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