Monday, 12 July 2010

Dating photos from card mounts – the dangers

Two cabinet card portraits from a Derby studio that I purchased recently on eBay are good examples of why it is dangerous to rely on a single method for accurate dating of any photographs.  In particular the difference between the date of the photograph or portrait sitting, and the date of the print itself, is highlighted.  It is always advisable to use a range of techniques, including portrait styles, card mount designs, studio addresses, clothing fashions and hair styles, and arrive at a consensus. If enough is known about a particular studio, supplementary information such as negative numbers may also be employed with some success.

Image © & collection of Brett Payne
W.W. Winter card mount, used c.1874-1879

The Derby studio of W.W. Winter, situated in Midland Road, a stone’s throw away from the railway station, was a popular choice for both residents of the town and visitors alike.  Indeed it still operates today due, no doubt, to its good reputation for fine portraits as well as the handy location.  The studio’s output during the latter part of the nineteenth century was prolific, managing an average of a hundred sittings a week through the 1880s and 1890s.  Each of the sittings would naturally produce a series of copies of each negative, usually in the common carte de visite and cabinet size formats.  Such a busy studio would therefore experience a corresponding rapid dwindling of card mount stocks.

Image © & collection of Brett Payne
W.W. Winter card mount, used c.1886-1888

When ordering replenishments from the printer, Winter appears to have been of the opinion that last season’s card mount design would never suffice.  Like many studios of the time, he took the opportunity to flaunt his achievements, in the form of the latest prize medal tally and his most recent royal patronage, cramming the reverse with images of the medals, dates and abundant text in a multitude of fonts.  In the four decades between 1865 and 1905, when the carte de visite and cabinet formats finally went out of favour, the studio used at least thirty different designs and printings (and more await discovery, I am sure).

Image © & collection of Brett Payne
W.W. Winter card mount, used c.1900-1905

During their heyday, each batch would probably not have lasted for much more than a year or so, before another order would be placed.  The opportunity exists, in such cases, for a detailed dating system to be established, provided that enough reliably dated examples of each type can be found.  This is what I have attempted with my study of Winter’s studio, using portraits from my own collection and images sent to me during the last decade by other family historians and collectors from all over the world. 

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

My first task, therefore, when I see a new portrait from Winter (shown above) is to compare the card design with the sequence of fairly well dated types that I have already established.  A quick look at the Winter profile shows that this card mount is of the Type XXIV “57 Medals” which was used c. 1891 to 1893.  The date of the latest of his 57 medals awarded, as listed on reverse, was 1891 (in Glasgow), so presumably the card mount could not have been printed, and therefore used, prior to 1891.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Near the foot of the reverse of the card mount, in the space provided for “No. of Negative,” is the clearly pencilled number “56447.”  This presents something of a dilemma, as the provisional range of negative numbers that I have recorded from this card type extends from 80852 to 83598.  Even given that an example could lie slightly outside this range,  the much lower negative number 56447 appears to imply a date several years earlier.  A comparison with the ranges recorded for other card types suggest a correlation with Type XVI (55135-61183), which was used in 1885 and 1886.

The explanation is that it is a copy print.  It is a typical example of a copy of a studio portrait made some time after the sitting, and at the same studio, using the original negative.  Provided that the negative remained in good condition, the print might therefore be of equivalent – or perhaps even better – quality to that originally given to the client.  This was a service offered by most studios, and in 1877 Winter started including the words, “ALL NEGATIVES PRESERVED,” in addition to the more general, “This or any other Portrait enlarged on the premises …”  Perhaps only those studios which had been established for any length of time could make good on their promise, as the glass-plate negatives were bulky and delicate, requiring substantial storage space.

So, while the portrait was probably taken in 1885 or 1886, for some reason the subject, or a family member, returned to Midland Road have duplicates made some five or six years later.  If the portrait itself is examined in detail, and compared with examples of fashions from the period on Roger Vaughan’s web site (1883, 1884, 1885), it can be seen that the high ruffed collar, the embroidered front to the bodice, and the woman’s hairstyle are more typical of the mid 1880s than the early 1890s.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The second cabinet portrait from the eBay purchase, which might or might not have been from the same family collection, is of a young child standing on a sofa or divan.  Unfortunately children’s clothing is much harder to date with any accuracy, so I wouldn’t even attempt it with this child’s attire.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The front of the card mount is very similar to the first, but differences appear when it is turned over.  Instead of 57 prize medals there are 58, which equates to Type XXV, a card mount design used from 1892 to 1894.  The negative number pencilled on the reverse, 69129, again lies well outside the range previously recorded for this type (84218-89822).  It does, however, fall within the range for Type XX, suggesting a date for the child’s portrait sitting of between 1886 and 1888, six years or so earlier.

Types XXIV and XXV are obviously sequential, and the possibility exists that the two copies were produced at the same time, stocks of older card type not quite having been exhausted before a packet of the new stock was opened.

Since both of these portraits have inscriptions on the reverse which appear to relate to the subjects, I then attempted to identify them, in order to see if the date ranges estimated for the photographic sittings fitted.  First I estimated their ages from the portraits:  the young woman, I guessed was in her late 20s or early 30s, and the child around 2 or 3 years old, giving possible birth dates of c. 1853-1859 and c.1883-1886, respectively.

(1) Frederica Disney afterwards Clarke

(2) Muriel

It seems unlikely that the first inscription was written by the subject herself, and was quite possibly added some time afterwards.  I would therefore immediately place a question mark over the reliability of any such identification, as it may have been written by someone who never knew the subject, or based on a secondary source.  The second inscription is merely a first name, and without any firm evidence that the subject is related to that in the first image, may not be of much use.  However, given that it accompanied the first photograph, and the styles of writing and pen of the two inscriptions appear similar, the natural assumption is that they may be connected in some way.

A search of the 1891 Census quickly unearthed a Frederica Eliza C. Clark [sic], aged 33, living with her husband Thomas and five children, including a daughter Frederica Murriel [sic], aged 8.  Further investigation using earlier and subsequent census records and birth, marriage and death registration indices, showed that Frederica Eliza Disney (1857-1939) was married to Thomas Clarke (1845-1904) at Leeds in 1876, and moved to Derby soon after.  Their daughter Frederica Muriel Clarke was born at Derby in early 1883, and they moved to Matlock Bath around 1888.  After a spell in Scarborough between 1895 and 1899, they moved back to Derby, where they were living in St Alkmund parish in 1901.

The birth dates of the two Fredericas lie nicely within the ranges estimated above, and I am therefore fairly confident with the deductions made, based on a combination of negative numbers, card mount designs, clothing styles, and apparent ages.

The subjects turned out to be descendants of some interesting Derbyshire families, but I’ll save that for another post.

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