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HomeContents > People > Photographers > John Middleton

Dates:  1827 - 1856, 11 November
Active:  UK
Written By; Edward James Gilbert-Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada
January 13, 2014
Although based most of his life in Norwich, Norfolk , John Middleton, a 19th photographer, came to Tunbridge Wells in the 1840’s and while residing in the town made sketches and watercolour landscape views of the area, which today command high prices.
John was born 1827 in Norwich, Norfolk, the youngest child of John and Mary Middleton. John Middleton senior (1781-1850) had been born in north east Norfolk in the village of Antingham. His wife Mary had been born in the same place in 1800. John Senior and his wife moved to Norwich, where John senior began work as a plumber and glazier. The 1822 Norwich directory records John senior as a plumber, painter and glazier at St Stephen’s Street. The 1830 directory records John senior at St Stephens Street where he is in business as a painter, plumber, glazier and also a manufacturer of patent pipe , cast pump barrels and related items. His premises (shown below) were located at 63 St Stephen’s Street. The text associated with this photo states the view is of 63 to 75 St Stephen’s Street.Which of the buildings is #63 is not known to the researcher.
The 1841 census, taken at St Stephen’s Street, Norwich records John Middleton age 50, a plumber, with his wife Mary and their son John,age 14. The 1845 White directory,under the heading of plumbers, glaziers, lead and glass merchants, lists John Middleton senior at 63 St Stephen’s Road. He is found in the same place with the same occupation in the 1850 directory. In the 2nd Senior passed away.
While his father was busy with his business John junior attended school in Norwich. At an early age he took an interest in art and was taught by two painters of the Norwich School; first, by John Berney Landbrooke at school, and later in London, by Henry Bright. Bright was a major influence in Middleton’s style such that their works are often difficult to tell apart.
John Berney Ladbooke(1803-1879) was the third son of the celebrated Norfolk landscape artist, Robert Ladbrooke (1769-1842), known as both a painter and print maker. He studied under both his father and his uncle, the artist John Crome, both of whom were instrumental in founding the Norwich Society of Artists in 1803. Ladbrooke predominantely painted landscapes, excelling in his rendition of oak. In 1817 he began to exhibit at the Norwich Society of Artists and his work was seen at the Royal Academy, the British Institution and at the Suffolk Street Gallery from 1821 to 1873. He was a successful teacher and his work is found in many collections.
The Norwich School of painters, founded in 1803 in Norwich, was the first provincial art movement in Britain. Artists of the school were inspired by the natural beauty of the Norfolk landscape and owed some influence to the work of landscape painters of the Dutch Golden Age such as Hobbema and Ruisdael. The Norwich Society of Artists had been founded in 1893 by John Crome and Robert Ladbrooke as a club where artists could meet to exchange ideas. Its first exhibition opened in 1805 and was such a success that it became an annual event until 1825.The building was demolished but the society re-opened in 1828 as ‘The Norfolk and Suffolk Institution for the Promotion of Fine Arts’ at a different venue. The Norwich School’s great achievement was that a small group of self-taught working class artists were able to paint with vitality the hinterland surrounding Norfolk, assisted by meagre local patronage.
As mentioned above John Middleton moved to London and received instruction there from the artist Henry Bright (1810-1873). Henry Bright was an English painter born in Suffolk.Although he began his working career being apprenticed as a chemist he spent all of his free time sketching. His artistic talents became recognized and received training by Alfred Stannard (1806-1889) and John Berney Crome(1794-1842) both members of the Norwich Society of Artists. Henry , with his wife and four children moved to Paddington, London in 1836 and then to Ealing in 1848. By 1854 he was living in St John’s Wood, but left London in 1858 for health reasons and settled with is daughters in his brother’s house in Saxmundham. His wife had died in 1848. Bright continued to visit London for business reasons and to view exhibitions and from 1860 lived at Redhill, Surrey for a few years. He also spent some time in Maidstone,Kent. He died in Ipswich in 1873. There is more information about his career and examples of his work on the internet.
