Friday, 6 May 2011

Sepia Saturday 73: An early daguerreotype of a Derby couple?

Image © and courtesy of David Lamb

Three years ago David Lamb sent me these scans of what turned out to be the first, and as yet only, daguerreotype portrait from a Derby photographer that I have seen. It also happens to be one of the nicest early portraits of a couple that I've come across. The manner in which the daguerreotypist has seated and captured his subjects not just touching, but with their shoulders overlapping, the subtle tinting with which he has embellished the delicate surface of the copper plate, and despite their direct gaze into the cameras lens, give a warmth and intimacy that you don't often see in early portraits. To see what I mean, head over to the Library of Congress's large collection of daguerreotypes: of the 767 displayed online, only about twenty feature couples, including family groups, and I could only find one or two which even approach the feeling of familiarity of David's family portrait.

Image © and courtesy of David Lamb

That the photographic medium is a thin copper sheet (measuring 65 x 80 mm or 2½" x 3¼" which is a 1/6th-plate) becomes evident when one turns it over, also revealing what are presumably fingerprints, possibly of the person who prepared and processed the photographic plate.

Image © and courtesy of David Lamb

The copper photographic plate is housed behind a brass matte or finisher and a sheet of glass, all within a wooden case which has a patterned embossed leatherette-style finish. The presence of a catch on the right hand side indicates that, in spite of it not appearing to be damaged, only half of the case survives. The cover would have been of similar shape, probably lined internally with silk or velvet, and possibly with a maker's mark.

Image © and courtesy of David Lamb

The main reason that the images have been laguishing in my email inbox for so long is that I was really in need of some extra clues to help me proceed with its evaluation. My knowledge of clothing styles, particularly in the 1840s and 1850s, when the daguerreotype was at its most popular in the United Kingdom, is meagre. From what I can tell, the narrow lapels on the man's coat, together with her lace collar, neck brooch and wide sleeves, suggest that it was taken in the 1840s rather than the 1850s, but I can't be any more precise than that. If any readers can tell me more about the clothing, I'd be most grateful.

Image © and courtesy of David Lamb

There is a mark stamped into the front of the plate, in the top right hand corner: "NP: 40" appears from the list of daguerreotype plate marks on the Historic Camera web site, to refer to a French form operating "c.1840," but I've been able to find out nothing further about the company, how long it was operating, etc. Many of the English daguerreotypists imported their plates from France, so this does not preclude the plate from having been exposed in England. I understand that the number "40" referred to the purity of the plate, i.e. 1 part silver to 40 parts copper.

Image © 2011 Brett Payne
Timeline of Early Derby Photographers 1843-1863
(click image for a more detailed version)
© 2011 Brett Payne

As described in David Simkin's piece on early Derby photographers on my web site, and shown in the diagrammatic timeline (above), initial attempts by John Johnson and Thomas Roberts to operate daguerreotype studios in Derby between July 1843 and September 1845 were hampered by Richard Beard's financially restrictive and rigidly enforced patent agreements. No records of any further daguerreotypes taken in Derby have been found, until Marcus Guttenberg paid a brief visit in September 1852.

The expiry of Beard's country-wide patent in August 1853, and the almost coincident invention of the collodion positive process by Frederick Scott Archer, resulted in an explosion in photographer numbers in Derby from 1854 onwards. From a total of two practitioners at the end of that year, the number had ballooned to nine by the end of the decade, but there is no indication that any of them used the daguerreotype process. From advertisements in newspapers and trade directories of the time, the evidence points rather to calotypes, albumen prints and collodion positives being the media of choice in the 1850s and, after the popularisation of cartes de visite in the early 1860s, a rapid conversion to that format by about 1863.

However, it would be dangerous to assume from this data that Derby residents were unable to have their portraits captured by daguerreotype between late 1845 and mid-1852. As shown by an 1843 advertisement in The Derby Mercury, the successive occupants of the Bromley House portrait studio in nearby Nottingham, which operated almost continuously from late 1841 through the 1840s and 1850s, were not slow to look for potential customers in neighbouring towns. Nottingham was only a short train trip, or coach ride, away.

It's always important to record and investigate the provenance of a photograph. David wrote:
This photo was in a box that my father shoved at me, to see if I was interested. Since most of the photos were of my mother's family - and since this couple bears no resemblance to any of the photos of have for my father's (Scottish) side - it would seem most likely that this couple are connected to my mother. Many of the photos were of the Holmes family, so I suspect this one is too.

