THE MAN IN THE SHADOWS – James Cleet, South Shields Photographer 1876 -1959

In a previous post I talked about coming across photographs by James Cleet around 10 years ago, particularly the housing clearances in South Shields during the 1930’s. After looking at the images in South Shields Library for a number of weeks I was curious who he was and what he looked like. I had only seen his shadow in some pictures that he had taken – the outline of his cloak hunched over a tripod and camera. Then one day while researching through old newspapers I came across a story about him and there he was, looking straight at me, a camera in hand covering half his face – he had a look of the artist Salvadore Dali.

 

On his death at the age of 82, local newspaper The Shields Gazette reported… ‘Mr Jimmy Cleet, a photographer for 68 years has died at his home in Wardle Avenue, South Shields. From the day he moved into the world of cameras as a 13 year old plate boy photography was his bread and butter, his hobby and his greatest interest in life.  He never cared much for flashlights, which he thought ruined details in portraits, and until he retired last year he still used a camera which he had bought 30 years previously in preference to a modern one. But if his equipment was a little old his finished photographs were never below the standard of excellent’.

They were, and had an instantly recognizable look among all other photographers I researched. The Gazette added… ‘James Henry Cleet, the first South Shields man to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (1933), served a seven year apprenticeship in commercial photography and studied art at the old South Shields High School. As a young man he went to Fleet Street and worked as press photographer for The Daily Mirror and soon established a lasting reputation that he would get pictures whatever the difficulties. On one of his first assignments he was given 20 minutes to produce a picture of Lady Londonderry as she left Charing Cross Station. No one could get near her, but he solved this problem by carrying some of her luggage to the train’.

When researching his family history I found that in the late 1800’s James’ Grandfather was a Master Mariner, the family owned several ships and they lived in Heugh Street on the banks of the Tyne. But unfortunately a downturn in business led to his father becoming a shipwright and the family moved to Bath Street. On the 26th December 1908 James married Eva Aspery, they had a son James, but sadly he died at 4 year old. An event that would have had a deep effect on the couple.

The newspaper report carried on his story…Later he concentrated on his love of old marine photography and went to sea in all weathers to get his pictures. He had a deep affection for the Tyne, tug boatmen were always ready to help him. A small man wearing a bowler hat, he was a familiar figure in every Tyneside shipyard. When he took pictures at a launch he would photograph the ship then the launching party, then with a magnificent sweep of his bowler hat and a deep bow he would signify he had finished’.

For one month a year from 1930-38 James recorded what was called the ‘slums’ of South Shields, mainly around the Holborn and riverside area of the town. The photographs were commissioned by South Shields Public Health Department and displayed in a book published by SIDE Photographic Gallery in 1979. This features in a previous blog (24th December 2019).

Sadly, James Cleet died on 2nd June 1959, the Gazette article ended by saying His photographs of South Shields form a remarkable record of the town, and like many photographers he objected to having pictures taken of himself’.

Source: The Shields Gazette, Census records, Wards Directories.

Gary Alikivi  January 2020.

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