The North Shields Portraits were first shown by Amber in 1974, one of the exhibitions that formed part of River Project, which toured Tyneside communities. They had been found by Brian Mills and Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen while mooching about in North Shields one day in the early 1970s. The shop had been abandoned, the door was open and Sirkka remembers the photographs as just strewn across the floor.
These photographs were discovered some time ago in the back room and in the under-the-stairs cupboard of a second-hand clothes shop in Prudhoe Street, North Shields. Why they had lain there for so long remains a mystery. Brian Mills, River Project catalogue, 1974
The exhibition of them, was put together by Brian Mills, a friend of and collaborator with the early Amber collective. He ran Newcastle Bookshop, an early tenant of Amber when the group bought its Quayside premises and in the late 70s was active with Amber’s Murray Martin in the clandestine Quayside Action Group.
Many of the slide sets in the Visual Culture section of this website came from publications Brian Mills acquired as a bookseller.
The studio they came from clearly specialised in copying and hand-tinting work which was mostly taken by other studios. Examining the photographs, most seem to be copy prints – and the majority seem to have been ordered by people in North Shields, Chirton, New York (in North Tyneside) and Willington Quay. The originals seem to date from the 30s, 40s and 50s. The hand tinting seems, in many of the images, to be in the form of sketches towards a final version – which obviously would have been given to the client. The prevalence of uniforms suggest some keepsake images from the Second World War.
The only one of the portraits we know anything about is that of Cecil Sealy (known as Cliff). Although, on the back it was spelt Sealey, on an off chance, we sent a copy of it to Mark Sealy, director of Autograph ABP, the London photography gallery that is concerned with questions of cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. Mark, who spent much of his childhood and youth on Tyneside and has collaborated with Side Gallery on a number of projects, identified him as his great uncle – and the reason his family had moved up to the North East. A merchant seaman from Barbados, he had lived in North Shields from the 1940s through until his death in the early 1970s.
If anybody has information about any of the other portraits, please let us know.