Published in
History of Photography, Winter 1996, Vol. 20 (4), pp. 371–3


In the Guest Editorial of History of Photography’s themed issue of Summer 1996 on Canadian Photography it is stated that ‘Martin Laroche, a French–Canadian portrait photographer operating a studio in London, brought a court case against William Henry Fox Talbot in 1854.’  This statement is wrong in saying that Laroche brought the case against Talbot, for it was the other way round, but it is more important to discuss the misconception that Laroche was Canadian. It was presumably derived either directly or indirectly from the first or second edition of H. and A. Gernsheim’s History of Photography (1955, 1969).  As to how it came about that ‘Martin Laroche’ was put forward as Canadian, there is no certain answer.
Commenting on a pamphlet on Talbot v Laroche produced two years before, Helmut Gernsheim wrote to the present correspondent in February 1977 to say that his own description of Laroche as Canadian had been picked up from ‘a British photographic journal.’  No historiographic analysis of this comment was pursued, for it applied generally to much of Gernsheim’s writings.  In 1862 Laroche moved from London to work at Thrupp’s premises in New Street, Birmingham, and shortly afterwards the Canadian born Napoleon Sarony also came there. In view of their association in the mid 1860s at Birmingham, it is conceivable some later ill–defined remark published about a Canadian could have been misplaced from Sarony on to Laroche. The name of Laroche might also have appeared to gain some credence as being Canadian from the fact that a Frank LaRoche photographed in the Canadian Klondike at the time of the gold rush of the mid–1890s, publishing En Route to the Klondike: A Series of Views of the Picturesque Land of Gold and Glaciers (Chicago 1898).[1]  Yet even this unrelated Frank Laroche was not Canadian.  Although he settled in Seattle around 1889, he was born in 1853 in Philadelphia, where he began photography in a studio when he was aged seventeen.

‘Martin Laroche’ was the professional name of William Henry Silvester who was born in Lambeth in south London in 1814 and died in Birmingham, England, in 1886. Although the present writer has previously provided some information about W. H. Silvester and his family in a pamphlet on The Calotype Patent Lawsuit of Talbot v. Laroche 1854, privately issued (and obviously not widely available) at the time of the opening of the Talbot Museum at Lacock in 1975, [2]  there is clearly a need to provide here some data on the man and his family.  William Henry Silvester was born more than twenty years before Birth Certificates were issued in England.  The closest approach that can be made to that event is a record of his baptism at the church of St. Mary, Newington Butts, Lambeth (Surrey) in south London, on 30 October 1814, and most likely he was born earlier within the same month [later research shows he was born a little earlier on 15 September]. His father’s name was also William and his mother Ann.   W. H. Silvester married Angelique Samson (born in the parish of St. Giles and St George, Middlesex (London)) on 27 August 1836 at the church of St Martin’s–in–the–Fields, Westminster. Again this event took place before the General Register Office at Somerset House in London was established in July 1837, so only a simple documentation of the marriage survives in the St Martin’s parish records. By the time his first child (Angelina Silvester) was born in April 1838 they were living at 15 Caroline Street, in St. Giles, Bloomsbury, London and he was recorded as a jeweller. During the next few years they had children regularly, and moved regularly. Their second child, William, was born at 13 Hyde Street, Bloomsbury in 1840. When Emily (1842), Frank (1844) and Julia Silvester (1846) were born they were living in Clerkenwell, London, a district well known for its concentration of jewellery, watch and clock makers, and related workshops, and indeed W. H. Silvester was recorded on all of his children’s birth certificates[3] up to 1846 as being a jeweller by trade.

W. H. Silvester (1814-1886). black and white copy photograph in possession of Dorothy Hughes (nee Silvester) of Aberystwyth. The original painting had been lost sight off in the 1970s-1990s


Portrait of W. H. Silvester (1814–1886).
Present whereabouts of the original has not been traced, but in the 1970s it was owned by a descendant in Wales of one of the daughters of his son William.
[Update 2006: original painting
            now known ——>
courtesy of Silvester descendant,
Elizabeth Hughes (née Beddows) ]

Original painting of W. H. Silvester (1814-1886), in possession in 2006 of his descendant Elizabeth Hughes, reproduced by her kind permission

