Monday, 9 June 2008

Two family portraits, at opposite ends of the price range

The first portrait is a carte de visite by an unknown photographer of an unidentified young family.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The mother and father look to be in their late twenties to early thirties, and early to mid-thirties, respectively, while the four children are perhaps aged between one and eight. The two adults appear to be seated on some kind of bench, although that is hidden from view. The youngest child is being held in the crook of her mother's arm, on her lap, while another two children, hats in hand, are held close, perhaps to keep them still for the lengthy exposure time - all three of them lean shyly towards their parents. The oldest child, a girl, is more independent, standing to the side of her father, with an inquisitive, almost expectant, look on her face.

Both the photographic print and the card mount have been trimmed very roughly, so that they are only approximately rectangular. The card mount has not been printed and has no marks identifying the photographer. However, some inferences can perhaps be made by the rudimentary nature of the setting. While he has used a canvas backdrop, the photographer has made little effort to disguise the fact that it has been taken outdoors. In such circumstances, it was quite common to use a carpet to obscure the rough grass foreground, but in this picture the patchy grass, with what appear to be some scattered stones, is clear. The ends of two planks at the right are perhaps part of the frame used to hold up the canvas backdrop, presumably included in the view unintentionally. A column is, I think, painted on the backdrop, although at the base of the column the plinth, carefully aligned, is probably an actual piece of studio furniture, rather than a continuation of the painting. The photograph is also crooked. This may have been because the camera was not level, but it could also have been the effect of poor trimming of the print.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Handwritten on the reverse, in what appears to be a contemporary hand, is the date, "February 1871." The clothes worn by the subjects, the style of portrait, and thickness and square corners of the card mount are all compatible with this date, so I have no reason to doubt that the portrait was taken at this time.

The almost amateur nature of the whole picture, and the use of plain, unprinted card stock, indicates that it was probably taken by an itinerant or travelling photographer, and perhaps a relatively inexperienced one at that. It is likely that the portraits were very cheap, in comparison with prices charged by urban photographers with permanent studios and established reputations. Although the subjects appear to be dressed in their Sunday best, the clothes are plain, with the implication that they are working class, maybe country folk.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The second portrait was taken some thirty years later, I estimate in the first few years of the twentieth century, perhaps c. 1900-1905. It is a cabinet card with square corners by A. & G. Taylor of 63 Princes Street, Edinburgh, showing a middle-aged couple in their late forties or early fifties, with three children, a boy aged six or seven and two girls aged about twelve and sixteen. They are, once again, unidentified. The portrait has been taken in a lavishly decorated studio setting, with heavy curtains and an elaborately painted backrop framing the family, who have been carefully positioned, the children standing in an asymmetrical but not unbalanced group between the two seated adults. The clothing and poses intimate a middle or upper class family.

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