matters photographical

Giles Hudson

Uncle Arthur’s Photography: Arthur Richard Burrows (1882-1947) and the Oxford Camera Club

Arthur Burrows, or “Uncle Arthur” to his listeners, has an important place in broadcasting history as the first person to read the news on the BBC. Less well-known is his interest in photography, which was nurtured in the Oxford Camera Club.

At 6 pm on 14 November 1922 Arthur Richard Burrows (1882–1947) delivered the BBC’s inaugural radio news bulletin, from the 2LO (London Station) at Marconi House on the Strand. The following month he was appointed Director of Programmes, thus beginning an eminent career in broadcasting. Another of his early responsibilities was presenting Children’s Hour, in which capacity he became the first of the BBC’s “uncles”, known affectionately to young and old alike as “Uncle Arthur”.

Burrows was born and brought up in Oxford, the son of a porter at Corpus Christi College. His first experience of working life was as a trainee science master at his Alma Mater, the Oxford City Technical School (formerly the Oxford School of Art and Science, and now Oxford Brookes University). However, in 1903 he was taken on as an apprentice at the Oxford Times newspaper; a post he owed to the proprietor and editor Claude Rippon (1866‒1944).

Rippon was a leading light of the Oxford Camera Club, which had been founded in 1894, at the height of the growth of ‘social photography’ among the urban masses. On 5 October 1903 Rippon proposed his young apprentice, then aged 21, for membership of the Club. A week later Burrows was duly elected.

Burrows’ growing interest in photography can be traced in the manuscript minutes of meetings of the Camera Club. He remained a member, making increasingly regular contributions, until at least 1909 (when the minutes end), before moving to London in 1911 to take up a position at the Standard.

Like other members, Burrows is found bringing photographs to “lantern slide evenings” at the Club, as well as contributing works to its annual exhibitions. In the 1904 exhibition, for example, he showed “a nice rendering of the church porch at Sunningwell” (the famous “Jewel Porch”). The following year his work was judged by the photographic journalist and evangelist of pictorial photography, Henry Snowden Ward (1865-1911). “One of the best examples of rendering of light tones was Mr. A. R. Burrows’ “Fairy Glen””, Ward wrote, giving a hint of another genre that interested Arthur. His “Ardington” (a village in south Oxfordshire), on the other hand, was less successful, displaying a “common fault”, according to Ward: “concentration produced by scattered high lights”.

Noteworthy in light of his subsequent career are other contributions by Burrows to Club life. Within four months of his election he had taken over from Rippon as editor of the official Proceedings of the Oxford Camera Club: an appointment that must have been his first in an editorial role. In November 1906 his experience at the Oxford Times enabled him to explain the process of half-tone negative making to members and to show them the apparatus required. A year later he brought a more remarkable item for inspection: a “Telegraphic Portrait” of King Edward VII, which had been sent from the offices of L’Illustration in Paris to the Daily Mirror. The portrait was “a perfect fac simile” of the Paris print and had taken about 20 minutes to transmit.

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Artistic aspects of photography also appear to have interested Burrows. In 1908 he suggested that the Club hold a debate on “What is pictorial or what is not as applied to photography”. The issue provoked lively discussion, with several members “discharging a few missiles at the unfathomables of the [Photographic] Salon”. Even so, “the presence of ladies prevented many of the male sex from speaking their mind”, according to the anonymous author of the “Matters Photographical” column in the Oxford Times (the publication of which coincided almost exactly with Burrows’ time on the paper).

In 1909 the Camera Club provided Burrows with the opportunity to begin to hone the public speaking skills that would prove so important in his subsequent career. On 11 January he gave his first formal lecture: an account of a trip abroad, billed as “The Fiords of Western Norway”. According to his own paper, “he occupied the attention of a good gathering for three-quarters of an hour with a racy, interesting, and anecdotal description of a number of lantern-slides made from photographs taken on the trip.” The production of satisfactory photographs in the valleys required experience and extreme care, he explained, not only due to the strong contrasts of light and shade, but also because of the vivid colouring of the landscape.

On the page following the report of Burrows’ lecture in the Camera Club minute book a photograph of members has been inserted. The group portrait was taken in the place where Burrows had delivered his remarks: the Geological lecture room at the University Museum (now the Oxford University Museum of Natural History). In the accompanying caption one man is left unidentified, but bears a close resemblance to the young broadcaster to-be, who would then have been 27 years old.

Oxford Camera Club, February 1909

As far as is known, Burrows never served as an officer or on the committee of the Club: an omission that must partly be attributed to his working-class background. However, the Club enabled him to mix on more equal terms with members of the upper middle classes than might otherwise have been the case, as well as men and women, such as Rippon, who were influential in the civic sphere (at least seven members of the Club served as Mayor of Oxford and several others were elected to local political office).

Aside from providing details of his interest in photography, the records of the Oxford Camera Club also hint at Burrows’ growing self-confidence between 1903 to 1909. He was increasingly willing to speak about photographic matters that engaged him: a skill and assurance that would undoubtedly stand him in good stead in the years to come, when his voice was heard not just in Oxford lecture theatres, but in homes all over the country.

Further Reading
Bodleian Library, Ms. Top. Oxon. c. 764 (Minutes of Meetings of the Oxford Camera Club, 1898 to 1909)
Proceedings of the Oxford Camera Club [Bodleian Library, Oxford]
Oxford Times, 16 Jan 1909, p. 10
Anne Pimlott Baker, “Burrows, Arthur Richard (1882–1947)”, OxfordDNB (Oxford 2004)

Cite this article:
Giles Hudson, “Uncle Arthur’s Photography: Arthur Richard Burrows (1882-1947) and the Oxford Camera Club”, Matters Photographical ([https://mattersphotographical.wordpress.com], 15 Nov 2012)

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