Thursday, 16 October 2008

An early Seaman portrait : Mary Louisa Gaunt (1869-1965)

Bill Addy from New Jersey in the United States sent me this image of a carte de visite portrait of his paternal grandmother Mary Louisa Gaunt.

Image © and courtesy of Bill Addy

The photo is of my grandmother Mary Louisa Gaunt (not married at the time) who was born 7 Dec 1869 in New Brampton and died 27 Dec 1965 at Roosevelt Hospital, Edison, NJ, USA. She emigrated to Canada Oct 1895 and married my grandfather Edward Addy, Oct 23, 1895 in Magog, Quebec, Canada. He had come a few years earlier and was working in Magog at the time. He was born at Moorhay Farm near Old Brampton where the family had farmed for many years. In 1900 with three young children they emigrated from Canada to New Brunswick, NJ, USA where my grandfather worked for Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical company (world headquarters) as a supervisor.

The photo was recently found in our attic and had been in possession of my grandparents and then our parents. I can only guess the age of the photo as taken sometime in the mid to late 1880's. Perhaps you can narrow it down further.
Image © and courtesy of Bill Addy

The card mount, the reverse of which is shown above, has a similar design to one that I have estimated (in my profile of the studio of Alfred Seaman & Sons) was used between c.1881 and 1886, but with gold ink on a glossy dark brown card instead of dark brown ink on a pale yellow or beige card (see below). It is worth noting that in very busy studios such as this one, new batches of card mounts were probably ordered on a fairly frequent basis, perhaps as often as every six months to a year. One of Alfred Seaman's sons probably started to work for him as early as 1881, but I don't believe that the firm was actually advertised as "A. Seaman & Sons" (later it was more often just "Seaman & Sons") until around 1887. This card mount merely uses the name, "A. Seaman." The reverse of the card mount lists the branches in Brewery and Burlington Streets. By May 1886, the Burlington Street branch appears to have been closed and replaced by another in Corporation Street, so we can surmise that the card mounts were at least ordered prior to that date. It also seems have been produced before to their opening of another branch studio in Ilkeston, which happened around 1886-1887.

The clothes worn by the girl/young woman, the style of the photograph and the design of the carte de visite card mount all point to a date of the early to mid 1880s, perhaps slightly earlier than the mid- to late 1880s which Bill suggested. The tight, frilled collar, with a brooch at her neck, the shape of the hat, the rounded shoulders, vertical row of buttons, and tight, narrow sleeves all suggest to me a date of between 1882 and 1886-ish. The intricate and elaborate embroidery on the tight-fitting bodice of her dress, especially, is characteristic of this period. There is a similar example on Roger Vaughan's web site, tentatively dated at 1883.

I suggest, therefore, that this portrait was probably taken between c.1884 and early 1886. It's difficult to accurately estimate the age of the young woman in your photograph, particularly as she may have been wearing a corset, but I think she is probably in her mid-teens, say between 14 and 17. This appears to fit well with your identification of the subject as your grandmother Mary Louisa Gaunt, who was born on 7 December 1869 - she would have been fifteen years old for most of 1885.

Image © & courtesy of John BradleyImage © & courtesy of John Bradley

It's also worth noting that the item of studio furniture - actually a fake pillar and balustrade, probably made of wood and plaster - is identical to that pictured in a portrait of an unidentified couple sent to me by John Bradley, and included on my Seaman web page. That one is on what I have assumed to be the slightly earlier "dark brown on pale yellow" card mount, and must, I think, have been taken at around the same time as Bill's photograph. The painted backdrop may be different, although it is more likely to be just another part of the same one.


  1. I had a look at the October PhotoSleuth posts but could not get my teeth into anything, except that I wondered about the scenery in the Seaman studio, and whether the artist had copied a Derbyshire building, if so, which one ? I will ponder on it!

    I feel sure it is not the church, or Chatsworth, Haddon Hall or Hardwick, although Bolsover Castle requires further thought.

