George Marsden was a young Vancouver photographer with his own local business, for a brief time. There are just two images in the City of Vancouver Archives online collection (none in Vancouver Public Library’s historical photos) that are attributed to him, both of them made in the 1907-08 period. Very little seems to be known today of George’s early life.
George (who had no middle name, as far as I know) was born in Wales in 1886. He first showed up in Canadian official records (in the federal census) in 1891. It seems the Marsden family emigrated to Canada around 1890. The family consisted of Henry (a butcher), Sarah, and eleven kids, mainly girls, but three of the youngest were boys: Henry Jr., 7; William, 5; and George, 4*.
The first time George showed up in BC City Directories was 1902, when he was 16 and working as a clerk with the Vancouver law firm Davis, Marshall & McNeill. His career with legal eagles was destined to last for just a year, however. From 1903-06, George had a position as clerk at Wadds Bros. Photographers (337 W. Hastings) – a firm that specialized in making portraits. George’s time at Wadds Bros. appears to have been a turning point for him. Everything he did occupationally from then until his death in 1966 would be related to photography.
In 1907, after leaving his photographic apprenticeship with Wadds Bros., George struck out on his own, establishing Marsden’s Photo Studio (544 Granville) as a sole proprietorship. Oddly, at about the same time as George was setting up his photo studio business, his two older brothers – William and Henry Jr. – teamed up to create Marsden Brothers Photographic Supplies just a block up the street (665 Granville) from George’s studio. Neither the studio nor the supply shop would last long.
By 1910, both corporate establishments had vanished from Vancouver’s directory. And so, indeed, had George and his two brothers. At this stage, I lost track of the other male Marsdens, but happily not of George. He struck out for America where, presumably, he hoped to establish a reputation as a portrait photographer and to make his way in the world.
‘If You Can Make it There . . .’
George moved from Vancouver to Seattle in 1909. It would be a brief, but professionally crucial, stop for him. According to Broadway Photographs, he spent less than a year in Seattle, coming to the attention of vaudevillian Billy Gould, who funded the relocation of George from Seattle and the creation of Gould & Marsden Studio in New York City. “Marsden, a Canadian art photographer who first founded a studio in Vancouver, won a regional reputation by placing in several Seattle exhibitions. He relocated to Seattle [from Vancouver] in 1909 and his great success as a Society portraitist convice [sic] Gould that [Marsden] should join the galaxy of celebrity photographers in Manhattan.” The life of Gould & Marsden studio was brilliant but brief. It lasted only until early 1914, as “[n]either Gould nor Marsden had much head for the financial end of running a gallery, and they had the misfortune of setting up business at a bust period on Broadway.” After the dissolution of Gould & Marsden, George accepted another NYC position as chief operator at Davis & Sanford studio (which, although the company’s heyday had passed, was still regarded as a good position). He remained there from 1914-19.
Shortly after leaving Davis & Sanford, George partnered with Omaha, Nebraska photographer, Frank A. Rinehart and married Helen, one of Rinehart’s daughters; there don’t appear to have been any children produced by the union.
George continued to do at the Rinehart-Marsden Studio what he had done, professionally, in Vancouver, Seattle, and New York: to make very good photographic portraits. There was a difference, however. For the first time since he started out with Wadds Bros. in Vancouver, he was in a pretty stable place, professionally. Although he may have missed the heady days as portraitist to celebrities in NYC, I suspect that he was also pretty pleased, finally, to be in a job that promised to sustain over the long-term. After joining Rinehart in Omaha, George never moved again.
Photographer or Archivist?
It is one of the ironies of history that the professional act for which George Marsden is now best known had nothing to do with any photographs he made; indeed, it was more of an archival than a photographic act which is associated with his name.
In 1898, when George was just 12 years old and living in Vancouver, Frank Rinehart was about to reach what would be his career peak as the official photographer of the Indian Congress at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha. This gathering of representatives of many Native American tribes proved to be a photographic watershed for Rinehart. He produced glass negative portraits of each of the Native indians present at the Congress – dressed in all of their traditional regalia.
Frank Rinehart died in 1928 and Rinehart-Marsden Studio passed to his wife Anna and George Marsden to continue to operate. In the early 1950s, according to Royal Sutton who was working for Rinehart-Marsden at the time, “we produced a two volume set of brown toned, 16 x 20 photographs bound in split cow hide. A local artist burned Indian designs on the inside and outside covers. These handsome table top volumes sold for $800 per volume in the mid 1950s.” I have seen, recently, an auction estimate of between $3,000-$6,000 on one of these sets of images printed by George.
Anna Rinehart was bedridden for a number of years before her death in 1955. Care of her meant that debts accumulated and, by the time Royal Sutton was willed the business by George upon his death in 1966, there was “[t]oo much of a burden to turn around” and he closed the business.
*George had a younger sister (Dorothy) and a younger brother (Philip). Philip was born after the 1891 census (in 1895).