Saturday, 2 April 2011

Sepia Saturday 68: Abderame's Crescent Studio

I'm not going to try and match this week's Sepia Saturday image prompt. Lewis Hine's powerful "man and machine" photograph features in most authoritative photohistorical books, and quite rightly so, but it's a hard act to follow. My contribution will therefore only loosely pursue a "men at work" theme.

When I started Photo-Sleuth one of my aims was to feature images showing aspects of ordinary, everyday life, including people at work. You will find a few examples posted here in the last four years or so, but Victorian occupational photographs are not easy to find and, when they appear on eBay, prices generally tend to shoot way out of my reach.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This carte de visite was tucked away in an album that I bought here in New Zealand a few years ago and which, although it has no unequivocal identification clues, probably belonged to a family which emigrated from England via South Australia in the 19th Century. The photograph, which I estimate was taken in the mid-1870s, shows three young men standing, and a lad of perhaps six or seven years of age seated, in front of a painted studio backdrop. Apart from their high-crowned bowler hats - in one case a very battered specimen that has seen better days - on the face of it, they seem to be getting ready for work, dressed in waistcoats, with their sleeves rolled up, and with a scattered array of wood and woodworking tools.

The well worn wooden trestle provides support for a piece of large timber and the business end of a hand saw, the handle of which is being propped up, rather than grasped firmly, by the man on the left; he has the long handle of another, partly hidden, tool in his left hand. My skilled wooodworker cousin Graham Ellison assures me that the fellow in the centre is misusing that mallet, and I must concur that it's not the way I remember being taught to hold a wood mallet some three and a half decades ago. Quite where he's hoping to insert that plank, I'm not quite sure, and Graham has his doubts too:

The alleged job they are supposed to be doing bears little or no resemblance to a genuine, identifiable job. The length of timber being held is too narrow to have a joint on the end that's capable of being hammered into a corresponding mortice in the thicker piece. It probably has a shoulder cut into it - which allows him to rest it on the larger piece - but would obviously not need hammering. It's a set-up, m'lord.
The third man appears content to lean on his plank and watch from the sidelines while he puffs - or at least he pretends to - on his clay pipe.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The three men display a slightly worrying lack of attention to occupational safety regulations, as the lad has already managed to lay claim to a particularly dangerous looking item.

Image © The Smithsonian Institute, courtesy of Peter C. Welsh and Project Gutenberg
19th Century Screwdriver [1]

I had thought that it might be an awl, but Graham is confident that it's more akin to the 19th Century item from the Smithsonian shown in the image above:
An awl is I suppose a possibility, but on the evidence I have of visiting David Stanley tool auctions, I can attest to the design, and indeed the rarity of screwdrivers of that design, and have no knowledge of an awl in that style. Not even sure it would work very well. And if this was the mid 1800s, then there were very good drill bits that could be hand twisted in brace drills. Also, the practice of using machined wood screws (new technology of the day) in place of hand cut nails was all the rage ... Having studied it for some time, judging from the shadows and the shape of that part of the handle to the right of his hand, I'm now sure it's a very long forged flat-bladed screwdriver. The handle is turned but will have two flats on either side of the bulbous part. The length of both blade and handle are to offer extra torque and purchase. It's not uncommon to use two hands when a screw gets tight.

Image courtesy of Peter C. Welsh and Project Gutenberg
Tools of the carpenter and joiner, 1813, including axe (7), mallet (22), hand saw (24) and smoothing plane (34)
[1, after Thomas Martin]

Next to the bladed tool:
The blade in question is indeed a large, very handy short handled broad axe. Not really a dedicated log splitter, more of a trimming tool. Men would use an axe like this single-handed to cleave away excess timber from round logs and arches etc. Incredibly satisfying and surprisingly accurate as a means of shifting excess material. Untrained hands could of course ruin a job. And if you don't read the grain very very carefully, one blow can split timber well beyond the stroke. I like them by the way. Almost all beams in pubs and old cottages are wrongly described as showing evidence of adze work, They're not, it's mostly axe, and specifically side axe work - another, even more accurate beast entirely.

Image courtesy of Peter C. Welsh and Project Gutenberg
Workbench and tools, 1832, including smoothing plane (3) and mallet (9) [1, after Peter Nicholson]

... and hence to the other two items on the floor:
[It is] a plane, a wooden coffin-shaped smoother to be precise ... and [the other] is a smaller version ... I'm convinced they're props in a studio. But two of the tools are well regarded by someone - both planes are lying correctly on their sides. Not many people bother today. Indeed I don't know of anyone who does that other than me, and I of course learned from my Dad.
I'm pretty sure I had that drummed into me too, but it's been a while since I picked up a plane.

