1881-82) when he lived in Cullercoats, a small fishing village in north east England that is less than ten miles from Newcastle-on-Tyne. The date “Aug 15, 1882” is carved into a wooden plate holder. Below the date are the initials “W.H.” Homer is believed to have made both inscriptions.
While Homer was aware of photography’s potential as a documentary medium from his time as an illustrator during the Civil War, he seems to have first become interested in creating his own photographs while living in England. The Worcester Art Museum owns a smaller camera manufactured by Marion & Company of London that, according to records at Worcester, Homer acquired during this same period. In Cullercoats, Homer is believed to have made photographic studies of one of his female models Maggie Storey, though these images are now lost. It is unclear which camera he used to create these images of Storey. At Bowdoin, the Winslow Homer Collection includes photographs taken later at his home in Prouts Neck, Maine that are similar to the type of photographs that the Mawson & Swan camera produced.
In later years, Homer owned at least one other camera, an Eastman Kodak #1 camera that his older brother Charles gave him in the late 1880s. He used this Kodak camera on trips to Florida and the Adirondacks. Homer never seems to have commented about his experience with photography, nor is he currently known to have used photography as a source material for his art. Photographs from the Winslow Homer Collection indicate that he collected photographic portraits of family members by several commercial photographers. He also created albums of photographs that he and others took at Prouts Neck and elsewhere.
Paulsen acquired the Mawson & Swan camera in the 1950s from his grandfather Weston H. Snow, an electrician who did work for the Homer family. Snow was a great admirer of Homer’s art and is believed to have acquired it from Homer’s nephew Charles L. Homer in exchange for electrical work. The camera was previously on long-term exhibit at Scarborough High School, and is being given to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in memory of James Ott, and in honor of David James Ott ’74. It will take center stage in 2015 when the Museum presents a special exhibition about Homer’s relationship to photography.