Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Henry Lawless of Exeter - a portrait of a portrait

Old photos were frequently copied long after the original portrait had been taken, often subsequent to the death of the subject, and I have come across many examples in the compilation of my Derbyshire Photographers & Photographic Studios collection. However, sometimes the memory of a departed family member was celebrated in a slightly different fashion.

A style not often encountered, this "portait of a portrait" was sent to me recently by Angela Johnson. The cabinet card probably shows her great-great-grandfather Henry Lawless (1826-1877), an Exeter wine merchant, churchwarden and town councillor. She writes:
"It has been suggested that the photo was taken of a portrait after his death....of course, it may not be him ... I have tried to make out what the bits and pieces are by blowing up the picture, but it just isn't quite clear enough to decipher the titles of the books etc. - the folded bit of paper looks like a cartoon about the Town Council."

The photographer William S. Sugden died at Brighton in 1880, so this portrait must have been produced before then. William Sugden was in partnership with Edward Williams at 88 High Street, Exeter briefly between April 1877 and February 1878. However, in March 1878 the two went their separate ways. Scott (1985) shows them both with premises in March 1878 - Sugden at 88 Queen Street, and Williams at 241 High Street, Exeter - but no later listings in that town.

This photo is a rather unusual one, and I believe it must have been taken after the death of the subject. The arrangement of the framed portrait on the writing desk with the books, ink well, quill pen, lamp and loose papers was meant to portray his life and work, and the distinguished person that he was. His clothing looks tailored to me - you don't often see people this well-dressed in photographs from the 1870s. The portrait style, card mount design and known dates for Sugden's studio operation in Exeter, confirms a date of between 1877 and 1880. I suspect that it was taken shortly after his death, either in 1877 or 1878.

The clothing style suggests to me that the original portrait, which appears to have been enlarged considerably from the size of a standard studio portrait, was taken not long before the presumed subject's death in 1877. All of the items placed on the desk are likely to have had some significance, if only we could work out what it was.

I would be interested to hear from any other viewers who have come across studio portraits such as this one, not just copied from older photos, but incorporating the older photograph, in a separate frame, with carefully selected and arranged accessories to embellish the portrait and give an impression of his importance.

History, Gazetteer & Directory of Devon (1878-79), Historical Directories from the University of Leicester
Photographers in Devon 1842-1939 : a brief directory for photograph collectors, by C.G. Scott, 1985, The PhotoHistorian Supplement No. 101, ISSN 0957-0209

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