The Bromoil Circle - Past and Present
The Bromoil Circle Postal Club, founded by the late A. C. Weller, alias Sam Weller, of Pinner, London, in 1931, was later renamed as above. The formation took place during the period when Pigment Printing Processes had become popular amongst photographers.
The nature of the Bromoil Process suited ideals in pictorial photography during the first half of the 20th century, and it could not have been difficult for Sam Weller to gather a group of like-minded practitioners. However, they were scattered all over the country and the only way to achieve this was by forming a postal club. The stated aims of the group were to facilitate the exchange of technical information, of individual working methods and ideas as well as the viewing and appraising of each other’s images.
Sam Weller's first entry in ‘The Bromoil Circle Postal Club’ accounts, ‘The Ledger and Cash Book’, dated April 1931, records the names of 18 bromoilists. On the same page the annual subscription fee is stated to be 5 shillings.
A system of 3 circulating boxes was adopted as, with this number, a maximum membership of 20 could be accommodated. Up to the mid 1980s, membership was mainly gained by recommendation and invitation. Aspiring to maintain the highest possible standards within the group, mostly experienced and established bromoilists seem to have been approached to become members of the Circle. Thus it comes as no surprise to find that many of the outstanding bromoilists had been recruited over the years. Amongst them were L. G. Hawkins, the author of ‘Pigment Printing’, A. E. Brookes, the first President of Sutton Coldfield Photographic Society, Georgia Procter-Gregg and A. Barraclough.
From the start, the running of the Circle must have been entrusted to a committee of three: headed, no doubt, by Sam Weller. A brief reference to it can be found amongst the Circle's archival letters. A constitution must also have been formulated and although both documentations have been lost this has not impeded the activities of the Circle.
Popularity of Bromoil
During the first 3 decades of the 20th century, Bromoil was to become one of the most popular of all the Pigment Printing Processes. Its extensive use lasted well into the 1960s and 70’s. Evidence of this is seen in a catalogue of an exhibition held in the Lewis Textile Museum and Art Gallery at Blackburn during February-March 1961, which records that 190 images were displayed by 63 artists. Of these 40 were bromoilists and amongst them no less than 20 were members of the Bromoil Circle.
Sam Weller retires
Sam Weller's presidency lasted for 32 years and many of his prints are in the Permanent Collection of the Circle. Some are in the Royal Photographic Society's collection.
In November 1963, ill health caused Sam Weller to relinquish the post he had held for so long and he was forced to retire from active participation in the Circle and was succeeded by Godfrey Phillips 1964-1974, Frank Williams 1974-1981, Trevor Jones 1981-1987 Gilbert Hooper 1987-2000, Maija McDougal 2000-2011, all outstanding bromoilists and as influential in the affairs of the Circle as Sam Weller had been. The current President is Ken Hill FRPS.
The 3 postal boxes that circulated images and information to members arrived at 8-week intervals. The prints, always mounted, were presented in folders on which the author would enter technical data and fellow members would write their comments and appraisals. A diary/notebook accompanied the box of prints and members could add further information, pertaining to the process and also personal comments. This enabled the members to form closer partnerships and friendships.
The need to work with new materials
Advancements and changes in the photographic industry coupled with an abundance of new materials and working techniques lead to the inevitable withdrawal of traditional bromoil materials. The most suitable and well-tested papers, specially prepared printing inks and some of the tools such as the traditional stag foot brushes disappeared from the market place.
The Circle members were obliged to find and work with new materials. Their research and experimentation played an invaluable part in assuring the Art and Craft of bromoiling would survive and be passed on to future generations. As before, all new discoveries were passed on from member to member in the most generous manner via the circulating boxes.
Seeking new members
During the 1970s and 80s the Circle experienced considerable fluctuation in membership numbers due to the difficulties arising from the changes in the industry, with membership falling below a dozen at times. Thus grew the need to introduce and present the process to a wider audience if only to show it had not been abandoned completely and that it could still offer contemporary photographers a beautiful and unique medium for self-expression. As well as being the custodians of the old, the members of the Circle became also the disseminators of all that was new.
To popularise the process the organising of demonstrations and workshops was intensified. These took place at photographic clubs, fairs, the NEC Focus on Imaging, courtesy of the Proprietor, Mary Walker, and some Universities and colleges throughout the country. It proved to be most successful and a way of attracting newcomers to the process. With it the demand for comprehensive technical information increased noticeably.
The late Gilbert R. Hooper FRPS, had written ‘An Introduction to Bromoil’ which had been available to the public for many years and in 1998, Dennis Atherton FRPS revised the booklet and included his own technique and contributions by Maija McDougal FRPS and Ken Hill FRPS. The ‘Eurolux Beginners' Kit’ was made available by courtesy of Don Whitley ARPS of Shipley, North Yorkshire. The kit contained the most essential materials: suitable photographic paper, a brush, the chemicals for bleaching and tanning the bromide prints, etc. It also included instructions and a copy of the above-mentioned manual. The kit enabled anyone interested to explore the process without incurring great expense.
The first Circle full meeting and exhibitions
The first full meeting of Circle members was held at Shrewsbury in 1995. Since then meetings have taken place annually at Shrewsbury, Shipley in North Yorkshire, Worcester and Smethwick. The meetings considerably widened the activities of the Circle. The face-to-face gatherings opened opportunities for live discussions, the presentation of personal portfolios and practical demonstrations. The latter have been conducted not only by the members, but also by a number of visiting artists, including the distinguished bromoilist, Gene Laughter, from the United States. Thus, by spreading its wings, the Society has become more than just a postal club.
One of the major undertakings for the Circle was to stage exhibitions, always including a selection of images by the Society's past Presidents and members, which are held in the Circle's Permanent Collection. The first of its kind was organised by Dave Francis in his role, at that time, as Exhibitions Organiser. The exhibition took place at the Museum and Art Gallery of Falkirk in 1997 and a second exhibition was mounted at the Light House in Wolverhampton. Further exhibitions followed, one in 2000 and another in 2002, both at the Design Exchange Gallery, Little Germany, Bradford, and both planned by Don Whitley assisted by Keith Spencer FRPS. In 2007 the ‘Art of Bromoil -Centenary Exhibition’ was shown extensively throughout the country, including Worcester, Halifax, Smethwick, with Nottingham and Banbury to follow.
With the general growth of interest in the Alternative Printing Processes during the last 2 decades, many Bromoil images by the members of the Circle have been presented in various publications, ‘Photo Art International’, The Royal Photographic Society Pictorial Group magazine ‘Vision’, and ‘The Amateur Photographer’, amongst them.
A ‘Mentor's Scheme’ was introduced offering a one to one partnership between an aspiring bromoilist and some of the most experienced members of the Circle. This facility was stipulated to last up to 12 months in the first instance, during which time the Mentor would pass on information and advice to the enrolled participant with encouragement and general assessment on his or her submitted images. A little later it was also decided that the Mentor's Scheme would become the most likely method of gaining membership.
The Constitution and Centenary Book
The Circle Constitution is viewable on a separate page and it can be seen that the Society's main aims have followed those intended by Sam Weller at its conception. At this point, the presented short history of The Bromoil Circle of Great Britain has made a full circle. The need to preserve this beautiful photographic printing process for posterity, however, has become much more acute today. The Circle is convinced that one of the best ways of ensuring that the process is not lost to future generations is by presenting to the public an informative and generously illustrated Centenary Book, which is available from the Secretary, Brian Iddon.
Maija McDougal FRPS
Past President of The Bromoil Circle of Great Britain.