Graham is "not sure any of these men are genuine tradesmen ... I'm sure the lad is taking time out from picking pockets for the the other two dodgy looking dudes." I had wondered if perhaps they had the portrait taken before they emigrated, as a kind of testimonial of their woodworking skills, but the clothes they are wearing are not really workmen's apparel. From what Graham says, it appears they may not have had any such "carpenterial" qualities, so it may have been more in the hope that a hint of a trade might stand them in good stead in their new lives, or alternatively just a bit of fun.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Reverse of carte de visite taken at Abderame's Crescent Studio,
146, Hotwell Road, Bristol
Undated, but probably taken c.1875-1880

If I were to find other portraits from this studio which used the same props, that would pretty much confirm Graham's suspicions, but the trouble is that Abderame's Crescent Studio, where this portrait originated, is an elusive one. Abderame (aka Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi) was a Muslim military leader and governor of Andalusian Spain, also known as the chief of the Saracens [2,3], and a character in an early 19th century opera [4] - hence the "Crescent" association - but this doesn't tell us much about the photographer's identity.

Roger Vaughan's comprehensive list of Bristol Photographers, 1852-1972 [5] shows neither a photographer/studio of that name nor any of that profession working from premises at 146 Hotwell Road. I estimate that the portrait was probably taken in the mid- to late 1870s. For this time frame, Roger's only entries on Hotwell Road are an H. Clack at number 26 (1876-1878) and an S. Levy at number 58 (1874), neither of whom appear to be obvious candidates for our Saracen chief.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Another portrait from the same album, also taken at Abderame's Crescent Studio, is mounted on card with an identical design and backstamp, and uses the same painted backdrop with a rural scene, so I suspect it was taken at a similar time, perhaps even on the same day. However, the two young men in this portrait are not the same as those who appear in the previous one, are more smartly attired and coiffured, and are supported by an entirely different set of studio props.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

They are standing behind a "free-standing" fake balustrade, of a kind often used in studios, on which is somewhat precariously balanced a rather fine model of a two-masted, square-rigged sailing ship, perhaps a brig. Was this a symbol, perhaps, of an impending trip across the seas? They certainly don't look like sailors.

Now back to the photographer. I looked at the 1881 Census for photographers in Hotwell Road, without finding any likely candidates [6], searched unsuccessfully on Google using a variety of search parameters and, for a while, was at a loss where to look next. Then I decided to investigate the Gloucestershire trade directories on the University of Leicester's Library of Historical Directories using the string "146 Hotwell."

This turned up three separate entries in Slater's 1880 directory for a George W. Toutt, as an undertaker, an artist, and an upholsterer [7]. Trade directories for 1879 and 1886 on Ancestry show him as an undertaker at the same address [8,9], so I went back to the 1881 Census and found Mr Toutt living at 146 Hotwel Road, Clifton, described as a "Photographer & Undertaker." [6] What clinched it for me, however, was when I discovered that he'd named his son "Plantagenet Frederick Toutt" - most appropriate for the Chief of the Saracens' son! While the undertaking profession may not have had quite the image in the Victorian period that I associate with it now, I don't think that I'd willingly choose to visit an undertaker in order to have my portrait taken.

George William Toutt (c.1831-1908) was born at Bleadon in Somerset and was working as an undertaker in Bristol by 1861 [10]. Two years later he married Mary Ann Webber, and they were to have two sons and a daughter. In 1868 they were living at Hotwell Road [11], the 1871 Census showing the house number as 58 [12]. By 1879 they were at number 146, where they remained at least until 1891 [13]. Mary Ann died in 1899 after which George retired, moving to live with his eldest son at Easton in Gordano, Somerset, a few miles north-west of Bristol [14]. He died in 1908 [15]. There are few clues as to how long his photographic career lasted, apart from the 1880 trade directory listing him as an artist, and the occupation description as a photographer in April 1881.

Post Script

Ron Cosens, who has a very useful web site devoted to Photographers of Great britain & Ireland 1840-1940, kindly sent me this image of another carte de visite taken at Abderame's Crescent Studio. It has an identical card mount and may have used the same backdrop. Based on the severely drawn back, centre-parted hair style, the large bow and brooch at her neck, the pleats and ruffles in her skirt and sleeves, my feeling is that it is from the late 1870s, perhaps between 1876 and 1879. From about 1880 onwards, I think bodices and skirts were tighter fitting and less ornamented with bows, ruffles and pleats.

Ron also suggests that the fact the photographer was an undertaker may explain the presence of the tools, since undertakers usually made coffins.


[1] Welsh, Peter C. (1966) Woodworking Tools, 1600–1900, Paper 51, Washington: U.S. Government, Reproduced by The Project Gutenberg, 2008.

[2] Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, Wikipedia.

