It was predicted from Newtonian physics already in the 18th century that gravity should bend light, but not by as much as general relativity predicts. This was first confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919. Surely, solar eclipses were imaged long before that. Didn't anyone notice that stars near the Sun were displaced? Hadn't anyone thought of testing the newtonian prediction of bent light?
I suggest reading the paper on the 1919 expedition to get a clearer picture of why they did it at that time and why it hadn't been done before. From reading chapter 2 I think the main reason was the astrophotography equipment required for the experiment and the alignment of bright enough stars close to the sun to observe the effect.
Of course before Einsteins prediction in 1911 no one had any specific reason to observe the stars close to a solar eclipse before and during totality, it might seem obvious now but that's hindsight for you.