James Bell Heyl (ca.1825-1905) was an American emigre who went on to become one of Bermuda’s most prominent pioneering photographers and visual historians. His work, along with that of a small, vanguard group of native-born islanders that included N.E. Lusher (1859-1932) and John Athill Frith (1835-1932; a son of freed slaves), captured for posterity a diverse array of 19th century images of the island, many of which now serve as an invaluable historical record of a long-perished topography and way of life.
According to Rider’s Bermuda: A Guide Book for Travelers (New York: H. Holt, 1922), Heyl originally hailed from Philadelphia, Pa. (though other sources posit New Orleans, La., as his birthplace), and traveled to Bermuda in the mid-1840s for health reasons, whereupon he decided to remain permanently. A pharmacist by formal training, Heyl became the second such tradesman to establish a drugstore in what was then the town of Hamilton; known as “Apothecaries Hall,” the building in which the business was located (built circa 1847-1851 and currently the home of the “Irish Linen Shop”) stands at the junction of Queen and Front Streets in Hamilton, an intersection now bearing the official designation of “Heyl’s Corner.” This special form of landmarking status was conceived for Bermuda’s 400th Anniversary Celebration in 2009, during which a “Walkway of History” was created around the capital city of Hamilton, identified by plaques being installed at various points along the route to denote important sites of architectural, cultural, social, or historical significance in the city. Heyl shared office space with Bermuda’s then Postmaster William Bennett Perot (1791-1871); historians are in consensual agreement that it was Heyl who brought forth the idea that his friend Perot produce stamps— first used in England in 1840 but never before in Bermuda — to be affixed to the front of all deliverable mail, an effort initiated to deter customers not adhering to the honor-system then in place (which required customers to deposit a penny into the postal drop-box along with their mail). These “Perot stamps,” or “Perot Provisionals” (as they came to be called), were sold in sheets of twelve for one shilling, and were issued for a period of eight years, beginning in 1848. Today, only eleven of these stamps remain, selling for over $100,000 apiece, with the Queen Herself in possession of one of them.
Heyl began to experiment with photography in the mid-1860s, and quickly became a proficient practitioner of the fledgling art form. Rather than solely concentrating on early variants of photographic portraiture — as was the custom of many of his contemporaries (largely for commercial reasons) — Heyl elected to become what was effectively a forerunner of the modern “photo-journalist” (perhaps because he already had a profession upon which he could fall back for purposes of income). For over three decades he turned out hundreds of photographs documenting the “Hamilton scene,” conferring upon Bermudians (who previously had to rely on illustrations) a newfound sense of the island’s transition to modernity, as well as helping to usher in a revolutionary visual medium that forever transformed the nature of mass communication, exemplified by his coverage of HRH Princess Louise’s arrival on the island in January 1883 (a visit which crystallized Bermuda’s designation as a mecca for tourists, particularly from the United States’ eastern seaboard). Heyl’s photographs of the official ceremonies and proceedings associated with the Princess’ trip are still considered an indispensable account of this hallmark event in the island’s history, and, along with more than a hundred other images derived from his lens over a thirty year period — including Bermudian activities related to the American Civil War (1861-1865), the island’s participation in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (1876), and the on-island celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1879) — have been compiled into a volume entitled Bermuda Through the Camera of James B. Heyl, 1868-1897: A Newspaper Record, Illustrated by Photographs of Bermuda’s Ever-changing Scenes (Hamilton, Bermuda: Bermuda Book Stores, 1951). This extremely rare and highly-valued work, which exists in only one, 1,500 numbered-copy edition, was edited by Heyl’s daughter, Edith Stowe Godfrey Heyl, a former President of the Bermuda Historical Society and leading Bermudian suffragette who earns mention in the “Who’s Who in Bermuda” section of Carveth Well’s guidebook, Bermuda in Three Colors (New York: Robert McBride and Co.,1935).
In addition to visually detailing current events on the island and shedding light on the rapidly accelerating architectural and maritime-related activities taking form during this era, Heyl had an eye for what today would be termed “human interest” stories, often positioning his camera to provide photographic insight into the overlooked and undervalued segments of 19th century Bermudian society. His pictures of hardworking laborers from different racial backgrounds show another side of island life generally left unexamined by journalistic chroniclers (as well as most artists) of the period. By 1875 Heyl’s reputation had ascended to the point whereby the Governor of Bermuda, Sir John Henry Lefroy (1817-1890) — a distinguished man of science in addition to his military and diplomatic duties — would ask Heyl to accompany him on an “expedition” to the northernmost point of the island, tasked with the responsibility of producing the first-known photographs of the famous limestone pinnacles that Lefroy wanted to include in a book he was planning to write about the early history of Bermuda; though the eventual fate of the book remains unclear, Heyl’s photographs — generated by employing the “wet-plate” process then in use, which required him to take a tent along on the journey to develop his images — continue to inform the work of scientists and historians exploring the effects of time and the ocean on Bermuda’s naturally-occurring phenomena.
Heyl’s unique legacy also includes his service as United States’ Vice-Consul to Bermuda from 1889 to 1902, as well as his role in promoting the early career of the Bermudian artist-entrepreneur Ethel Tucker (1874-1962), whom he hired to create ornamental designs — in gold and silver — for the covers of his photo albums. Evidently holding her talent in high regard, Heyl told her to name her price, which she boldly did, taking one of her first steps down a path that would eventually lead both she and her sister Kate (1879-1970) to earn international renown for their iconic watercolors and postcards.
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