Loxton's Legacy

Samuel Loxton left us a remarkable record of bygone Bristol. 2,000 Loxton drawings of the city a century ago are catalogued in Bristol Reference Library.

Bristol's first telephone exchange, sketched by Samuel Loxton in 1894.

Bristol's first telephone exchange, sketched by Samuel Loxton in 1894.

Loxton was a professional illustrator, working often for Bristol newspapers. But why did he draw Bristol when he could have photographed it? It is an interesting question.

In the days before the camera, illustration was a laborious business. The earliest illustrations were hand-painted to accompany manuscripts. Each copy of a work would be unique. The invention of printing changed all that. Woodblocks incised with images could be inked and pressed onto paper over and over again. Even so a woodcut needed an artist to produce it. It took time and skill. Later techniques of printmaking were simpler than carving a wood block, but still a far cry from instant pictures.

So the debut of photography in 1839 caused a sensation. This new method of picture-making broke the monopoly of artists. Some had visions of starvation. But it was not until the end of the century that photography could be easily married to the printing process. The Victorian appetite for pictures could not be satisfied without artists.

Rising levels of literacy created an explosive growth in the market for reading matter. Illustrations helped it along. The purveyors of print soon learned that pictures sold papers. The world's first illustrated newspaper was The Illustrated London News. Founded in 1842, it became hugely popular, far outselling The Times. Pictures brought to life the events of the day.

Photomechanical processes invented in the late 19th century made it possible to print from photographs. Yet that opened the door to easier printing of artworks too. A drawing could be photographed. By the 1890s photographs were increasingly appearing in books and papers, but it was not until the First World War that they became the most common type of illustration.

Samuel Joseph Loxton lived through this time of transition. Born in Clifton in 1857, he was the second son of land surveyor Charles Byron Loxton. Following his father, Samuel became a surveyor and architectural draughtsman, which led by degrees to illustration.

Loxton began by drawing Bristol buildings. By 1888 he was providing illustrations for the Bristol Observer. He clearly had a great love of both art and architecture. His skill in depicting buildings made him a good choice to illustrate a book by Elizabeth Hodges in 1895: Some Ancient English Homes and their Associations. By 1904 he was supporting himself entirely from his artwork.

In 1908-9 a series ran in the Bristol Evening News cataloguing changes to Bristol over the previous 50 years. It was written by George Frederick Stone and lavishly illustrated by Samuel Loxton, making use of many drawings that he had made originally for the Bristol Observer. The whole series was reprinted as a fat volume in 1909 entitled Bristol: As it was and as it is. It is a triumphant record of Victorian progress. Bristol was proud of its municipal hospitals, baths, and improvements in sanitation, its docks and industry.

It was an age in which new technology was embraced, though sometimes a little hesitantly. Private enterprise brought the telephone to Bristol. The first exchange was opened in the High Street in December 1879. There was no mad rush of customers. In the first three months only twenty subscribers joined. Since they could only talk to each other, one can see why. It was six years before there was a link to the Bath Exchange. It took longer to build up a complete cross-country network. But by the time Loxton sketched the switchroom, the telephone company was thriving, as we can see from the number of operators they needed. The telephone had come of age.

When Samuel Loxton died in 1922, he left around 3,000 drawings of local scenes, now held by Bristol Reference Library. About 2,000 depict Bristol and the rest are mainly of places in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. Buildings old and new were captured on paper. The public was interested in the latest developments, but also in the heritage of the past. Bristol's people also found their way into Loxton's portrait of the city. He shows us streets bare of cars, but full of life. We see ferrymen and coach-drivers, women selling goods from baskets, girls in bonnets and pinafores - glimpses of a another era.

Bristol Reference Library publicised this huge collection in Samuel Loxton, Loxton's Bristol: The city's Edwardian years in black and white (1992). Loxton's great-niece Patricia Taylor provided the introduction, full of family reminiscences. The book is now out of print, but reproductions of Loxton views of Bristol can be purchased from the library.

Further reading: