The Frederick DeBourg Richards Collection

The Frederick DeBourg Richards Collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia is a collection of early photographs spanning the years from 1850 to 1864. The body of work is comprised of photographs of buildings in and around the Philadelphia area. Through the work of the Library Company and Bryn Mawr students, the collection has been scanned and made available digitally. This project aims to take the organization of the collection one step further by mapping the collection. This endeavor is intended show patterns in the siting of the images, providing new insight into Richards' work.

According to Who was Who in American Art, (Falk, 2758) Richards was born in 1822 in Wilmington Delaware. He lived in New York in the 1840's before moving to Philadelphia in 1848. In 1868 he moves to Paris, but apparently returns to the states by the 1870s. He dies in 1903. He is described by the directory as a landscape painter, and etcher, no mention is made of his photography. It is however, highly unlikely that there were two DeBourg Richards working in Philadelphia at the same time.

The photographs in the collection fall into two main groups. The majority are of older buildings, often run down, even when they were photographed. The second, and smaller group seems to be of private commissions: photographs of the houses and estates of wealthy men. From the notes on the various photographs we know that there is a connection Richards to both John F Watson and C.A. Poulson, whose scrapbook is held by the library company. John Watson was one of the first writers to publish a history of Philadelphia told through the buildings and landmarks of the city. His work, Watson's Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, (Philadelphia, 1857) has many sections such as, "Loxley's house," "Shippen's Great House" many of which (including the preceding) were also photographed by Richards.(Loxley, January 1854, Shippen September 1857) That these photographs were taken before the date of publishing implies that Richards had contact directly or through an intermediary with Watson. The annotations on the photographs do not clear up the matter. It seems that many of the more descriptive passages may have been written by Poulson, not Richards. The following note appears on the photograph 'subject unknown' (LCP (3) 2526.F.81 April 1859), "...And printing office. Mr. Watson, in his letter writes:- "The house of Sower the Printer, and earliest Bible publisher in our country, and also of an early German newspaper - See facts in annals. - The house stands vis a vis Indian Queen Street, near Wister's.' My grandfather Zachariah Poulson, the 1st was a pupil of Christopher Sower, and here taught 'the art and mystery of Printing.' See p. 80." This clearly Watson wrote to Poulson, who then annotated the photograph. This single passage throws the authorship of many of the annotations into question. The only photographs with explicit mention of Watson are of locations in Germantown. The fact that these are all annotated in the same descriptive style suggests that Poulson was the one in contact with Watson, and commissioned Richards to take to the photographs. This is further supported by the fact that Richards Photographed all the Germantown sites in two visits (April, and Early May 1859). It seems most likely that Richards was given a list of specific sites to shoot. Richards work in center city is far more rambling, seemingly impulsive, making the patterns appearing in Germantown even more suggestive of a commissioned work.

Further notes on the photographs suggest that the annotations are the work of Poulson. One says: "John Mcallister Jr to C.A. Poulson. March 29, 1860: 'I have lately had photographic views taken by Mr. Richards of my Father's old residence on the [Front] St. Road, and of my own residence on Penn Square...'" (Residence of John McAllister, Jr., country, LCP (6) 1322.F.88b, March 1860). This passage places Further places Poulson at the center of the web contacting Richards to his various clients. After hiring Richards to photograph the buildings in Germantown, Poulson was satisfied with his work and recommended him to others of his friends. The timing is right, Richards photographs the McAllister Residences almost a full year after he photographs the Germantown buildings, leaving plenty of time for Poulson to commend Richards to his friends.

We can reach several conclusions about the collection. Richards did not work solely from Watson's Annals, but was in fact directed in some fashion by Watson himself, albeit indirectly through Poulson. Although it seems that Richards was commissioned by Poulson for the photographs related to Watson's work, Richards had a genuine interest in the city himself. He photographs a number of disparate locations, ranging from historic mansions, to the old wooden houses that were rapidly disappearing as the city transformed. The body of work is an attempt to create a record of the city in this process of change, to create a visual history before the old city was gone.

Sources Cited.

Falk, Peter Hastings. Who's Was Who in American Art: 1564- 1975, 400 Years of Artists in America. Madison CT: Sandview Press, 1999.

Watson, John F. Watson's Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Philadelphia, 1857.


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Index of the Richards Collection with links to Images. (Places in Time)

Watson's Annals online This is an outside resource in no way related to the authorship of this site.

tnb 14 dec 2005.