Friday, 17 June 2011

Cartes de Visite as Celebrity Portraits

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Earlier this week I posted a portrait of Derby clergyman Roseingrave Macklin, taken at the studio of James Brennen in 1862. This carte de visite was from a family photograph album belonginging to fellow photo-sleuth Nigel Aspdin, but Reverend Macklin was not, as far as Nigel is aware, even a distant relative. So what, one might ask, is his portrait doing in an album which probably belonged to Nigel's great-grandmother Mary Ann Aspdin née Dyche (c1833-1913)?

Image © and courtesy of Derby Local Studies Library Image © and courtesy of Derby Local Studies Library

A clue to answering this question lies in the collection of carte de visite and cabinet portraits held by the Derby Local Studies Library. In October 2007 I was kindly permitted to scan a selection of these for reproduction on my Derbyshire Photographers web site. One of those that I scanned is an almost exact copy of Nigel's portrait by Brennen and, in fact, is how I was able to identify the subject, since it is annotated on the reverse. Dated 1862, it was probably taken shortly before Macklin's retirement due to ill health early in 1863.

Image © and courtesy of Derby Local Studies LibraryImage © and courtesy of Derby Local Studies Library

Macklin appears to have visited another Derby studio - that of E.N. Charles - probably in late 1863, not long after his retirement. Instead of being attired in his clercial vestments, he is pictured leaning on a pedestal, perhaps admiring the large campana-shaped vase, in the style produced by the Royal Crown Derby China Works in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel AspdinImage © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Although by far the majority of the portraits in Nigel's album are unidentified, it is clear that there are more subjects who are not family members. For example, two later portraits depict men wearing what appear to be mayoral chains, and there is at least one other clergyman. Nigel suspects that a good proportion of the photographs are of acquaintances of the album's presumed owner Mary Ann Aspdin or her husband Richard Wilkinson Aspdin (1822-1885).

Carte de visite portrait of Napoleon III
by Disdéri

The carte de visite was not simply a standard card size. In 1854, Paris daguerreotypist André Adolphe Disdéri patented a method by which four, six, or even eight photographs could be exposed on a single glass plate, making the process of printing a great deal easier, and therefore cheaper. The popularised card mount size of 2½ x 4 inches was roughly the same as a visiting card, hence the name. A story of Emperor Napoleon III stopping at Disderi's studio to have his portrait taken en route to fight the Austrians in May 1859 is probably apocryphal, but it was around that time that the format started to become much more popular.

Morning Post (London, England), 7 March 1860

Although often referred to only in fairly general terms in the photohistory texts that I have read, I get the impression that the establishment of the carte de visite as a standard photographic portrait for the ordinary person happened slightly after cdv portraits of well known people had become collectable items. From advertisements placed in newspapers, it is clear that English studios began offering portraits in the carte de visite format at least as early as March 1860, when Mayer Brothers of Regent Street, London referred to it as "this new style."

Morning Post (London, England), 11 August 1860

The craze for carte de visites, both as collectibles and as a cheap method of portraiture, was given a substantial boost by royal patronage, Queen Victoria herself owning dozens of albums. Clearly those who would consider purchasing a hundred copies of a portrait of themselves, must have been expecting some considerable demand for said likenesses amongst their acquaintances.

The Derby Mercury, 16 July 1862

Although The Derby Mercury newspaper reveals no advertisements for cartes de visite as early as these, it is clear from several dated examples that Derby was not long behind the larger centres in adopting the new format for personal portraits. Nor do they appear to have been reticent about indulging in the new craze. In July 1862 stationer T.A. Johnson of 33 Victoria Street announced the recent arrival "from the leading English, German and French Houses, a very large assortment of the newest and most elegant Carte de Visite Albums."

The Derby Mercury, 12 November 1862

In November that year, E. Clulow and Son of 36 Victoria Street advertised a stock of carte de visite albums for sale, to hold 20, 30 or 50 portraits, and in December J.A. Rowbottom of Iron Gate offered "carte de visite albums and portraits in great variety."

The Derby Mercury, 28 January 1863

The first to advertise actual carte de visite portrait sittings in The Derby Mercury was the new Derby branch of the Leicester photographic firm John Burton and Sons, with a studio above Clulow's bookshop. As well as a hefty list of notable patrons including, supposedly, His Royal Highness the Late Prince Consort, "their carte de visite portraits, of which they have already taken many thousands, are universally admired ..."

Image © 2011 Brett Payne

A detailed analysis of early photographers operating in Derby shows that there were already seven resident practitioners at the advent of the carte de visite but, within a couple of years of its appearance, this number had doubled. Obviously portrait sittings were in great demand.

The fashion for collecting albums full of photographs of royalty and the famous is reported to have been on the wane by the late 1860s. Albums compiled in the 1870s and 1880s that I have seen are indeed characterised by a somewhat lower celebrity content, and the nature of newspaper advertisements by stationers and photographers tends to reflect that trend. They are still present to some degree in some albums, even those dating as late as the 1900s, but I suspect many have been culled to satisfy the demands of collectors in more recent years.


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

Pols, Robert (2002) Family Photographs, 1860-1945: A Guide to Researching, Dating and Contextualising Family Photographs, Surrey, England: Public Record Office, 166p.

Rosenblum, Naomi (1981) A World History of Photography, New York: Abbeville Press, 671p.


  1. Great adverts, and very interesting article!

  2. I Find It Fascinating How Fashions Develop & Commerce Propels The Growth.


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