Saturday, 29 November 2008

Two framed ambrotypes from Yorkshire

One of the ways in which a photographic studio could "add value" to its products was to offer an enlargement and framing service, and all but the smallest or most itinerant of operations tended to do this. The most basic type of framing in the early days, for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, was an embossed leather- or papier mache-covered and silk- or velvet-lined rectangular wooden or thermoplastic case, which served the dual purpose of protecting the delicate images, examples of which are relatively common. If the portrait was wanted for display purposes, however, an alternative option was to have it mounted behind glass with a mat and frame, in much the same way as painted portraits were done.

Image © and courtesy of Brenda Croome

Brenda Croome recently sent me two images of framed ambrotypes of family members, with the following explanation:
I went north in October, and visited an old lady of 89 who is the great-grand-daughter of Christopher Richardson, my great-grandfather Thomas's brother. She very kindly gave me two photographs of two of Thomas and Christophers' sisters. The eldest girl is Mary Ann Esther Richardson born 1844, and her sister is Eliza Richardson 1847/1852. They were born in Neasham, Yorkshire, near to Darlington, their father was a shoemaker. I know very little about early photography - except that I seem to recall that daguerrotypes were very expensive, so for the rich!

I have taken the back off one of them and found:- Looking at the photos from the front, there is a glass covering, behind that the white and gilded mount. Behind that a coloured glass plate (with blue poorly fixed powdery substance, which came away on a cotton bud). Behind that a loose piece of almost black velvet, and laid on this loose piece of velvet at the bottom edge, about 1\3" thick, a roll of velvet - this holds the bottom of the glass negative just off the loose piece of velvet. Behind that a piece of card. The whole inner part pinned to the frame with ½" nails with extremely small heads.

The only other method of photography in about 1848 I have heard vaguely of is the process known as albumin negatives. Would there have been a photographic studio in Darlington at such an early date? Or would there have been travelling photographers? These are the earliest photographs I have and I would be thrilled to learn more about them.
Image © and courtesy of Brenda Croome

After I had cautioned Brenda about the danger of dismantling ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, she assured me "that I only took the cotton bud to the extreme edge of the glass plate, to see if the 'blue' was fixed. The whole process of taking the picture apart frightened me hugely!

Image © and courtesy of Brenda CroomeImage © and courtesy of Brenda Croome

They are, in fact, ambrotypes, which succeeded daguerreotypes and were considerably cheaper. The wet plate collodion positive process was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, and became very popular for portraiture in a short space of time, so that by the mid-1850s, it had all but supplanted the daguerreotype. As it required little skill and a much lower cost to set up and produce ambrotypes, this continued to be the method of choice for almost a decade, until the even cheaper tintypes, paper prints and cardboard-backed carte de visites took over in the early 1860s.

The photograph was printed as a negative on the inside of the glass, and the black velvet backing then had the effect of turning this into a "positive" image. The coloured plate was used to impart colours to the image, as trying to colour the image itself would have destroyed the collodion. The whole set-up was then usually encased in a box similar to those previously used for daguerreotypes, although framed examples with white and gilt matts such as these are fairly common. A further development of the collodion positive process resulted in the ferro-type, commonly referred to as a tin-type. In this method the collodion was coated onto a thin sheet of black-enamelled, or "japanned," iron, and often covered with clear varnish, thus rendering them more durable than the ambrotypes that they replaced. Being more robust meant that they did not need cases, and could be sold "as is," in cardboard and/or paper frames, or presented in specially designed gem tin-type albums.

Image © and courtesy of Brenda CroomeImage © and courtesy of Brenda Croome

Being ambrotypes, Brenda's two portraits were indeed affordable to many everyday folk of the period, although would still, I suspect, have been quite a significant expense to the family of a shoemaker. The younger child appears to be about two years old, the older one perhaps four. I estimate that they were taken in the early to mid-1850s, say between 1853 and 1856, and the mounts and frames appear to be contemporary with the photographic images. The portraits both have the same toy in the left hand foreground, a wheeled horse with a missing head. This suggests to me that they were taken on the same occasion, and that one should therefore be looking for two children, aged about two years apart, who were born c.1849-1852 and c.1851-1854, respectively.

These dates don't really quite fit with the birth dates of Brenda's Mary Ann Esther and Eliza Richardson. I found them on the 1851 Census, living with their parents, Robert & Ann Richardson in the village of Neasham, County Durham, and numerous siblings, although by the time of the 1861 Census, Mary Ann was working as a servant and Eliza was nowhere to be found. I presume that she had died in 1852. I think it very unlikely, therefore, that the two children are Mary Ann and Eliza as identified by Brenda's relative, and would suggest looking for other members of the family who they might have been.

There were almost certainly photographic studios in Darlington by the mid- to late 1850s, although they may have been operated on a temporary basis by photographers visiting from larger towns. Alternatively, family members may have travelled to a larger town and had their portrait taken there.

More from Brenda:
There is ... a problem. With one, not very likely, exception, there are absolutely no other children who could fit that time frame. If the photograph was taken mid-1851, there is one other child born who could fit. This was William born 22 May 1849, the younger brother of the two girls, so Eliza would have been 5, and William 2 years and some months. Can the younger of the children be seen as a boy? It doesn't seem likely, why is 'he' wearing a frock. There would have been 'hand-me-downs' from the three elder sons.
Young boys and were commonly dressed in very similar, if not identical, clothes in this era, in particular dresses, and boys were often only "breeched," i.e. fitted with trousers, when they were 6 to 10 years old. One can sometimes tell from the position of the parting in the hair (central for girls, or side for boys) whether a child was a boy or girl, but this is by no means a fool-proof method.

Image © and courtesy of Brenda Croome

I'd prefer to leave further interpretation to Brenda, as so much of the investigative process depends on a detailed knowledge of the particular family. Out of interest, a close up image of the top left hand corner of one of the frames shows that it is made from wood with plaster embellishment. Roger Vaughan has an ambrotype of a couple and a small child with a very similar mat and frame, here.

For those readers who are interested in learning more about daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and the processes used to create them, I would like to strongly recommend The Birth of Photography: The Story of the formative years 1800-1900, by Brian Coe (publ. Spring Books, London, 1989, ISBN 0 600 56296 4). My copy was very kindly "rescued" and sent to me by Sylvia Rhodes. I have also put together a few links to online galleries of ambrotypes:

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