In 1870 William Howell competed with Gurney & Son and Sarony "to secure the notable Theatricals." Charles D. Fredricks had "given up that class of work" and Jose Maria Mora had not yet emerged on the scene. According to a critic in the Photographer’s Friend, Sarony was known for his images of Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle, Mrs. Scott Siddons, and Nilsson. Gurney’s images of Lotta Crabtree seized attention. Meanwhile Howell made his reputation for his images of the burlesque queens—Lydia Thompson, Pauline Markham, and Agnes Ethel. He won the premium for the best photograph finished by crayon in the 1870 American Institute Exhibition, and the silver medal for pastel portrait in the 1873 Exhibition.
Born into a propertied New York family in the horse racing resort of Goshen, William R. Howell was drawn to art as a teenager and learned photography at the town's one studio, catering to sporting tourists. At age 17 he moved to New York City, associating with Henry and Robert Johnston at their gallery at 867 Broadway. He became a full partner in 1866 and bought the Johnstons out the following year. An ambitious man, he figured that the celebrity trade would be the quickest means of putting his name before the public. Yet like Sarony, William Notman, the Pach Brothers, Howells sought to counteract the vicissitudes of custom by cultivating the college trade. In the autumn of 1868 he became photographer of New York College and of Princeton the following year.
By 1870 he had secured sufficient income to marry, and wed Fanny Charlotte Scott who would bear him four sons. His career lasted a decade before tuberculosis, combined perhaps with chemical poisoning from certain of the developers, forced him to leave off business. During that time he moved his studio to 26 West 14th, opened a branch studio in Brooklyn, and won international recognition for an award given his work at the 1873 World's Fair in Vienna.
His final decade was characterized by physical and mental instability. In 1886 he opened a studio in Washington, D.C., but several months afterwards he disappeared, abandoning his family. He gravitated to his haunts in New York City opening a business in 1888. He died of malnutrition and T.B. in the home of a fellow photographer less than two years later.
NOTES: New Yorker, "Correspondence," The Photographer's Friend 1 (Jan 1871), 24. "Premiums awarded at the Thirty-Ninth Annual Exhibition, 1870," Annual Report of the American Institute of the City of New York (New York: American Institute, 1871), 20. "William R. Howell (1846-1890) an Unrecognized photographer of Award Winning Elegance," Photographica 23 (1993), 152-54. "W.R. Howell: Howell History," http://www.williamhowell.org/id12.html. "William Roe Howell," http://www.williamhowell.org/Howell%20Biography.htm. David S. Shields/ALS