Ancestors of Reuben Holmes (1855-1929) & Ellen Alton (1856-1937)
Click image for a readable version

David has written about his Holmes family from Derby on his web page, from which - together with a little research of my own - I was able to extract sufficent details to draw up a chart showing the first two generations of ancestors of Reuben Holmes (1855-1929) and his wife Ellen Alton (1856-1937). I should point out that my deductions differ slightly from David's, in that I have a different set of maternal grandparents for Reuben.

There are seven different couples who could conceivably be the subjects of the portrait, as follows:

(A) John HOLMES (1826-1895) + Elizabeth HAWORTH (1829-1890)
(B) William ALTON (1826-1897) + Grace SHAW (1816-1897)
(C) Grace SHAW (1816-1897) + George GREAVES (d.1849)
(D) William HOLMES (c1807-1885) + Sarah TWIGG (1803-1856)
(E) James HAWORTH (d. bef 1841) + Mary SLATER (c1788-1841)
(F) Thomas ALTON (1790-1872) + Hannah TIMPERLEY (c1791-1875)
(G) John SHAW (1773-c1850s) + Sarah (c1771-c1850s)

The couple look to me to be in their late 30s or early to mid-40s. If one assumes the broadest possible date for the daguerreotype, i.e. that it was taken some time in the 1840s or 1850s, then the parents of both Reuben and Ellen (A & B) can be ruled out as being too young. Ellen's mother and her first husband (C) could have visited a studio prior to 1849, but she would have been in her late 20s or early 30s, again too young. Both of Reuben's maternal grandparents (E) died before the photographic studios were first established. Ellen's paternal grandparents (F), although still alive till the 1870s, would already have been in their 50s by the time daguerreotypes were available. Her maternal grandparents (G), who died in the 1850s, would have been even older.

The only candidates remaining are Reuben's paternal grandparents William HOLMES and Sarah TWIGG. Born in 1803, she was slightly older than her husband, and would have been in her early 40s when John Johnson and Thomas Roberts operated Derby's first photographic studio in Victoria Street. William Holmes was a coachman for much of his life, settling in Derby in the late 1830s. The fact that he is also described as a gardener in some census records suggests to me that he may have worked for a member of the landed gentry, rather than on a coach which ferried paying passengers between towns. It is quite conceivable that his employer paid for this portrait, as even a 1/6th-plate daguerreotype in the 1840s was an expensive item. Thomas Roberts advertises his "small size, two sitters on same plate" with "case, glass and mat inclusive" for £1 6s. in 1844. Using average earnings, the following estimator gives an equivalent value of over £1000 today. Looking at it from slightly different point of view, a coachman might expect to earn between 1 and 2 pounds a week in the 1840s.

However, as I've pointed out previously, they could alternatively have visited a studio further afield, perhaps in Nottingham. It is also woth reiterating that David has not completely ruled out the portrait being from another branch of his family, just suggested that it is unlikely. The possibilities are of course endless, the probabilities much less so.

Alan Burnett's prompt for this week's Sepia Saturday, for which this article is a submission, features an aged couple holding hands, photographed in Sweden in 1932. I hunted through my own collection for a similar shot that I felt would be appropriate, but the only image I could find was an ambrotype that I presented in a previous article (here). Searching further afield yielded similarly few early images of couples holding hands, which I suppose is understandable considering it was not generally considered an appropriate pose amongst most Victorian photographers. Would Mr and Mrs Samuelsson, of Stigåsa, Småland, Sweden have been bold enough to hold hands (and what enormous hands they are!) when they visited the photographer's studio at the time of their presumed wedding around 1890-ish, or did old age bring with it a good deal more daring?

Head off to Sepia Saturday now for a browse, and see how many more daring couples you can find.


Coe, Brian (1976) The Birth of Photography: The story of the formative years, 1800-1900, London: Spring Books, 144p, ISBN 0600562964.

Heathcote, Bernard V. & Heathcote, Pauline F. (2001) Pioneers of Photography in Nottinghamshire 1841-1910, Nottinghamshire County Council, 62p, ISBN 0902751387.

Payne, Brett (2008) Thomas Roberts (1804-1885), one of Derby's first photographers, Photo-Sleuth, 18 May 2008.

Simkin, David (2004) The First Derby Daguerreotypists, 1842-1844, on Derbyshire Photographers & Photographic Studios.

