OFF THE RECORD

Where did those beau­ti­ful early fam­ily pho­to­graphs come from, asks and who are the peo­ple in them?

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - DR ALAN CROSBY lives in Lan­cashire and is edi­tor of The Lo­cal His­to­rian

Alan Crosby cel­e­brates the unique beauty of early fam­ily pho­to­graphs

Iwas read­ing about early pho­tog­ra­phers work­ing in Tewkes­bury, Glouces­ter­shire, be­fore the First World War. The fea­ture ex­am­ined the con­text be­hind those fam­ily por­traits we keep, stuffed in boxes and crammed into fold­ers. You know how it is. We think: “One day I’ll sort them out, la­bel them with de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about who, where, when and on what oc­ca­sion they were taken.” But that day never quite comes round and the fam­ily photos are still tucked away in that large card­board box.

I re­cently went to the funeral of a very old lady of my ac­quain­tance. Her niece told me she’d now in­her­ited nine very large boxes of pho­to­graphs, hardly any of them iden­ti­fied and mostly of peo­ple and places now com­pletely un­known and be­yond re­call. She de­spaired of ever sort­ing them out, and feared they might end up in the in­cin­er­a­tor. What a tragedy… but quite a com­mon prob­lem, I sus­pect.

The pho­to­graph queries in this mag­a­zine are al­ways re­ward­ing (see page 41). I’m filled with ad­mi­ra­tion for ex­perts who can date a pic­ture to within a year or two by the style of a woman’s hair or the shape of a sleeve, or can pin­point some­one’s mil­i­tary po­si­tion by a badge or an epaulet. I lack that ex­per­tise, so most of mine will end up as “Some­time in the mid-1920s?” or “Pos­si­bly Un­cle Fred at Cleethor­pes”, or other vague ap­prox­i­ma­tions. Some years ago I did set aside the stu­dio por­traits of some of my fam­ily, back into the 1890s, and con­sulted older rel­a­tives. But we never got down to the more in­for­mal pic­tures; that more chal­leng­ing task awaits me.

The Tewkes­bury study showed that in a coun­try mar­ket town pho­tog­ra­phers came and went, some stay­ing for only a year or two. They set up stu­dios, ad­ver­tised their spe­cial at­trac­tions (“Re­plete with all the lat­est im­prove­ments in the Art to­gether with ev­ery­thing nec­es­sary to the at­tain­ment of the best pos­si­ble re­sults”; “Begs to in­form the Pub­lic that the Abbey Stu­dio will be open be­tween the hours Of ELEVEN AND TWO, for POR­TRAITS over the four win­ter months when as good re­sults can be ob­tained on a bright day as in any sea­son of the year”), and waited for the cus­tomers.

And we all know about the cus­tomers – our fore­bears, dressed in their best clothes, shoes shin­ing, hair parted, col­lars starched, knife-edge creases in trousers. They stand up­right or sit erect, be­cause of the slow ex­po­sure speed, with fixed smiles or in un­smil­ing se­ri­ous­ness, hold­ing firmly to small chil­dren to keep them im­mo­bile. In the back­ground there’s a ro­man­tic painted back­drop or hang­ings of draped vel­vet and, by their right hand, a ma­hogany side-ta­ble hold­ing a pot­ted fern or large un­read book.

They are cap­tured for pos­ter­ity for the vis­it­ing cards so es­sen­tial to po­lite Vic­to­rian so­ci­ety, or in sea­side stu­dios as a re­minder of a hol­i­day. Per­haps the pho­to­graph was sent to loved ones over­seas, in Amer­ica, Canada or Aus­tralia, or maybe it was mounted in an or­nate frame to stand amid wax fruit and knick-knacks in a cold front par­lour as a badge of re­spectabil­ity.

A cen­tury ago, the trip to the pho­tog­ra­pher’s stu­dio was, for many peo­ple, the most spe­cial of oc­ca­sions. We see great grand­par­ents and their par­ents, sit­ting stiffly on hard chairs, women dressed in black jet beads and or­na­men­tal fringes on their gowns, men with mous­taches brushed and smart white cuffs show­ing.

These days we click dig­i­tally, and can take thou­sands of pho­to­graphs each year, delet­ing as many as we want and with the abil­ity to edit, im­prove and en­hance. For­mal por­traits are still an op­tion, but the em­pha­sis is on ‘real life’ set­tings. The se­ri­ous qual­ity of the of­ten su­perb pho­tog­ra­phy of the late Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian periods is un­fash­ion­able, but those prints have a beauty all their own. Look out for the guide to stu­dio por­traits in our next is­sue, on sale 21 Novem­ber

She’d in­her­ited nine very large boxes of pho­to­graphs, hardly any of them iden­ti­fied

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