Friday, 6 June 2008

Family portraits on cabinet cards in the 1880s and 1890s

I have posted this photograph not for any particularly remarkable features, but because it is a typical example of the family portraits on cabinet cards which appear to have become particularly popular in the late 1880s and 1890s.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The family, unfortunately unidentified, consists of the mother and father, perhaps in their mid-50s, with two daughters and five sons, aged from the mid-teens to the late 20s. The group of nine have been arranged in a standard pose within a studio setting fairly typical for the early 1890s, with the photographer taking great care to keep the arrangement symmetrical.

This period saw an increased use of palms, ferns and other tropical plants, often contained in urns of classical design, and one of these has been painted on right of the elaborate studio backdrop. The photographer has used an intricate filigree screen on the left, behind the two young women, coupled with a change in style of design on the backdrop - perhaps even a separate backdrop - showing a more distant view of wooden panelling, apparently adjacent to a window (only the edge of which is seen), with the sunlight streaming in. This was presumably to give the impression of space - or natural or homely surroundings - in the portrait, a device commonly used by photographers, and not just restricted to this period, although with widely varying results.

Dating accurately using clothing styles is a little difficult with this portrait. The sleeves of the dresses worn by the two young women, raised at the shoulders in manner which heralded the appearance of the "leg of mutton" style of sleeve, first appears in the fashion magazines of the era in 1889 and 1890. At the same time, the "hourglass" figure, with tightly corseted waists, tended to replace the bustled look of the 1880s. The dress of the mother, with its more square shoulders, narrow sleeves, and tight boddice with a row of buttons, is more characteristic of the 1880s. It is likely, however, that the younger members of the family would be more up with the latest fashions, and I suspect, therefore, that it was taken in the very early 1890s, perhaps between 1890 and 1892. The drawing up of the young women's hair into buns high on the back of their heads is also typical of the period 1888 to 1894.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The design on the reverse of the cabinet card continues the classical concept suggested by the studio props in the studio portrait on the front. A mark at the bottom right of the card mount shows the design to have been registered by "C.E. & C.," a firm estimated by Roger Vaughan as having been in business from c. 1887 to 1895. It has been printed in two colours using a different process from that commonly founded in the 1880s and earlier - possibly photogravure, which permitted the reproduction of a much greater range of tones. The design depicts two lady artists, classically dressed, carrying the various tools of the trade, such as brushes, palette and portfolio case, and leaning on what appears to be a large camera. The rose climbing on a wooden structure in the upper right background is a carry over of similar, more extensive designs commonly used in the 1880s. The front and reverse of a medal awarded to Berry (Class II No. 266) in 1887 at the Triennial Exhibition of the Photographic Society of Ireland is prominently displayed at upper right, again reminiscent of a style which started in the late 1870s, became very commonly used in the 1880s, but declined somewhat in popularity during the 1890s.

The photographer R.B. Berry & Co. of Moses Gate, near Bolton had been in that business for some years, and always described himself as an "artist & photographer." As explained by Robert Pols in his "Family Photographs 1860-1945" (publ. 2002 by Public Record Office Publications, ISBN 1 903365 20 1) many Victorian photographers portrayed themselves as part of the romantic world of the painter, thus countering "the patronizing argument that mere copying by mechanical means, though doubtless quite clever, could not be classed as art." Although he initially worked in his home town of Chorley, Richard Brown Berry (born in 1845) arrived in Farnworth in the late 1870s. I have been unable to find any of his studio locations listed in contemporary trade directories, but other references to his working from Moses Gate start from 1884, when he exhibited with the Royal Photographic Society [Source: Catalogue records from the annual Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society (1870-1915)]. From at least 1891 until 1901, the family lived at number 13 Bolton Road, Farnworth, which appears to be immediately adjacent to the current Moses Gate Railway Station. This suggests to me that the studio may have been operated from their home.

P.S. Further portraits by the studio of R.B. Berry & Co., and its successor, R.B. Berry & Sons, both of Mosesgate, were sent to me by Kathryn Nauta, and feature in another Photo-Sleuth article here.


  1. The family portrait photo is amazing - where did you find the photo?

  2. Thanks Kat - it was one of a batch of cabinet cards that I purchased on eBay some years ago. Sadly all provenance is now lost, so we may never know who the family was.

  3. Would it be possible to obtain a high-res scan of that image? I'm working on a Civil War documentary (independent piece) and I'm looking for this sort of imagery.

  4. Feel free to email me directly, offline, if it's easier.

  5. For that you'll need to provide me with an email address - my contact details are under my profile, click the link at the top left of this page.


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