Bradford’s Historic Street Characters Now Online

John Sowden Self-Portrait

Today Bradford Museums and Galleries is proud to announce the opening of a permanent digital gallery for one of Bradford’s most significant artists.

For many years the watercolour portraits of John Sowden have been in our possession and there have been a number of exhibitions and books featuring them along the way. However, more recently we have undertaken to photograph each of the 330 works so they can be put online to be enjoyed by all.

Unfortunately the process has been delayed somewhat by the current crisis but today the ‘button has been pressed’ and the collection has become part of Bradford Museums Photo Archive online. Although they are clearly not photographs, the portraits are a historical record of Bradford during a certain period in addition to their aesthetic qualities. They sit well with our other photographic collections such as those of the Belle Vue Studio and Christopher Pratt.

Born in Bradford 10th November 1838, John Sowden taught art for most of his life and by 1887 he began to paint a series of watercolour portraits of a wide cross-section of Bradford; from society ‘worthies’ to those considered the lowest in society. 

The quirks and eccentricities of these characters were under threat from an increasing uniformity of Victorian dress, speech and manners through rapid social change. Most of them struggled to earn a living, many having physical disabilities. Sowden’s own wife, Anne, is known to have suffered from depression so there was perhaps empathy for these people in addition to a recognition of visual interest.

Although there are over 300 portraits in our digitised collection, some prominent Bradford people are missing. While some refused to sit for Sowden, others, rumour says, Sowden refused to request a sitting as he disapproved of them for political or religious reasons.