[3] D'Israeli, Isaac (1835) Curiosities of Literature, New York: William Pearson & Co., p. 239, Courtesy of Google Books.

[4] Les Abencérages, Wikipedia.

[5] Bristol Photographer, 1852-1972, by Roger Vaughan.

[6] 1881 Census, The National Archives & Ancestry.

[7] Slater's National Commercial Directory of North & South Wales, Monmouthshire, Shropshire and the cities of Bristol and Chester, 1880, University of Leicester's Library of Historical Directories.

[8] Post Office Directory of Bristol, 1879, Ancestry.

[9] Wright's Directory of Bristol & Clifton, 1886, Ancestry.

[10] 1871 Census of 58 Hotwell road, Clifton, Gloucestershire Ref. RG10/2539/63/46/237, The National Archives & Ancestry.

[11] Slater's Royal National Commercial Directory and Topography of the Counties of Gloucester, Hereford, Monmouth, Shropshire, and North and South Wales, and of the City of Chester, 1868, University of Leicester's Library of Historical Directories.

[12] 1871 Census of 58 Hotwell road, Clifton, Gloucestershire Ref. RG10/2539/63/46/237, The National Archives & Ancestry.

[13] 1891 Census of No 146 Hotwell Rd, Clifton, Gloucestershire, The National Archives & Ancestry.

[14] 1901 Census of Easton in Gordano, Somerset Ref. RG13/2356/63/23/154, The National Archives & Ancestry.

[15] Index to Births, Marriages & Deaths, GRO, by FreeBMD


  1. This is an amazing post with some remarkable photos. I'm the world's worst handyman but can appreciate the research you have done to explain the photos to us so clearly. Thank you, I learned a lot.

  2. Good sleuthing. I wonder why the men in the first picture chose those props, and why the photographer even had those props.

  3. Thanks Bob. Good point, Postcardy. One of the things that I learnt while hunting for photographers in Hotwell Road was that it was full of tradespeople of various shapes and sizes. I suspect there would have been an ample supply of carpenter's tools within a couple of doors of number 146. As for the ship model, Bristol was, of couyrse, a port, and I also saw several mariners (or mariners' wives) living in Hotwell Road.

  4. maybe i'll start posing my family with tools as though they are working, confusing future generations as to how we celebrated Christmas.

  5. You indeed did a lot of work on this post. Great pictures and some very good information. My father was a tobacco cutting man and used something like a machetti that is all if know about tools.

  6. Wonderful research work here and very interesting. The photos are great, be interesting to learn more about them.

  7. Oh I'm so glad you took this road, how fascinating, and the little boy is just so darn cute! Your description of what you wanted to do with this blog is exactly how Lewis Hine saw photography as well. All about people and especially working people! Great post, thanks!

  8. Wonderful post (I've come to expect nothing but) and it is difficult to know what NOT to comment on. Ideally we could sit down over a pint and talk about all the fascinating issues you raise. But it is that child in your first enlarged image that will stay in my mind : such a classic painting pose, indeed it almost reminded me of some poses from classical sculpture.

  9. wow...great investigating on your part! The little guy is adorable, isn't he? My hubs would love to have that ship!

  10. Such an interesting post. Love the photo - with the child.i guess he's not really a worker - I thought so at first. Then as you explained none of these guys were real workers. Thanks for all this info.
    Ladies of the grove

  11. Lots of research went into this post, thanks for the photos and info.

  12. Extraordinary post! Thank you so much!

  13. Wow! This more than just a post, it is a research paper. Great job.

    I'm your newest follower. Thanks so much for stopping by to visit.

    Kathy M.

  14. The young lad's a charmer, isn't he. Thanks for your feedback everybody - it's good to hear that the images are going down well.

  15. Many thanks to Ron Cosens, who sent another example from this studio, and which I've added as a post script.

  16. Terrific post. As a woodworker and tool collector I can agree with all the descriptions. Occupational photos are a special treasure, as they preserve so many trades and crafts that are gone.

    I think the first could be a celebration photo in honor of the end of apprenticeship. Or the start of a new business? There wouldn't seem much point in the photographer taking such a set-up pose for the sake of art. The second seems like a photo made just prior to travel on the seas, in order to preserve the boy's (brothers?)likeness for the worried folks at home.

  17. Wonderful and enlightening post, most especially because I was just looking at a photo of my great grandfather and possibly my great-great grandfather, both carpenters. last night. And it got me thinking about all of my great-great grandfather's tools in the garage. Thanks for the information.

  18. T+L - "And it got me thinking ..." That, of course, is what it's all about. It's the minutiae in these photographs, and how they come together to tell a story, that get me thinking.

  19. Great pictures and fascinating research. I looked up Mr Troutt in the 1881 census and was amused to see the enumerator had described him as a 'Potographer & Undertaker'.


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