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George Bellett Cowen

Epithet: Photographer (1865-1948)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

George Bellett Cowen was a photographer of outstanding skill and artistry, who not only recorded the beauty of the Manx landscape but was timely in capturing enduring images of Manx characters and the last vestiges of a way of life that was fast disappearing.

He was born in Douglas in 1865 and had two brothers who both became doctors, and two sisters, one of whom married a doctor and the other who married an Isle of Man Bank manager. His father, John Cowen, was a dyer and had premises at Kewaigue Mill, Braddan and shops at 27 Prospect Hill and 55 Strand Street, Douglas. An advertisement in Brown's Directory of 1881 pledged that articles would be `cleaned or dyed any colour to look equal to new'.

After Douglas Grammar School George went on to the Douglas School of Art where a fellow student was Archibald Knox. He became apprenticed to Abel Lewis, artist and photographer at 10 Finch Road, Douglas. During this period he and his employer journeyed to Clifton College, Bristol, where they met the Revd Thomas Edward Brown who was a master there, and they had many walks together and talks about 'things Manx'.

Years later, he renewed his acquaintance with Brown when the latter retired to Ramsey. The poet frequently urged George to secure as complete a collection of photographs of the old type of Manx folk as possible, realising even then that the old, archetypal Manx race was fast giving way to a new generation with new ideas, aims and ambitions. On one of Brown's visits to his studio, George Cowen secured a fine portrait, copies of which were, on the poet's birth anniversary in 1914, donated by the then recently formed World Manx Association for hanging in every Island school. The portrait of Brown wearing cap and gown is now famous wherever in the world Manx people are to be found.

After completing his apprenticeship with Abel Lewis, George worked for Bruton's in Douglas before moving to Ramsey where he settled. He entered into partnership with Alfred Moore and lodged with Moore and his mother at 23 Waterloo Road. Then in 1892, he acquired the business of G. Paterson and established his own studio at 56 Waterloo Road, where he worked on memorable Manx character studies, landscapes and seascapes.

He married twice; first, in 1892, Edith Adeline Cleator, of Bowring Road, Ramsey, daughter of Robert Cleator, a Ramsey grocer. Her untimely death at the age of 29, one week after childbirth, left him a widower with one son, Horace, who in adulthood became a surveyor and water engineer and eventually moved to New Zealand. His second wife was Katherine (Katie) Corkill, daughter of Thomas Corkill, manager of the Isle of Man Bank in Ramsey. She predeceased him by ten years.

As his studio became well-established, many dignitaries came to have their portraits taken. Among them was the novelist Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine who lived at Greeba Castle, and with whom he developed a close association. The world-famous author used his friend's studies to illustrate his books. The best known was 'Old Pete's Cottage, near Ballure, Ramsey' which featured in The Manxman. The occupant, John Kennish, despite his protestations, was generally believed to be the prototype of the character 'Old Pete' and his home was a magnet for tourists. One fascinating study shows the interior of the cottage before it was tidied up. Local tradition has it that to get sufficient light (there were no flash bulbs in those days) the photographer had a hole knocked in the side of the cottage and paid a mason to build it up again afterwards.

Cowen's portrait of Hall Caine so pleased the author that he used it as a frontispiece in several of his works.

George Cowen was greatly encouraged to capture the landscape in an artistic way by John Archibald Brown, editor of the Isle of Man Times. In his search for perfect locations he would cycle up and down the hills and glens laden with the heavy equipment of the day - half plate cameras, big wooden tripods, and boxes of glass slides. On his travels he stopped to capture for posterity the thatched cottages and the crofting folk who lived in them. He also recorded impressive images of the 'Big Snow' of 1895. Other snow scenes he took were less dramatic perhaps but won him medals in the salons of London, Edinburgh and Birmingham.

A formal grouping taken during the royal visit of 1902 showed King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Bishopscourt, flanked by many important personages. The king was reportedly charmed by the picture and his envoy, Lord Knollys, wrote to say that it was being hung at Balmoral.

Another study which brought him praise had a very different subject matter: farm carts being loaded with wrack on the shore at Ramsey after a big tide.

A series of child studies featuring his own son were published in well-known English magazines, and his depictions of the Island's scenic beauty were snapped up by the Isle of Man Advertising Board and British Railways.

'The Colossal Wave' was the title given to a spectacular picture of one of the biggest waves ever to sweep Ramsey's South Promenade. This is in the Manx National Heritage collection and framed copies are still sometimes seen hanging on pub walls.

As his reputation grew, George Cowen was in great demand as a portrait photographer. Among the eminent people who sat for him were successive Lieutenant Governors and their wives, Deemsters and High Bailiffs, Lord Charles Beresford, Admiral of the Fleet, and the founder of the Scout movement, Lord Baden Powell.

He was in business in Ramsey for more than 40 years until his retirement, and his work reflected the changes the town underwent in the first half of the 20th century. As well as civic leaders, he made studies which are nowadays on sale as postcards of well-known characters such as John Corkish 'The Manx Fisherman', 'Mr Crennell the Cooper', and John Cottier, a rugged son of the sea and coxswain of Ramsey lifeboat. His models also included members of the fairer sex such as Florence Faragher, wife of the town clerk, Doris Quine of Westbourne Road, and Dorothy Curphey Farrant, who was shown wearing a 1750s-style dress. These photographs also form part of the Manx National Heritage collection.

As well as being a photographer, G.B. Cowen was an accomplished artist who painted in watercolours and oils. His interests were wide-ranging and included antiquarianism, archaeology and natural history. He provided illustrations for The Birds of the Isle of Man by Pilcher George Ralfe and booklets about the Isle of Man authored by Canon John Quine.

He was a highly-respected member of the Ramsey community; he served as a commissioner and as a trustee of Waterloo Road Methodist Church, and was a benefactor to Ramsey Cottage Hospital.

After his death on 12th March 1948, aged 83, his obituary described him as 'a man who was the essence of urbanity, of courtly bearing and charm, who took immense pride in his work'. He was buried at Maughold with both his wives. Ten years after his death, the Manx Museum mounted a major retrospective of his work, assembled after an appeal for exhibits was made in the Ramsey Courier.

Biography written by Sue Woolley.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.116-8.)

Culture Vannin


Occupation / profession: Photographer

Nationality: Manx

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 1865

Place of birth: Douglas, Isle of Man

Date of death: 12 March 1948

Name Variant: Mr Cowen


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