Phillimore's Edinburgh by Jan Bondeson
Reginald Phillimore was born in 1855, one of five children of Dr William Phillimore, the superintendent of a lunatic asylum near Nottingham. He showed promise as an artist already as a schoolboy, winning a Government Art Prize for the painting of a still life group in watercolour, from nature. After a third-class Oxford B.A. in history, he worked as an assistant schoolmaster for many years. A shy, retiring man, he very much disliked the boisterous pupils and their unseemly shenanigans, and wished to be free of his humdrum day job to concentrate on his art, but he could not make a living with pen and brush. The turning point came when three capitalist aunts of Reginald Phillimore's, who had taught school in North Berwick, East Lothian, all died in 1900 and 1901, leaving their house, school and money to Reginald. He decided to move into ‘Rockstowes’, the house formerly occupied by the aunts, with its splendid seaside views. The contrast from the impoverished assistant schoolmaster who hated his job, to the financially independent North Berwick property owner of great expectations, could not have been a greater one.
Reginald Phillimore did not want to live in idleness, and anyway there was a need to accumulate money and provide for his old age. At an early stage after he had come to North Berwick, he began to produce picture postcards from his own drawings. All his early cards had local motives, from North Berwick and its immediate surroundings. The start of the picture postcard boom in Britain coincided with Phillimore’s move to North Berwick, and the quaint East Lothian surroundings must have inspired him to become a full-time postcard artist. From the bay window of his first-floor study at ‘Rockstowes’, he had a good view of the Bass Rock, a steep-sided volcanic rock that is home to many thousand gannets and other sea birds; it inspired several of his early cards. He employed a teenaged North Berwick schoolgirl, Mary Pearson, to do the delicate colouring; since she liked some variation, no two hand-coloured cards are the same.
Most of his early picture postcards were conventional in that they depicted a standard view, like the Bass Rock or Tantallon Castle, with brief explanatory text; from the very beginning, they enjoyed good sales locally, since people appreciated that they were of superior aesthetic quality. As he grew more experienced, Reginald invented a style of his own for his picture postcards: there was still a main motive, but often several smaller vignettes as well, and brief explanatory text describing the history of the building, close or street depicted. This proved both a novel and felicitous manner to produce a postcard, and Reginald’s business flourished as a result. He sold his postcards for a halfpenny each to a network of dealers, initially mainly in the Lothians, but with time all over Britain. Between 1904 and 1914, he was one of Britain’s postcard kingpins, admired and collected by many, and easily able to make a living for himself.
Little is known about Reginald’s private life during his North Berwick Edwardian fame and fortune. He kept busy producing his cards, some from his own etchings, others from motives in the Lothians that he personally visited, yet others from old prints he procured in Edinburgh. He more than once went on tour looking for inspiration, and visited Gloucester, Malvern, Bath, Bristol, Exeter and the West Country, producing a series of felicitous cards with various local landmarks. He also visited Manchester, toured Northumberland and Yorkshire, and travelled to most parts of the Scottish lowlands. Since he did not approve of Glasgow, only one of his cards (Cathedral) is from the sprawling Scottish metropolis; nor did he like London particularly, and again just one card (St Paul’s) is from the English capital. The most felicitous of his cards were those from Edinburgh, a city he knew very well, and his many cards from East Lothian. Reginald remained a shy, introverted man during his North Berwick heyday, with a dislike for social pursuits and a fondness for a solitary life in his comfortable Rockstowes studio. The only woman he is known to have befriended was the aforementioned schoolgirl Mary Pearson, who became his housekeeper once she gained adulthood.
The Great War came, with its depressing influence on commerce in general and the postcard industry in particular, although Reginald continued to produce postcards throughout the war years. When hostilities ended in 1918, he was 63 years old, but it was not yet time to retire. Since the market for his picture postcards had largely disappeared, he had to conduct an orderly retreat for his postcard company, which once had enjoyed such meteoric success. He sold the occasional painting and etching, but the influx of money was nothing like it had been in pre-war times. He had produced 122 cards from early 1914 until 1919; from the summer of 1919 until the end of his life, he would make only 37 more cards. The market for his postcards continued to decline: town after town on the English mainland was lost, and shop after shop stopped stocking his cards since they were no longer fashionable; yet he remained well represented in Scotland throughout the 1920, particularly in his Edinburgh and East Lothian strongholds.
Reginald Phillimore’s health, both mental and physical, had always been very good, but in 1936, he suffered a serious stroke, becoming paralysed in the right side of his body and experiencing an impairment of his speech. On sunny days, the loyal Mary Pearson wheeled him about in an invalid chair, and he liked to sit in the small garden to the rear of his house. He is said to have learnt to write, with difficulty, with his left hand, and even to have attempted to copy an old water-colour painting of his; still, this is scant consolation for an artist whose creative power had been broken, for good. As the Bass Rock gleamed in the bright North Berwick sunshine, the shadows grew longer in the Rockstowes geriatric gloom. The memories of a man in his old age are the dreams and hopes of a man in his prime, and as Reginald sat lopsidedly in his armchair in the downstairs parlour, he must have pondered his unhappy days as a schoolmaster, the great inheritance triumph in 1901, the heady Edwardian days as one of Britain’s postcard kingpins, and the slow but steady post-war decline. Reginald Phillimore died on Christmas Eve 1941 and was buried in the family vault at Bridgnorth.
Jan Bondeson's new book Phillimore's Edinburgh is available for purchase now.