With the concentration of his teachers interests being in landscape work it is no wonder that this type of painting became the focus of John Middleton’s artistic career. Middleton lived in London during 1847 and 1848 but during that time he travelled extensively. The locations described on his paintings give some idea of the extent of his travels.
In the spring of 1847 John visited Tunbridge Wells, taking up residence for a few months in one of the local lodging houses. During the day he would travel about the town sketching and painting. Show here are four images of the watercolour paintings he did during his visit to the town. The first is entitled ‘An Old Cottage at Tunbridge Wells’; the second ‘An Old Barn at Tunbridge Wells’ ,the third ‘A Shady Lane in Tunbridge Wells’ and lastly ‘ Farm Buildings in Tunbridge Wells’. All of these paintings are dated 1847 and bear the initials “J.M.”.
Many of Middleton's watercolours are dated 1847, and in that year he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy. Thereafter he exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institute until 1855. Andrew Moore, the Keeper of Art at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, writes that “Middleton was artistically precocious, reaching his maturity at 20 years of age and that his body of wash drawings reveal him as one of the finest exponents of the English water colour tradition”.
Middleton was a prolific artist and a large catalogue of his works with images can be found on the internet. Over 72 lots of his paintings have sold in recent years at auction with prices achieved ranging considerably in value. His painting ‘ An Old Cottage at Tunbridge Wells’ sold in June 2007 for over $35,000 USD. His painting ‘ Farm Buildings in Tunbridge Wells’ sold in 1992 for $14,730 UDS. Although his skill as an artist is recognized in the art community very little has been written about him. In addition to paintings his work also includes a large selection of pencil landscapes and is most often described as ‘an etcher and water colour painter’. His paintings have been sold at all the major art auction houses in Britain and many are displayed in art museums and are held in private collections. Although many of his paintings are dated 1847 the examples of his work that I have seen range throughout the years of 1841 to 1855. His landscapes were noted for their effective rendering of the seasons of the year, especialy the early spring.
Middleton was a sometime committee member of the Norwich Photographic Society. Middleton took a great interest in photography and although known best for his watercolours was a talented photographer at a time when that art was in its infancy. During a visit to north Wales circa 1850 Middleton took a series of photographs ( one example opposite). It’s interesting that he seems not to have made any paintings resulting from that visit. The photographs are salted paper prints on very thin paper, with no visible watermark, made from paper negatives. Middleton’s monogram ‘JM’ is written in the negative in the lower left or right of the image. The original prints are part of the collection of his work in the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.
During his career Middleton was befriended by a wealthy landowner, William Bolding, living at Weybourne in north Norfolk, perhaps eliciting his patronage. They were certainly close friends and sketched together. Middleton had a liking for river scenes, rocks and dry riverbeds and his painterly eye can be seen at work in the few of his photographs which have survived. Bolding on the other hand, devoted a great deal of time to photography and produced some very fine portraits of his estate workers and family. The following letter was written by John Middleton to W.J.J. Bolding, esq . from his residence on Surrey Street, Norwich:
My Dear Sir
Enclosed is a note from Owen about the Great Ex. Series of pictures-you will see by this he will charge you 2/6 each taking the series- I think this rather high but I suppose it does not answer his purpose to do them for less- you will sent me a line if you wish to have them and I will write to Owen-or I can send you his address and you can correspond with him.
The Photographic Society met on Friday night and I enrolled you as a Member and paid five shillings-eighteen members had joined and there appears every chance of success-I am one of the Committee-therfore can tell you of our proceedings.
I succeeded in obtaining a rare fern-the Cristata from Surlingham and have potted a plant for you, that you may know it if you succeed in finding it at Edgefield Heath near Holt. I shall be glad to hear you have found it as the localities are not numerous.
Your coat is come from Theobolds but I thought I would keep it until the box came from Acton. Muskett has no more Cossey views-but will order some. I told him nothing but the best impressions would do.
