Of all the regular attractions at British seaside resorts, a ride up and down the beach on a donkey remains one of the most traditional, albeit largely for children. Whether they’re all mad keen for the experience, or bow to parental nostalgia, I’m not so sure. What has disappeared however is the donkey studio portrait, where children would be plonked on top of a saddle while a souvenir photograph was taken. Most of the offspring seem surprised to be left in this precarious position to say the least, others positively unhappy.
And while these are ostensibly people photographs, when viewed as a collection it’s actually the donkeys themselves which mostly steal the show, their human baggage relegated to props.  Only when older children (or young adults) get in on the act do they really work as portraits.
Having gathered up a few of these images of late, what also strikes me is the way the photographers have attempted to fully control the situation. Despite being taken at the seaside, where appropriate scenery is there for free, all have erected painted canvas backdrops which attempt to improve on nature. Clearly these got a little frayed over a season, and you can see where they’ve been repainted in places. Only one (taken by Charles Farmer based at The Midget Studio in Skegness) has even left the actual sand in the picture, the others making semi-permanent hard-standing out of floorboards. Although not shown here, one photographer even substituted a stuffed donkey for the real thing…
Charles Howell took the ones at Blackpool and is listed as ‘Official Photographer, Pleasure Beach, Blackpool’ on the back (he also had studios in Dublin and Belfast). Nearly all of these images have been dated by the studio which is great for social historians, they come from the 1920s and 1930s.
These postcard prints, which you would collect later in the day, were just one type of seaside souvenir photograph available to trippers. Photos could be had on dodgem rides, and those funny painted boards where you stuck your head through a cut out hole. By far the most numerous and most popular were the walking pictures, photographs of people out for a stroll taken by cameramen in the street or on the pier.


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