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Guildford’s Victorian gentlemen, and ladies, who frequented one local barber could certainly come away with more than a haircut or a shave. John Norton also sold his own hair pomade, books, prints and picture frames; while two of his sons were rather artistic too. Historian John Janaway tells the story.
Not long ago I was shown a photograph of a recently discovered ceramic lid for a pot that contained J. Norton’s Circassian Cream – a pomade for the hair that was popular in Victorian times. It prompted me to do a little bit of research to trace the history of this early, illusive item, now highly prized by collectors of old bottles, pots and associated bygones.
As so often happens, the research also led me down some fascinating byways, and revealed the story of a little-known Guildford artist, Benjamin Cam Norton.
I soon discovered that Guildford Museum has a Norton lid in their collections, which Mary Alexander readily made available for me to view.
This lid has a black transferred print, whereas the lid in the photo that I was shown appeared to have a distinctly bluish tinge, although I have to admit that I was not wearing my reading glasses at the time! It later transpired that another avid collector, Clive Wicks, also has the Norton lid in his collection, but his lid is larger, although it seems to have the same sized black transfer. However, the transfers used on the two lids are not the same.
John Norton, hairdresser and perfumer, was born in Sheffield in about 1796 and probably moved to London in the late 1820s, where he met his wife, Katherine, who was born in Holborn around 1806. The couple’s first two children appear to have been twins, John and Mary, who were born in 1829 or 1830 in St Marylebone. However, by 1833 the family had moved to Guildford, where their second daughter, Katherine was born.
There is no way of knowing what brought them to Guildford but, by 1839, John had established himself as a hairdresser at 117 High Street. He soon developed his business to include perfumery and the sale of prints. The couple were to have two more daughters and a further four sons in Guildford including Benjamin Cam Norton, who was born in 1834.
Between 1841 and 1852 John Norton regularly advertised in local directories from his shop at 117 High Street. In Russell’s Almanack for 1841 he promoted a large range of products and services including his “celebrated Vegetable Moldavia Cream, for the hair; and also his Circassian Cream, in great repute”. Does a pot lid for the former exist, I wonder?
From 1853 until 1863 Norton was based at 116 High Street, from where he advertised in Russell’s Guildford and West Surrey Almanac. It is possible that he had moved next door to his original premises or simply that his shop had been renumbered. Several of his adverts proclaim that he was also honorary secretary to the London Art Union, which may be significant when the talents of his son, Benjamin, are considered. The last entries in the almanac for J. Norton, hairdresser and perfumer, J. Norton, carver and gilder, and Mrs Norton, milliner, were in 1863.
In the 1864 edition E. B. Payne, milliner and dressmaker, is shown as occupying 116 High Street. John Norton’s advert of 1856 is of great interest because he allowed two of his sons, Benjamin and Benjamin’s younger brother, James, to append their own adverts at the bottom. “Benjamin Cam Norton, portrait painter” immediately caught my eye and I took to a byway as fast as I could!
The Dictionary of Victorian Painters by Christopher Wood describes Benjamin as a Sheffield landscape painter who exhibited two landscapes at the British Institution in 1862. Wood says that “he also painted horse portraits, and other sporting subjects”.
An entry on the RootsWeb’s World Connect Project website says that Benjamin painted mainly animals, especially racehorses. Interestingly, it also says that he was a minister of the Catholic Apostolic Church, which is another byway I will be wandering down sometime.
The description of Benjamin as a Sheffield artist seems wayward to say the least. He obviously spent a little time in that city, where his father and his wife were born, but we should claim him for Guildford!
A check through the census returns quickly helped me to map out his movements. In 1841 he was with his family living over the High Street shop in Guildford, aged seven, but in 1851 he was a resident pupil of artist, Jerome Goodrich, in Soho, London.
By 1861 he was back living with his parents at 116 High Street, Guildford, and gave his occupation as “artist, portrait and animal painter”. In both 1871 and 1881 he was living in Cheltenham and in 1891 at Islington, London. He died on 1st January 1900 at Cotswold Villa, Newmarket, where he had, no doubt, painted many a racehorse.
Paintings by Benjamin Cam Norton come up for sale quite regularly and a few years ago one sold for over £10,000, perhaps just a little more expensive than his father’s Circassian Cream pot lid would fetch these days!