Howard Coster, autograph albums and sitter books

Scope and Content

This collection contains three autograph albums and two sitter books, the details of this are as follows:

- Autograph Album, c. 1932-c. 1940, (formerly MS 4)
It is thought that Coster invited sitters to sign this album when their portraits were taken, signatures in the album include: Siegfried Sassoon, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, J. B. Priestly, Peggy Ashcroft, Rebecca West, Esmond Romilly, Vera Brittain, W. Somerset Maughan, Edith Sitwell, Stella Gibbons and Sylvia Pankhurst. Some signatures are accompanied by drawings or notes, including self portraits by Alfred Hitchcock and Sir David Low, and a watercoloured picture by Rex Whistler. The front of the volume contains a note to Coster from Eric Gill. This volume is thought to have been rebound at an unknown date.

- Autograph Album, c. 1940- c. 1946 (formerly MS 5)
It is thought that Coster invited sitters to sign this album when their portraits were taken, signatures in the album include: Jacob Epstein, Constant Lambert, Noel Streatfield, Louis Mountbatten, Evelyn Waugh and Harold Macmillan. Loose pieces of paper have been inserted throughout the volume bearing autographs, including one for Bertand Russell. The volume was previously used as a commonplace book titled 'Selections from favorite authors and contributions from favorite friends' by Mary Ann Martens (pages 1-14).

- Autograph Album, c.1953-c. 1957 (formerly MS 3)
It is thought that Coster invited sitters to sign this album when their portraits were taken, signatures in the album include: R. Vaughan Williams, Alexander Fleming, and C. Day Lewis. The volume had previously been used as a scrapbook with images and writings inserted on some pages, it is unknown who did this. Several loose pieces of paper have been inserted throughout the volume bearing autographs, including one for Charles Kingsley Adams, NPG Director 1951-1964. The volume is thought to have been rebound at an unknown date.

- Sitter Book, 1926-1934 (formerly MS 22)
Contains list of sitters arranged alphabetically and then by year, Includes sitters name, negative number and type of photograph produced. Some of names have crosses marked next to them or have been struck through.

- Sitter Book 1953-1959 (formerly MS 23)
Contains list of sitters arranged alphabetically and then by year, Includes sitters name and negative number.

Administrative / Biographical History

Howard Sydney Musgrave Coster (1885-1959) was born in Stoke Newington, the son of William Isaiah Coster, and his wife Mary Ann. His father died when Coster was young and the family moved to the Isle of Wight where Mary Ann had relatives, her brother Samuel running a photographic business. Coster attended school on the Isle of Wight before beginning a five year apprenticeship as general assistant at his uncle's studio. Amongst his work was preparing wet collodion negatives and supervising 200 daylight-printing frames.

In 1906 Samuel's business was taken over and Coster abandoned photography in favour of farming in South Africa, where his brother Percy had emigrated to. Coster remained in South Africa for two years before returning to Britain and taking up a position at a portrait studio in Coventry, staying for three years before returning to South Africa. His second stint in South Africa saw him work as a travelling photographer, cycling through small towns with a tent as a darkroom taking portraits of cattlemen and gaining free accommodation in hotels in exchange for portrait sittings. Shortly before the start of the First World War he opened a studio in Bloemfontein with a Mr Somerville but in 1918 he returned to Britain, enrolling in the Royal Flying Corps – becoming attached to the aerial photography section.
After the war he returned to South Africa, staying for seven years, working first in Bloemfontein and later in Johannesburg. He married Joan Burr (1903-1974) in 1925, returning to Britain they opened their own studio in London at 8-9 Essex Street. Coster's studio was dedicated solely to men and a few months after opening the credit line 'Coster – Photographer of Men' began appearing in the press. Coster wished to distance himself from the multiple London society photographers who specialised in beautifying their female clients.

His business was a success and by the end of 1926 Coster had undertaken commissions for portraits of many successful writers including John Galsworthy, J.B. Priestly and A. A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin Milne and Pooh Bear. Also in 1926 Coster became portrait photographer for literary magazine 'The Bookman', Coster was the leading photographer of British literary figures and from 1935 his portraits frequently appeared on the inside covers of the newly launched Penguin paperbacks.

Between 1928 and 1931 Coster produced portraits of eminent women and fashion photographs for British Vogue, under 'Howard and Joan Coster'. He also began to produce advertising images and worked regularly for 'The Bystander' magazine. In the 1930s Howard Coster employed several staff, Joan supervised the printing rarely operating the camera. Coster's reputation as a leading portrait photographer was reinforced when in 1932 he was selected as one of the British representatives at the Wertheim Gallery exhibition in London. In 1937 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, also that year an exhibition 'Camera Portraits by Howard Coster' was held at Selfridges.

The outbreak of World War Two saw Coster commissioned to take portraits of army, air force and political leaders many of which were published. In 1943 he moved to a new studio at 3 Victoria Street, Westminster. In 1944 he was awarded the freedom of the City of London in acknowledgement of his lifelong commitment and his contribution to photography. Coster closed the studio in 1946, retiring with Joan to the country. His collection of 8000 negatives were acquired for the nation by the British Council photographic library, subsequently passed to the Central Office of Information who then gave it to the NPG in 1974.

Coster returned to business in 1953 at 9 Sackville Street, London during this period he took portraits of John Betjeman, Cecil Day-Lewis and John Gielgud. He continued to work almost until his death in November 1959.

This biographical description is largely based on Terence Pepper and Susanna Brown, 'Coster, Howard Sydney Musgrave' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, September 2006 [ https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-62983?rskey=NRhye5&result=1 , accessed 03 July 2019]

Access Information

Available to view by appointment in the Heinz Archive and Library Public Study Room, to make an appointment contact Archive Reception . Although records are generally available for public consultation, some information in them, such as personal data or information supplied to the Gallery in confidence, may be restricted.

Conditions Governing Use

Personal photography is permitted for research purposes only. Photocopying is not permitted.