    Mentioning the church you may be interested to read (source Wikipedia )

    The spire is both twisted and leaning, twisting 45 degrees and leaning 9 feet 6 inches from its true centre. The leaning characteristic is believed to be the result of the absence of skilled craftsmen (the Black Death had been gone only twelve years prior to the spire's completion), insufficient cross-bracing, and the use of unseasoned timber. There have been other explanations: One is that the spire was so shocked to learn of the marriage of a virgin in the church that it bent down to get a closer look. Should this happen again, it is said that the spire will straighten and return to its true position. Another is that a Bolsover blacksmith mis-shoed the Devil, who leaped over the spire in pain, knocking it out of shape. [1] However it is now believed that the bend began when the original wooden roof tiles were replaced by heavier slate and lead. The bend in the spire (the twist being deliberate) follows the direction of the sun and has been caused by heat expansion and a weight it was never designed for (as explained to us by curators at the Chesterfield Museum)[citation needed]. There is also no record of a bend until after the slate change. An interesting point is that the spire is not attached to the church building but is kept on by its own weight.


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  3. I spent a while ploughing through photos of Derbyshire Stately homes and large country houses of note, and I have decided that the most likely candidate for Seaman’s scenery would be Renishaw Hall. It is a mere 8km NE of Chesterfield town centre, and really the only property that I can find in the county with the distinctive features, the spires, and the crenellations (OK, I had to look that one up... the pattern along the top of many medieval castles, most often in the form of multiple, regular, rectangular spaces cut out of the top of the wall, through which to shoot arrows)

    The house was built in the Gothick taste for Sir Sitwell Sitwell in 1793-1808.

    In the twentieth century the Sitwell family became famous through the writings of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, the three gifted children of the eccentric Sir George and Lady Ida Sitwell.

    The youngest, known as 'Sachie', was the only one of his generation to marry, and Renishaw now belongs to his elder son, Sir Reresby Sitwell.

    D. H. Lawrence is said to have used the local village of Eckington and Renishaw Hall as inspiration for his novel Lady Chatterley's Lover.

    There is a photo at:


  4. Thanks for the work on this, Nigel.

    I hadn't thought of the possibility that studio backdrops might represent real scenes and buildings from the nearby countryside, but I suppose it is quite likely. Certainly a local artist would use local scenes for inspiration. Interesting to hear of the possible connections with the Sitwells and D.H. Lawrence/Lady Chatterley's Lover.

    I was aware of some of the general background about Chesterfield's spire, but not the detail.

    Regards, Brett

  5. In 'A tour of Mr Seaman's studio' printed in the Derbyshire Times 1886, the backdrops are described as follows 'At the further end of the room are arranged a large number of Seavey’s celebrated backgrounds and several local backgrounds taken from photographs, and notably Chatsworth Gardens, with the Emperor Fountain playing. All these are so constructed that with very little trouble backgrounds required can be let down by ropes and pulleys, and by these means a visitor may be taken so as to appear almost in any place he wishes. He can appear to be by the seaside, or in Chatsworth Gardens, or in the precincts of a large mansion.'

    The article, with annotations from me can be found on Brett's website at:

  6. Thanks for that additional material, John - very relevant.

  7. I am a volunteer driver for a homeless charity in Derby and yesterday morning I was asked to go up to Renishaw Hall to collect a donation of items. Silly me forgot to take a camera ! But now I have been there, seen it, and it is a splendid house indeed, I cannot help feeling that Seaman was once called there to photograph the house and the Sitwell family, and perhaps cheekily thereafter had it painted onto a canvas for one of his backdrops!! You had better ask the archivist at Renishaw, but I will put my money on being correct in my comment of October 18 2008, despite the fact that then I had never seen the house then, except on line etc.

  8. Thank you, Nigel. Although I haven't been there either, I found a decent photograph of Renishaw Hall here and agree that the crenellations are very similar. The pointy things at the end - are they finials, I don't know - are slightly different, but Seaman's version - or should I say Seavey's - is, after all, a painting.


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