Arranging the Light: The Story of Calvert Photography

by Amber Barfield Gilmer.

The Calvert family came from Yorkshire, England, where Ebenezer and Peter Ross Calvert studied at the famed South Kensington Art School. In 1873, following the death of his mother, Ebenezer immigrated to Wilson County, Tennessee, upon the advice of a dentist he had met in England. Two years later Peter Ross and Rhoda Calvert, Ebenezer’s siblings, also made the transition and soon persuaded Ebenezer to move to Nashville.

The brothers became involved in Nashville’s art community, and in 1889 they appeared in the city directory as “Calvert Brothers: Portrait Painters, Draughtsmen, and Teachers of Art.” In 1896 they, along with S. A. Taylor, purchased Rodney Poole’s well-known photographic studio. During his ownership (1870-1896), Poole had advertised the studio as “of a superior quality . . . the best artists employed. Elegant rooms, and the finest arrangement of light in the South.”

Calvert Brothers & Taylor, located at the corner of Cherry and Union Streets, continued their partnership until the Calverts purchased Taylor’s interest in 1900. The studio then operated as Calvert Brothers until Peter Ross died in 1931, seven years after Ebenezer’s death.

During their era, the Calvert brothers helped shape the way many Nashvillians would remember their children, their weddings, their homes, and their friends. In addition, the Calverts were often commissioned to copy pre-existing photographs, and many of the resulting copy negatives are today among the most historically valuable negatives at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. These include the earliest known image of the Public Square, images of the wharf and Front Street, the Polk home, the State Capitol, and numerous local scenes. These images document the layout of the city, its growth and its values, and typify what the citizens of Nashville thought worth showing to future generations.

Though art was important, religion came first with Ebenezer, Peter Ross, and Rhoda Calvert. Once the brothers canceled a contract with Vanderbilt when the school asked them to work on Sundays, a thought unfathomable to them. The Calverts established ties to Nashville’s Baptist community, and they were instrumental in forming the Immanuel Baptist Church. In A History of Immanuel Baptist Church, 1887-1986, author Dr. Gaye L. McGlothlen quotes one church member who described Peter Ross as “the saintliest man in the world.” Both the Nashville Banner and The Nashville Tennessean placed Peter Ross’s obituary on the front page of their January 12, 1931, edition, each commenting on his Christian character and his role in the community. The Nashville Tennessean noted that the photographer “won for himself a place in the hearts of thousands of Nashville people.”

After the Calvert brothers’ deaths, control of the family studio passed to Ebenezer’s daughters—Bertha, Zillah, and Mary. The daughters ran the business with few changes, but concentrated on children’s photographs. Zillah’s obituary explains that ” ‘Miss Zillah’ was noted for her winning way with children as they were being photographed.” According to Bob White, who was employed by the sisters as a photographer, he would photograph the children while one of the sisters, usually Zillah, would pose and entertain them.

Five-year-old Florence Puryear Sims, 1899. (from the photo collection of the Nashville Historical Newsletter)

When the sisters retired in 1964, White purchased the studio and continued to run it under the Calvert name. Still a family business, Calvert Photography is located in Burns, Tennessee, and is now operated by Bob’s son and daughter-in-law, Bill and Scotty White. (1999)