Victorian Society, from Census Helper: Victorian Life.


  1. what a fantastic and informitive post Brett. The first photo is striking, you feel like you could reach out an touch them, not like a photo at all but more like they are sitting right there in front of you. Again I have learned so much from your post.

  2. What wonderful post. It's great to learn something new, when viewing a blog and now I have an inkling about daguerrotypes. I agree about the composition too, very realistic.

  3. Fascinating and informative. Its not easy taking a photo of, or scanning a daguerrotype either! well done.

  4. the dainty painting of the faces is so realistic. You can almost reach out and touch her skin. The retoucher/photographer must have been a real artist.
    Wonderful post - full of great information.
    Ladies of the Grove

  5. A lot of interesting information but what I really love is the absolutely beautiful abstract painting on the back of the copper. It's worth blowing up, printing and framing it.

  6. Brett this is again a fantastic post with lots of great information! I can tell you that women's fashions in England were a bit ahead of the US, and in the US that type of shoulder embellishment was popular in the 1850s and again in the 1860s. The hairstyle is interesting to me too. The general look for hair from 1850-1865 was to give the face a very round look. This photo does seem to do so, but usually the hair is smoothed down rather than popping out. Great image though and causes me to think about what I know about fashion.

  7. Going back to this, the gentleman looks "Mormon" to me, meaning he looks a lot like the men who joined the Mormon religion and westward trek in the 1840s and 50s. Very interesting again.

  8. Brett, are you related to Sherlock Holmes? Truly amazing sleuthing and a beautiful photo. The hairstyle is very intriguing to me too.

  9. what is she holding? a backscratcher?

  10. That is a great picture. They both look quite relaxed and with the tinting, quite real.

  11. A beautiful photograph that must have been just as amazing to the couple as to us time travelers of the future. So like a painted portrait but more lifelike and cheaper!

    I also think that the gentleman's hair and beard styles may signify more of his position, class, and religion than our modern eyes can see. Not Mormon, but perhaps not Anglican either. I've started my own digital scrapbook of men's hair styles in order to help with such dating.

    How did you get such a good digital image? I've not succeeded in scanning Tintypes, etc without distortion and silvering discoloration.

  12. I wonder if that is a bible she is holding with "fingerless gloves" Those are worn nowadays with French Maid, how styles change!!

  13. Thanks everybody. I'm glad to hear others enjoy it as much as I have.

    Howard & Mike B - I have to give credit to David Lamb for the scanning. I had nothing to do with it.

    Barbara - Yes, I agree it's rather unusual and why I had to include the image, since, apart from showing that it's copper, and perhaps betraying the fingerprint of somebody, there's not much alse you can tell from it.

    whowerethey - Thanks for your insight into women's fashions.

    whowerethey & Mike - I agree that the chin beard, perhaps a little unusual in early Victorian England, suggests to me some non-Conformist religion, perhaps Quaker or Wesleyan Methodist? I did discover during my research that other members of this family had their children baptised at the King Street Wesleyan church/chapel in Derby, so it's quite possible the HOLMES family were connected with it too.

    Kristin - I don't think she's holding anything apart from the book/bible. The other hand is placed on her sleeve, with a bit of lace poking out from under, and then there is a slight blemish on the plate which may confuse matters a little. I hesitated to say right and left hands, because the image, like all daguerreotypes, is reversed.

    Rosie - I had come to the same conclusion. It can't be a photo album, as is commonly seen in cartes de visite, because they were invented later, for albumen prints and then CDVs. The gold embellishment has been placed there to highlight what was already being displayed prominently. I think it's a conscious and definite statement of piety.

  14. Excellent post! Such great information. I'm voting for Sarah and Bill to be the subjects of this photo. I cannot base that on anything other than intuition though so I cannot add to your already fascinating info.

  15. I must come back and really spend tome absorbing all the information you have here today. This is a wonderful post and worth more pondering. I am amazed at the life like resemblance in this very old portrait, daguerrotype; the tinting is so different. You did a super job today sharing this.

  16. That is a wonderful picture and the thing which stands out about it is the care and effort which must have gone into the taking and the processing of it (a care and attention which matches your usual exemplary research and presentation skills) Anything but "point and shoot"

  17. As always what a great informative Sepia post! Well done! That first photo has the richest of colors, must have been a good piece of metal, (that's what they used isn't it) whatever it is very striking as is your entire post! Thanks!

  18. So rich in history of early portraiture of the photographic variety!


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