Thomas Donovan & Son (Donovan's Studios)


Holiday home at 109 Marine Parade, Brighton (collotype). Kemp Town, near Bloomsbury Place

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Photographers, 1c St James's Street, Brighton. Thomas Donovan was the leading Brighton photographer of his generation. Although best known for his skilled studio portraiture, he was also much in demand as a landscape and architectural photographer. Many of his landscape photographs were reproduced as illustrations in local guidebooks, for example Bright & Son's View book & Guide to Brighton of 1896.

The Donovan studio produced large numbers of cartes de visite and cabinet portraits, but relatively few real photographic and printed postcards. Some halftone cards with white borders are labelled "Photo. by Thos. Donovan & Son Ltd., St. James' St., Brighton" in their bottom right corners, while other borderless collotype cards are labelled on the back "Donovan's Studios, Brighton". The real photographic cards sometimes have a printed label "Copyright Photo. Donovan's Studios, Brighton" on the back, but a few are blind stamped on the front with the firm's name and address. Often the cards lack captions.

Because Donovan was such a successful and skilled photographer his life has been well documented. David Garner discusses Donovan's achievements in his delightful book A Seaside Album: Photographs and Memory (2003, Philip Wilson Publishers, London), and reproduces some of his most interesting and memorable photographs, including a self-portrait and a view of the St James's Street Studio. For a comprehensive biography of Donovan you are recommended to visit David Simkin's website Another important source of information is the Donovan family website at

Thomas Donovan was born in the St. Phillip's district of Bristol on September 6, 1837, and was the second of at least six children of Sarah and John Donovan, a house painter. In 1862 he married Victoria Gibbons, who had been born in 1842 in Bristol. When the 1871 census was held, he was working as a shopman at a "fine arts depot" in Bristol, which David Simkin suggests was an art shop selling paintings and prints. Donovan and his family were living at 14 St Paul Street in Bristol, but during 1872 they moved to Brighton.

While they were in Bristol, Thomas and Victoria Donovan had four children: Thomas Henry Donovan (born in 1862 at Merchant's Parade, Hotwell, Bristol), who was always known as Henry or Harry, Charles Edward Donovan (born in 1864 at the same address), Minnie Victoria Donovan (born in 1869 at Park Street, Bristol) and Frank Herbert Donovan (born in 1871 at 14 St Paul Street). Two more daughters followed, after the move to Brighton: Florence Alice Donovan (early in 1873, at 11 Lewes Road, Brighton) and Agnes Mary Donovan (in 1874).

David Simkin has established that Albert Boucher, a French-born artist and photographer, who had previously worked in Bristol, employed Thomas Donovan between 1873 and 1875 as a manager at his studio at 23 Ship Street in Brighton. Boucher died suddenly in 1875 at the age of 34, but his widow may have continued Donovan's employment for a few years. By 1878, however, Donovan opened his own studio at 3 St James's Street, close to the Old Steine. He soon moved it to 1c St James's Street, claiming that the lighting arrangements were superior.

When the 1881 census was held, Thomas Donovan and his family were living at 22 Sutherland Road in Brighton, near Kemp Town railway station. Harry and Charles had left school and joined their father as photographic assistants. Later in 1881 Agnes Donovan died.

In 1885 Charles married Minnie Caroline Comber (born in about 1862), and a year later she gave birth to a son, Edward Charles T. Donovan, known as Teddie. Unfortunately, she died in 1887, and Charles returned to live with his parents.

The 1891 census locates Thomas and Victoria at 5 Prince's Crescent, off Ditchling Road. Harry had left home and was living in the USA, but the widowed Charles had moved back, with his four-year-old son Teddie. He is described in the census as a photographic printer. Also living at Prince's Crescent were the three younger Donovan children: Minnie, described as a photographic artist, Frank, a retoucher, and Florence, a photographic assistant. It can be assumed that Thomas employed all four children at his St James's Street studio.

Between 1895 and 1899 Thomas Donovan renamed his business Thomas Donovan & Sons, in recognition of the growing contribution that Charles and Frank were making to its management. In the summer of 1891 Charles married Ellen Greenfield, who had been born at Ringmer in 1871. He and Ellen set up home at 48 Chester Terrace in Preston. In 1902 Charles opened his own studio at 11 George Street, but two years later he moved it to 49 Edward Street in Kemp Town, close to St James's Street. Charles and Ellen had three children: Frank Henry Donovan (born 1892), Grace Ellen Donovan (born in the following year) and Arthur Thomas Donovan (born in 1899). In 1901 they were living at 48 Chester Terrace in Brighton, and in 1907 at 106 Waldegrave Road.

The 1901 census records that Thomas and Victoria continued to live at 5 Prince's Crescent, together with Frank, who was unmarried (he is described as a photographer), Minnie who once again is stated to be a photographic artist, and Florence, who had become a singer. Frank married Rose E. Conroy in 1915, and Teddie married Mary Tebbs in 1917.

After Charles left to set up his own studio, Frank Donovan and his father renamed the St James's Street business "Thomas Donovan & Son". Thomas Donovan died on December 15, 1909, at the age of 72. Charles then stepped in to help his brother Frank run the family business, which they renamed Donovan's Studios. At the same time he continued to operate as an independent photographer, although seemingly at a reduced scale.

At the time of the 1911 census, the widowed Victoria was living at 77 Loder Road in Preston with Minnie and Florence, who were still unmarried. Minnie continued to work as a photographic artist and Florence as a professional singer. Charles Donovan and his family were living at 46 Osborne Road in Brighton, but by the following year they had moved to 35 Ditchling Rise.

Donovan's Studios were still trading in 1922, but closed by 1924.

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