The earliest evidence of W. H. Silvester in the guise of the professional photographer named as Laroche is an advertisement in The Times [of 23 August 1848].  But there is no substantial evidence as to why he started to use the professional name of Martin Laroche.  In his Evolution of Photography in 1890, John Werge commented about ‘Sylvester Laroche’, who he had known, that ‘Laroche’s name was Sylvester but as there was a whole family of that name photographers he added Laroche to distinguish himself from his brothers’.[4]  [Another early advertisement placed by Laroche in] The Times of London on 19 October 1849 is of interest. He had taken daguerreotypes at the Southwark Police Court of Maria and Frederick Manning, who were both [notoriously] executed in public for murder a few weeks later.  Lithographs from the daguerreotype images of the Mannings were being sold, ‘published by Mr. Laroche, at the photographic rooms, 65, Oxford–street, near the Princess’s Theatre.’ Until that year of 1849 the only business listed in Kelly’s London Directory at 65 Oxford Street was a firm of Music Sellers, but then the entry became ‘Martin Laroche, Photographic miniature painter’. The whole Silvester family now lived at these premises, for when the ten–year Census was taken on 30 March 1851 the following data was recorded at 65 Oxford Street:[5]

      Occupation Born at
Martin Laroche [sic] Head 36 Daguerreotype Artt Surrey Lambeth
Angelique [Angelina’?]  Wife 34   Middx St Giles
Angelina Daughter 13   Middx Bloomsbury
William Son 11   Middx Bloomsbury
Emily Daughter 9   Middx Clerkenwell
Frank Son 7   Middx Clerkenwell
Julia Daughter 5   Middx Clerkenwell
Eliza Smith Servant 21 Servant Middx St Pancreas

As mentioned in Laroche’s advertisement in The Times in 1849, his studio was very close to the Princess’s Theatre where Charles Kean famously created many productions of Shakespeare’s plays between 1850 and 1859.  According to R. Foulkes,[6] at least fifty–two different photographs taken by Laroche of Charles and Ellen Kean and other actors and scenes in these Shakespearean productions have survived in the Garrick Club and other collections in London.  Laroche started to use Archer’s wet–collodion technique in 1853 but his Princess’s Theatre photographs all appear to have been taken in the second half of the 1850s, and are thus after the case of Talbot v. Laroche was held in December 1854.

When the Census was taken in April 1861 the Silvester family were no longer living at 65 Oxford Street, but as the Laroche studio was listed in the London Directory of 1862 they may have still been living elsewhere in London.[7 bis]  On this evidence, it can only be judged that Laroche moved with his family to Birmingham either in 1861 or 1862.  Laroche worked at a studio owned by Robert W. Thrupp at 66 New Street.  In 1866 a photographic studio was operating at 58 Islington Row in Birmingham under the name of ‘W. S. Laroche’[7] and on the back of some of the Cartes–de–visite produced at that time was appended ‘From London’. Perhaps this studio was a father and son partnership, but because of the style of the name was more likely to have been entirely the business of his son William.  When the next Census came along on 2 April 1871 they were living at 132 Broad Street (Islington), Birmingham, and the family name was recorded in the form of Silvester Laroche:[8]

        Occupation Born at
William Silvester Laroche Head Married 56 Photographic Artist London
Angelique Wife Married 54 —— London
William Son unmar. 30 Photographic Artist London
Emily Daughter unmar. 28 Teacher of Dancing London
Julia Daughter unmar. 24 —— London

‘William Henry Silvester’ died at 63 Hagley Road, Edgebaston, Birmingham, on 10 November 1886. His son ‘W. S. Silvester’ [sic] supplied the information for the Death Certificate[9] which contained no appearance of the professional name of Laroche. Cause of death was Kidney disease and occupation was given as ‘Portrait Painter.’ The entry for Age appears on the death certificate as ‘77’, yet he was, in fact, 72. There is no way of knowing if this was a mistake provided by his son or a writing error by the Registrar. His son could not have held documentary evidence of his father’s birth in 1814 in the form of a Birth Certificate so such a mistake is not entirely incomprehensible. It should be noted that W. H. Silvester’s christening on 30 October 1814, as being normally carried out very shortly after birth, is entirely consistent with his own statements of his age at the times of the census of March 1851 and April 1871. 

