Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Somebody's grandfather, by E.I. Baker of Hailsham

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

In response to the carte de visite that I posted yesterday, Diana Burns sent me this most appropriate rejoinder, which she secretly hopes is her 3x-great-grandfather Daniel Talbot (1797-1871).

The things I have noticed are his thread-bare right trouser knee (apparently on one side only - why?); the photographer's use of the head support, which surprised me as he is seated, and his ferocious expression (grandmothers are not the only ones who can be forbidding!) The lower part of his walking stick is oddly serrated ... I believe the sitter's style of beard and frock-coat date also to the 1860s, but he does not strike me as a style icon!
Diana is right that this is a typical 1860s photograph. The full length seated portait with a studio setting consisting of patterned carpet, painted backdrop, curtain, plain wall, moulded skirting board, side table with tablecloth and basket of flowers, and chair with turned legs are what one would see in most studios in the larger English towns by the mid-1860s.

This man looks to me to be at least in his sixties, perhaps even early seventies. He is dressed, I think, in a frock coat with matching waistcoat and trousers, and possibly a bow tie, although his white chin beard is in the way. A watch chain is visible, and he is holding a walking stick, apparently carved with something twined around it, at least on the lower section.

Regarding the damaged right trouser knee, it's difficult to be sure without a more detailed scan whether this is on the original, or if the print has suffered some abrasion. It is tempting to think that he might have fallen over on the way to the studio - hence his grumpy countenance. His left arm is resting on the side table in a slightly uncomfortable looking, perhaps to steady it!

The base of the neck support (also known as a head clamp) which is just visible between the legs of the chair, together with the rather uncomfortable-looking angle at which he's holding his head, suggests that his head needed steadying too. While a head support is perhaps less frequently observed in portrais taken in the late 1860s than in the early 1860s, it would not be too unusual to have one available in the studio. I note, too, that both of his hands are clenched fairly tightly. One could theorise, therefore, that the subject might have been suffering from a nervous system ailment, perhaps just due to old age, resulting in tremors which were difficult to control.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

Edwin Isaac Baker started work in the 1860s and I suspect the glued-on label on the reverse shows that this was an early photo.

According to David Simkin's detailed biography of Edwin Isaac Baker, he started operating a photographic studio from the premises of his booksellers and stationery business in Hailsham's High Street around 1868. David includes an example of an early carte de visite by Baker from c.1869, using a pre-printed mount rather than a plain mount with an affixed label. This portrait has an almost identical studio setting as Diana's CDV - all that is missing are the side table, tablecloth and flower basket.

Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns Image © and courtesy of Diana Burns

The use of the printed label pasted on plain white card may indeed suggest an early example of his work, before he had built up enough of a reputation and clientele to warrant the slightly higher prices of printed card stock. The misprint of his second initial as "J" instead of "I" also suggests it may have been done on the cheap. Indeed the label is almost reminiscent of a book plate. Another example of a pasted label can be seen in my profile of the early Bradwell (Derbyshire) photographer Joshua Evans. Diana has more cartes de visite by E.I. Baker in her family collection, including the portrait of a different, but also unidentified, man - shown above - in the same studio setting, but now using printed card stock.

So if the portrait of the older man was taken in 1868 or 1869, and I estimate that he was perhaps between 63 and 73 years old, this would imply a birth date of c.1795-1806. Diana's ancestor Daniel Talbot was born in 1797 and the portrait could therefore well depict him. However, I would be looking for further information to corroborate this theory. For example, where was he living at the time this photograph was taken? If he wasn't living in Hailsham, what could have been a plausible reason for his visiting the town? Are there other photographs in the family collection depicting Daniel Talbot, and do they show the same man? Can any of other E.I. Baker CDVs in the collection be identified, and can they be related in some way to this one? As with all good genealogical enquiries, approaching the problem from as many different angles as you can think of gives you a much greater chance of success.

As an aside, I wonder if the scene depicted in the backdrop might be recognisable to those familiar with the geography of the country around Hailsham. Painted backdrops did sometimes portray real scenes, and this one could well be of a local view. It appears to show a river crossed by a high bridge or viaduct. A search on Geograph for bridges within 10 kilometres of Hailsham produced a wealth of photographs, but a quick browse failed to turn up any showing suitable candidates. It would be nice to hear from anyone who can identify the bridge or scene.


  1. Wonderfully instructive : photo-sleuthing as an art-form. I could read this kind of analysis all day.

  2. Thank you Alan, I am honoured!

  3. I would love to know the psychology of why a person sat for such portraits. I wonder at his reasons for having a photo taken.He looks a Proud Man .he has a fearless gaze!


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