Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Alexander Frederick Rolfe (1814-1875) artist, photographer & angler

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Miss Matilda Rolfe (1816-1896)
by Rolfe's Portrait Studio, 25 December 1861
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This carte de visite is a standard seated portrait of a middle aged woman in a fairly well appointed studio, which I purchased on eBay a few years ago. The main reason for my interest, apart from it being a well composed portrait and a nice early example of a crte de visite, was because an apparently contemporary inscription on the reverse both identifies the sitter and provides an accurate date. Further research has revealed that the photographer was a Victorian painter, Alexander Frederick A.T. Rolfe (1814-1875), one of a family of sporting artists, and the subject is almost certainly his sister Matilda Rolfe (1816-1896).

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The card mount has the studio address (Rolfe's Portrait Studio, 4 Haymarket, London) and an inscription on the reverse, Miss M. Rolfe, Dec 25th /61. An entry in the photoLondon database shows that Alexander Frederick Rolfe was active as a photographer at this location from 1857 until 1864. Alexander Rolfe was one of at least eight children of artist William Edmund Rolfe (1781-1876) and his first wife Louisa Nicholson (1792-1822). After his first wife died, W.E. Rolfe married Eliza Julia Hopkins (1798-1879), with whom he had another four children.

Matilda was Alexander's younger sister, just two years younger than him. She was born in late 1815 or early 1816 at St Clement Dane's, Westminster, London, and never married. By 1851 she was living as a companion with her elderly grandmother at the Goldsmith Almshouse, Acton, Middlesex. From at least 1861 until 1871, according to ceneus records, she was working as a housekeeper to one Henry Reeves, a farmer and landowner, at Rookley Manor, Isle of Wight. This is presumably how she was employed at the time the portrait was taken by her brother. By 1881, she had retired and was lodging in Winchester, and by 1891 was in Weeke, now a suburb of Winchester. Matilda Rolfe died at Islington, Middlesex, in 1896 at the age of eighty-one.

Trout Fishing, by Alexander Frederick Rolfe

Alexander Rolfe was a painter of landscape, still life and sporting subjects, as were his sister Catherine Augusta Herring (1828-1911), better known younger brother Henry Leonidas Rolfe (1823-1881) and brother-in-law John Frederick Herring Jr. (1815-1907). The image shown above is typical of his landscapes with fishing subjects, and possibly depicts Alexander himself with his brother Henry. A portrait of Henry by Alexander, painted in 1850 and now in the collection of the Piscatorial Society, is entitled "Limner of scaly Subjects." [Source]

An English Farmyard Idyll,
by John Frederick Herring & Alexander Frederick Rolfe

He painted profusely and exhibited extensively between 1839 and 1871, and on occasion collaborated with J.F. Herring, his sister Kate's husband. The Rehs Gallery has an extensive virtual exhibition of works by Herring, which are more in the equine and bovine, rather than piscatorial, metier.

Image © and courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Henry Leonidas Rolfe (1823-1881), artist, by Rolfe's Portrait Studio
Image © and courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery has a carte de visite portrait of Henry Leonidas Rolfe taken by Rolfe's Portrait Studio, as well three more portraits of artists by the same studio, probably all taken in the period 1861-1864.

Image © and courtesy of the National Portrait GalleryImage © and courtesy of the National Portrait GalleryImage © and courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Portraits by Rolfe's Portrait Studio, (L to R) Charles Lucy (1814-1873), History painter; George Thomas Doo (1800-1886), Engraver; George Henry Vansittart (1823-1885), Politician
Images © and courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Image © and courtesy of Roger Vaughan
Portrait of Lady Emma Edmonstone (1804-1891)
by Rolfe's Portrait Studios, c.1864
Image © and courtesy of Roger Vaughan

Roger Vaughan has a carte de visite portrait of Lady Edmonstone, with an identical card mount design, on his Victorian and Edwardian Photographs web site, tentatively dated at c.1864. Lady Emma Edmonstone (1804-1891) was the third daughter of Randle Wilbraham of Rode Hall, Cheshire, and the wife of Sir Archibald Edmonstone, 3rd Baronet (1795-1871), a British traveler and writer. In early April 1861, they were visiting at 12 Gloster Gardens, Paddington, London, the household of a West India merchant, John Kingston and his wife Charlotte.

I have found few examples of Rolfe's photographic portraiture, but there is the occasional reference to others that have survived:
  • CDV, unidentified seated male, full length, undated, printed on reverse: Rolfe's Portrait Studio, 4, Haymarket, London, in Portraits of Various People, 136 photographs from an early carte de visite album, 1866-1890, Greater Manchester County Record Office, Ref 2456/12a
The 1861 Census shows Alexander Rolfe living at 6 Richmond Park Terrace, Richmond, Surrey with his wife Harriet "Etty." He described himself merely as an artist, not mentioning the photographic sideline. It is not clear exactly how long the studio operated, but it seems unlikely that it was in existence outside the date range 1857-1864. I'm not aware of any ambrotypes by Rolfe in existence, but presumably if he was in the photographic business in the late 1850s he would have produced some. By 1871 they had moved to 9 Middleton Road, Battersea, Surrey and he is listed as an "artist - landscape & portrait painter." He died at Wandsworth in 1875, at the age of sixty-one.


  1. Hi Brett

    I just wanted to thank you for the comments you left me on my blog back in November. I've only just come across them and I can't understand why I wasn't notified when you left them - I must have that option turned off although I'm sure I had it turned on.
    Thank you for all the details you took the time to give me about the Army uniforms etc, you must think me so rude not to have thanked you before this. Xmas & summer has made me very lazy re my blogs housework :).

    Strangers in a Box

  2. No problem, Dawn. I know what it's like, as I have had a significant break from blogging over the summer. I am just now preparing to get writing again, and looking for some motivation! Hopefully we will be able to collaborate a little more this year. I had a quick look at your blog the yesterday - lots of interesting stuff.


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