At 63 Hagley Road in the late 1880s his daughter Emily continued to teach dancing under the name of ‘Mrs Emily Silvestre, prof. of dancing’. She had [in 1885] married W. Thomas Horton who showed some of his late father–in–law’s old daguerreotypes at a lecture to the Birmingham Photographic Society in February 1889.[10]  William moved to Llandudno on the north coast of Wales, establishing two studios, W. S. Laroche at ‘The Rock Studio’ on Marine Drive and ‘Studio Royal’ in Mostyn Street, at first at No. 43, later at 108.  He died at 108 Mostyn Street, Llandudno, only two years after his father, where his widow Louisa continued to reside until around 1894. Nothing is known about the life of W. H. Silvester’s second son Frank (b. 1844), except that at the time of his brother’s death in 1889 he was living in Brighton, Sussex.

Finally, how can the name of  ‘Martin Laroche’ be reconciled with the man William Henry Silvester, born in Lambeth in 1814?  It is worth noting that he was commonly referred to as Silvester (or Sylvester) Laroche.  ‘Martin Laroche’ only appears as the name of a business or a studio in London at the end of 1840s and 1850s. Apart from Werge’s comment quoted above, no deeper evidence is available about the use of the name of Laroche. It is necessary either to indulge in wild speculation or shape a flimsy hypothesis from which to search for real evidence. As mentioned above, ‘Martin Laroche’ (Photographic miniature painter) was the name of a business, and may not necessarily have been suggested by W. H. Silvester or his family if he himself had not provided the finance, or originally set up the studio. He might well have been initiated into the daguerreotype business either by colouring portraits taken by an already active daguerreotypist or started with a sleeping partner of the name of Laroche.  For it is worth recording for future research that the only Laroche found in London Directories for the end of the 1830s was a coal company named La Roche trading at No.13 Earl Street, Blackfriars, London. While on the wharf at No.16  was Beard and Co, also coal merchants, who purchased the Daguerreotype patent.  Conceivably, this La Roche coal merchant could have partnered or financed W. H. Silvester in the Oxford Street daguerreotype business at the end of the 1840s under this name, one that would stick with Silvester and his oldest son personally in later years.
    R. Derek Wood


[1] This Frank La Roche and his photographs of the Klondike and Alaska have been discussed recently by Marnie C. Coleman, ‘Frank La Roche A Guide to the Klondike’, History of Photography 19:2 (Summer 1995),  143–9.

[2] R. Derek Wood, The Calotype Patent Lawsuit of Talbot v. Laroche 1854 (Bromley, Kent: R. D. Wood 1975), 5–6, 18–19, and footnote 19 on p. 27.

[3] General Register Office, London. Birth Certificates of Angelina, William, Emily, Frank, and Julia Silvester are registered at Bloomsbury, vol. 1, p.34, p.43; Clerkenwell, vol. 3, pp. 87, 89, 105

[4] John Werge, Evolution of Photography, London 1890, 116.  Werge continued ‘Sylvester Laroche was an artist, and worked very cleverly in pastel, but somehow or other he never appeared to prosper.’

[5] Public Record Office, London. Census Returns HO 107/1486, f638v

[6] Richard Foulkes, ‘The Laroche Photographs of Charles Kean’s Shakespeare Revivals’, Theatrephile (London) 2:issue 8 [1987], 29–33

[7 bis]  [Since writing this article the author has found that in January 1862 Laroche was declared bankupt (The Times, 18 January 1862, p. 5). His address in the bankuptcy notice was given as Stanhope Street, Hampstead Road, St Pancras, but he must have only recently moved there as he was not enumerated in Stanhope Street at the time of the census of April 1861.]

[7] The earliest dating obtained for this studio depends on the fact that W. Silvester Laroche at 58 Calthorpe place, Islington Row, Birmingham, applied on 21 March 1866 to Stationers’ Hall in London to register three photographs for copyright

[8] Public Record Office, London. Census Returns RG 10/3102, f12v [p16].  In this census of 1871, this part of Broad Street was listed as Islington.

[9] General Register Office, London. Death Certificate of William Henry Silvester, registered at Kings Norton, vol. 6c, p. 245, entry No. 311

[10] T. W[illiam] Thomas Horton, ‘Daguerreotypes’, Photographic News (London),  33 (26 April 1889), 284–86

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