John Joseph Ward

Photographer - Naturalist

The following account is based on notes made by Professor F. W. Shotton in 1982, from personal recollection, with additional material from other sources.

John Joseph Ward was a native of Coventry, born on March 28th. 1875 and he died on the 8th. of January 1947 at the age of 71. According to the 1881 census, J. J. Ward's father was a printer and had shop premises in Swanswell Street.

As a young man J. J. Ward was apprenticed to Illiffe & Son as a lithographic printer, and the successful outcome of this apprenticeship not only made him a freeman of the city and served as the foundation of his livelihood during the next few years, but it also developed his skill in illustration which was to help towards his reputation when he became a professional exponent of natural history. In 1902, at the age of 27, he gave up his trade in the printing industry, and took the plunge to earn his living as a photographer, lecturer and writer on natural history. He had had no formal education in biology and can truly be said to be self taught. Nevertheless he achieved a national reputation in his chosen field, and readers of either the Midland Daily Telegraph (later to become the Coventry Evening Telegraph), or the Coventry Standard, always knew that mention of "The Coventry Naturalist" in these newspapers referred to him. He belonged to the era of the public lecturer on wild life, taking full advantage of the invention of the camera. There was a small group of professionals who "did the circuit". These, in addition to J. J. Ward, included Oliver Pike, Richard and Cherry Kearton, and Francis Pitt. For a public lecture they could charge not less than 5 (plus expenses) - a not inconsiderable sum in those days. It is claimed that J. J. Ward had spoken in nearly every town in the country!

When one examines what these professionals achieved, it is well to recall the facilities which were not available to them, and that are now. Photographs were taken on glass plates, not films, and the plates had to be loaded individually into the camera. Emulsions were slow and lenses were of smaller aperture - a combination giving rise to much longer exposure times than with the equipment used today. Also, by modern standards, cameras were large and cumbersome. Colour photography was possible at this time but still had some way to go before it reached the quality and ease of processing we take for granted today, so for many of the slides he used for his lectures, J. J. Ward resorted to the tedious process of hand-colouring his monochrome images.

One expert, giving advice in The Nature Photographer (the journal of the Nature Photographic Society) in 1911, stated that when going out to do photography he usually took 12 half-plates and sometimes another 12 quarter-plates. In comparison, a naturalist who gave a talk to the Coventry Natural History Society in 1992, commented that on a three day visit to the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall he used at least 20 x 36 exposure colour films, ie. 720 exposures!

By the time J. J. Ward had left the printing trade he had already become expert in the art of nature photography and his work had been published in several journals. Many of the popular natural history books of the early 20th. century were published in weekly parts and could be bound up into volumes when the complete set had been collected. Some examples are: Marvels of the Universe, The New Natural History, Animals of all Countries, the Pageant of Nature, etc. J. J. Ward's contributions to these were numerous. In the two volumes of Marvels of the Universe, for example, there are 19 articles and 85 photographs attributed to him. In 1911 he claimed that during the previous 12 years he had published over 4000 photographs!

By 1913 he had published five popular books on natural history, they were:-

  • Minute Marvels of Nature  -   Isbister, London, 1903

  • Peeps into Nature's Ways   -   Pitman, London, 1905

  • Some Nature Biographies   -   John Lane, London, 1908

  • Life Histories of Familiar Plants   -    Cassell, London, 1908

  • Insect Biographies with Pen and Camera   -    Jarrold, London, 1913

He was a co-author, with Richard Kearton and others, of The Nature-Lover's Handbook, published in 1911, and he also had very many articles and notes published in the natural history press, periodicals (such as The Strand Magazine and Good Words) and newspapers of the day. In addition to the natural history side of his business, J. J. Ward produced a series of postcards of views of Coventry.

J. J. Ward was a tremendous pillar of the Coventry Natural History Society. He was one of the Society's founders in February 1909, was President for the period 1913-1915, and was the first member to be elected for a second period in this office, for the years 1932 and 1933. He gave an illustrated talk to the Society each year and, professional though he was, there was never any question of a fee. Prof. Shotton noted that he could recall parts of many of them - those which had particularly stuck in his mind were the demonstration of a spider's web, the beauty of his butterfly transformations such as those of the Swallowtail, and, most of all, the parental devotion of the earwig. Ward's last talk to the Society, on the subject of "Insects that help the Gardener", was given in October 1939.

Mr & Mrs Ward and their only child, Horace, were members of this Society. Horace was the Society's Lanternist. The light source for the lantern, in the early days, was Downing light (or limelight) which used an oxyhydrogen gas flame from a blowpipe directed onto a block of limestone - apparently the system was troublesome and difficult to get going at times. It was also potentially hazardous. The gas supply, of course, was from bottles.

J. J. Ward was a founder-member of the Nature Photographic Society (a national society) and presided over its inaugural meeting on December 11th. 1909, when he was elected a Vice-President. He then became the President of that society at its first AGM in January 1911.

In 1980 what remained of J. J. Ward's collection of lantern slides and glass-plate negatives was very kindly donated to the Coventry Natural History Society by his grand-daughter. There are about 970 slides and 4000 negatives covering a very wide subject range, but with the emphasis on natural history.


 Visit  The Gallery  to see a selection of images from the J. J. Ward collection.

 Visit  The J. J. Ward Project  for details of the Society's ongoing cataloguing and conservation project.


Compiled by Peter Cooke, 2002.

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