I am serious by contemplating a greenhouse & ferning and have decided on reflection of the fern fever.
Remember me to all at home who I hope are well. Respectively
Yours very truly…
John Middleton.
William Bolding (1840-1860) was William Johnson Jennis Bolding, the son of John and Ester Bolding. He took control of the family business when his father died in 1847 and lived in Weybourne, a seaside village in north Norfolk. Bolding is found listed in directories as a ‘brewer, maltster, landowner, farmer and miller’. He was also involved in shipping. He is also known as an amateur archaeologist, artist, silhouettist and photographer. He joined the Norfolk Archaeology Society in 1849 and made sketches of his findings.Bolding’s considerable wealth enabled him to travel widely in the UK making sketches which he also did on a visit to Switzerland in 1850. He was a talented artist, probably sometime tutored by the Norwich artist John Berney Landrooke and painted local landscapes both in oil and watercolour, although his favourite medium seems to have been monochrome brown and white watercolour. His works were exhibited at The Norfolk and Norwich Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts in 1849 and 1853 and also exhibited architectural photographs printed from waxed paper negatives at the 1856 Norwich Photographic Society exhibition. He never married but lived with his sister Hannah who acted as his househeeper in a residence called ‘The House’. He had converted the barn on the property into a photographic studio. Bolding’s work includes magnificent photographs of his family members, employees and neighbours.He is exceptional as an early photographer who documented working men and women . He continued photographing throughout his life. Very little has been written about Mr Bolding but an article dated February 11, 2012 mentions that a talk had been scheduled at Norwich Castle about him and that his great great neice was working on a book about him and his career.
After his time in London, John Middleton returned to Norwich in 1849 taking up residence with his parents at 63 St Stephen’s Street. In 1851 he moved to Surrey Street, Norwich.The 1851 census, taken at Surrey Street lists John Middleton, age 24, a proprietor of houses. Living with him was his widowed mother Mary and three servants.
The 1854 White directory lists him as John Middleton, esq., Surrey Street, Norwich. An article about Surrey Street, by Joe Mason, dated Mary 22, 2007 states "Lady Pleasury Smith, wife of Sir James Edward Smith", stayed at 29 Surrey Street, Norwich after her husband’s death, finally selling it to John Middleton in 1852 (see 1851 census above). A photograph of 29 Surrey Street is shown opposite, with #29 shown on the right side of the grand entrance. #31 is shown to the left. After his death, his mother Mary continued to live on Surrey Street and she is found there in the 1861 census with the same servants she had at the time of the 1851 census. The loss of her son John at such an early age was a great shock to her, although John must have been ill for some time before his demise.
John died of consumption at the early age of just 29 on November 11, 1856 at his Surrey Street residence. His death was published in the Norwich Mercury on November 15 of that year.
In 1982 a book by the Royal Society of Painters was published entitled; John Middleton & the Norwich School. Sadly the Biography of National History only lists his name and years of birth and death and states in one line that he was a British watercolour artist who did landscapes. Not much to say about a man who accomplished so much as an artist in an abbreviated career ended by illness.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for John Middleton
Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, USA)

Middleton was born in Norwich; his father was a painter-decorator and his mother an exhibitor of flower pieces. He was influenced by the Norwich school of painting and was the youngest of the group. Middleton had a passion for sunlight and greenery, and unlike some of his contemporaries mastered the use of watercolors to bring out their beauty. Of delicate health, Middleton traveled little outside his native Norwich. It was a fortunate location, for Norwich had not only its school of painters but also a very active photographic community centered around Thomas Damant Eaton. Middleton used waxed-paper negatives for some Norfolk landscapes in about 1852, only a few of which are known. He was a prolific exhibitor of paintings but is not known to have entered any major photographic exhibitions. Middleton’s photographic and painting careers were cut short by his early death from consumption. 
Roger Taylor & Larry J. Schaaf Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007) 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 4 Nov 2012. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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