BEARD, Richard

b. 1801; d. 1885

Richard Beard was Britain's first portrait photographer. A coal merchant for a number of years, he became interested in photography from the moment it was announced. An entrepreneur rather than a photographer, he hired the right people, and having concluded that there might be considerable potential in daguerreotypes, he purchased the patent from Daguerre for 150 a year in 1841, and on 23 March that year the first professional portrait studio in England was officially opened. This studio was on the roof of the Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street, London, (now the University of Westminster) and John Goddard, a science lecturer, was his operator.

The Times (24 March 1841) reporting on the event, gave a description of the studio:

"The appartment (sic) appropriated for the magical process - for so it may be termed - is....on the highest story (sic) of the institution. From the roof, which is constructed of blue glass of about a quarter of an inch thick, a very powerful light is obtained, and it is so ingeniously contrived as to revolve with the sun. In a portion of the room, nearly in the centre, an elevated seat is placed, on which the party whose likeness is to be taken sits with his head reclining backwards. In this position the sitter is told to look into a glass box, in an opposite direction, about five feet from him, in which is placed the metallic plate to be impressed with the portrait. Having done so for a few seconds, he descends, and in a few minutes afterwards a faithful likeness is presented to him.

The likenesses which we saw were admirable, and closely true to nature, beauties and deformities being alike exhibited..."

Beard imported and secured the rights to a camera designed in America by Alexander Wolcott which had a concave mirror in place of a lens, which helped to increase the light on the plate. However, two years later he discarded this and was using the fast Petzval lens.

At that time the portrait measuring 1 1/2" x 2" (this size was determined by the Wolcott camera) would cost the sitter between one and four guineas; exposure would be from three seconds to as much as five minutes depending upon the weather.

There was much money to be made from portraits. Beard's price list in 1845 quotes one guinea (1.05) for a "bust", yielding a profit of 18 shillings (90 pence), two guineas (2.10) for a full-length portrait, profit 34 shillings (1.70)

Beard used to advise those who sat for portraits to "avoid white as much as possible.... the best kind of dress to wear on such occasions is.. any material..upon which there is a play of light and shade." And in his studio it was not "say cheese" but "say prunes"!

Beard's business was very successful, and at one stage he was reputed to be earning 125 a day. As his income became common knowledge many people began to use the daguerreotype process without paying any licence fee. This led to a number of lengthy lawsuits (one lasting over five years) and in June 1850 Beard became bankrupt. However, records seem to indicate that he continued to trade, and that seven years later he handed his business on to his son Richard Beard Junior. However, the relinquishment of the Talboy type patents and the unpatented Scott Archer process virtually sounded the death knell of the daguerreotype, and the premises were vacated in 1854.

Though in his time Beard was making huge profits, it was his rival Claudet who gained Royal recognition.

Postscript: Beard and Claudet compared

Robert Leggat, 2002.