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SYBIL: an eccentrically British camera

SYBIL: an eccentrically British camera
June 28, 2015 charl13

SYBIL: an eccentrically British camera

by Harry Kitchen

In 1980 I met a ‘one-armed very old gentleman’, (as he candidly described himself), who had a camera to sell. Over lunch he told me that the Kaiser had deprived him of the other arm in the Great War, that during 1926 he had bought the camera from James Sinclair, and that the shutter did not work.

However, his asking price of £30 included a roll film holder, a dozen metal double dark slides, an extension bellows and bespoke solid hide case. For checking paper contrast, there was a glass step wedge in a fitted wooden box. As a user rather than a collector, and the owner of a Contax, Reid III, Rolleiflex and other, more modern cameras, the Sybil, though unusual, held little charm. Until, that is, I remembered that it was a British camera, and eccentrically British at that.

The camera I bought was a Newman and Guardia Special Sybil. Arthur Newman was the designer, and with Julie Guardia, a naturalised Spaniard and keen photographer, in 1891 he formed the partnership of Newman and Guardia. Guardia, having died in 1906, in 1910 Newman left the company, seemingly “by mutual agreement”. During that year he started a manufacturing division for equipment to be retailed by James A. Sinclair, the best known being Newman & Sinclair’s UNA

The Sybil range commenced in 1908, with the Special Sybil appearing in 1909 in quarter plate and 3″ x 2″ sizes. The camera is made of thin sheet metal and has a twin trellis, ensuring a wonderfully rigid assembly when the lens standard is locked into place. Contemporary designs often included double extension bellows, but Newman provided a separate extension bellows, to be inserted as needed between camera back and focusing screen and plate/film holders. Three trellises, one on top and one on either side, ensured rigidity

Newman also replaced the conventional rack and pinion focusing by a radially moving lever coupled to the lens standard. This carries a depth of field scale and moves across a black sector bearing distance calibrations in yards. Both depth of field and distance figures are beautifully hand painted in white – a laborious operation. The lens standard is calibrated 0-1-2 for vertical and horizontal shifts, the swivelling fold-flat viewfinder having corresponding calibrations, plus two tiny spirit levels.


Special Sybil with roll film holder
Special Sybil with roll film holder

Due to differing thicknessess , the focal planes of plate and roll film holder differ by about half an inch, so to ensure correct focusing a metal tab has to be pressed down and moved until the lens standard clicks into the correct position. From experience I can assure you that forgetting which position the standard is in results in disastrously out of focus negatives!

Double dark slides held plates: a convoluted roll film holder provided eight or sixteen exposures on 120 roll film. Film was wound on to the first frame under a ruby red window covered by a spring loaded flap, after which a ratchet and pawl system acted as frame counter. From about half way through the roll the wind knob became increasingly difficult to turn – forcing it mangled the film. Because of this I never tried transparency films. Nor did I get around to using cut film in the double dark slide, by backing the film with cardboard having the same thickness as the intended plate.

‘Wonderfully simple and silent in operation, Newman’s pneumatic shutter mechanism has a charming rusticity, exhibiting the marks made by craftsmen’s files and emery paper. ’

Wonderfully simple and silent in operation, Newman’s pneumatic shutter mechanism has a charming rusticity, exhibiting the marks made by craftsmen’s files and emery paper. Almost certainly signifying the parts were non-interchangeable, many parts have the number VII scratched on them. The black painted shutter lobes are pivoted at their centre and oscillate to and fro between the lens elements. Motive power is a helical spring concentric with the internal shaft of the capstan. A quadrant at their juncture bears a cut-out into which fits an arm coupled to the T-B-I lever, plus a spigot to which is attached a thin wire connected to a piston moving within a cylinder. At the cylinder’s end is a tapered pin connected to the shutter speed dial. The rate at which air is allowed to leak out of the cylinder determines the shutter speed. With the pin fully withdrawn the fastest speed of 1/150th second is obtained; as the pin is progressively inserted into the cylinder, the shutter speed lengthens, up to ? second.

Ready for repair!
Ready for repair!

The shutter lobes move slowly for slow speeds, accelerating as faster speeds are selected. The first one moves to uncover the lens opening, then the other covers it to terminate the exposure. The lobes are visible through the lens and carry the symbols + and O. Cocking the shutter is achieved by turning the capstan to be until it points to the same symbol. Except at the faster speed, where they open and close with a distinctive “click”, at the slow speeds the Sybil’s shutter is wonderfully silent – the quietest I have ever used.

Before the Kaiser’s war Arthur Newman fitted the finest Zeiss lenses. After it, though Zeiss reputedly offered very advantageous terms, he rejected them in favour of the British lenses. I have read somewhere that Newman’s advertisements claimed: The British camera with British lenses, 50 years after Sybil’s 112mm f4.5 Ross Xpres provided me with bitingly sharp and contrasty negatives

I was quoted £40 to repair the shutter. But knowing the shutter’s method of operation, and having seen photographs of its mechanism, I removed the lens panel from the bellows, ‘split’ it, to discover what I had suspected – the helical spring had become detached. Because pneumatic shutters rely on air escaping at a pre-determined rate, they must be bone dry. I cleaned the cylinder and piston with alcohol, re-connected the helical spring, photographed the various pieces and painfully put a few half films through that wretched roll film holder

For me, Newman typified the essentially English eccentric entrepreneur, a few of whom in later years I came to know. He did not follow, let alone slavishly copy, German camera designs as British designers were later to do. If you compare the Sybil with its contemporary, the Zeiss Maximar with f4.5 Tessar, the Maximar was more pleasant to use, but optically its Tessar was demonstrably inferior to the Sybil’s Ross Xpres.

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