Sunday, 26 June 2011

Three Decades of Card Mounts

I wrote recently on Photo-Sleuth of photographer Joseph Byron Clayton who, after a rather chequered start to his career in London and Nottingham, crossed the Atlantic and forged a successful niche for himself in New York - see Byron of New York. His uncle Walter Clayton (c1833-1893) was also a successful photographer, although his career was a little more sedentary, spanning three decades in Nottingham and Leicester.

My recently completed brief biography of Walter Clayton is accompanied by a provisional timeline for his studio premises. I've also been able to build up a comprehensive reference gallery, comprising 59 identifiably different card designs, thanks partly to the generosity of carte de visite collector Ron Cosens (Photographers of Great Britain & Ireland 1840-1940).

Some studios, such as that of Derby photographer W.W. Winter, kept the same basic elements of their designs for many years, even though having a large throughput of customers. Clayton, luckily for family historians trying to date old portraits, changed his designs frequently, and often substantially, on average every six months throughout his career. With the establishment of this dating sequence, it is now possible to estimate a provisional date for any portrait from his studio to within two or three years with a fair degree of confidence, on card design alone. Since several of the designs are very similar to those used by the Byrons, father and son, it seems likely that they used the same firm of printers, at least some of the time.

Image © & Courtesy of Ron CosensImage © & Collection of Brett Payne

Although I don't intend to display all 59 designs here, a selection will amply serve to outline the changes in card design that are so well described and illustrated by Roger Vaughan. The earliest designs of the carte de visite era were either two to four lines of text (simply the photographer's name and address) in a plain font, or a small motif, both usually centrally placed. Clayton initially used the commonly reproduced crown-and-belt emblem which had appeared on the daguerreotype cases used by early practitioners such as Richard Beard and Antoine Claudet. In his slightly later partnership with David Clayson, they changed to a crown-and-cushion motif and added several lines of text, as was the trend towards the mid-1860s.

Image © & Courtesy of Ron CosensImage © & Courtesy of Ron Cosens

From the mid-1860s, a generic coat of arms design was accompanied by the words, "Copies of this portrait may be had," later simplified to "Copies can be had." This illustrates the appreciation amongst photographers, and their clients, of one of the most significant advantages of wet plate collodion portraiture. Keeping the glass plate negatives of all previous sittings and encouraged more business as customers returned to order copies. The late 1860s brought a shrinking of the coat of arms and the introduction of two new features - the ribbon and the ivy - which started a trend of further and further intricacy. At this stage however, the ribbon had only three tiers, and the ornate ivy was restricted to the central third of the card.

Image © & Courtesy of Ron CosensImage © & Collection of Brett Payne

In the early 1870s designs continued the trend of increasing size and complexity, but one of the most common additions were frames enclosing the previously isolated central motifs. These varied from a simple rectangular box to a series of nested double frames, often shaped, and sometimes very ornate. More text lines were accompanied by an increase in the variety of fonts used, resulting in the designs now often taking up more than two thirds of the card area. Towards the mid-1870s, Clayton used an even more elaborate broad maze border enclosing his now well established motif consisting of coat of arms and ribbons with nine lines of text, and provision for a negative number to be inserted. Sadly, although he obviously did keep records of his stittings, he very rarely bothered to include the negative number on the mount. Of almost 80 examples of his work that I have seen, only five have a negative number.

Image © & Courtesy of Ron CosensImage © & Collection of Brett Payne

These two designs, both from the mid-1870s, are illustrative of a temporary shift away from the use of motifs and emblems, and the reliance on ever more complex, ornate and decorative text, often accompanied by stylised ivy to a greater or lesser extent. In addition, the designers started to introduced slanting, diagonal and even vertical text. Some of the results were successful, others looked decidely amateurish.

Image © & Courtesy of Ron CosensImage © & Courtesy of Ron Cosens

The conclusion of this trend saw the development of a combination of diagonal "signature," several lines of text in a variety of fonts, with enlarged and highly ornate initial letters, and greater or lesser quantities of decorative ivy. The variety of coloured inks and card was also expanded. The two designs shown above, used for cartes de viste and cabinet card formats respectively, were among the most commonly employed in the mid- to late 1870s. The design for the cabinet card, with its greater area to cover, retained the wide ornate border pattern.

Image © & Collection of Brett PayneImage © & Courtesy of Ron Cosens

In the final years of the decade Walter Clayton was somewhat more adventurous, with a huge flower arrangement in red ink on orange card, his name and the studio locations relegated to a strip at the bottom. It was an unusual design, but by the turn of the decade he had returned to a more recognisable and conventional format, referred to by Roger Vaughan as "Bamboo & Roses," originally developed by Marion Imp Paris but widely copied.

Image © & Courtesy of Ron CosensImage © & Courtesy of Ron Cosens

After a rather more sedate, refined design largely made up of text in several different font types and sizes, with a subordinate motif, Clayton returned to the more decorative style in 1883. His version of Marion Imp's "Parasol, Bonsai and Fan" design, embellished with two horseshoe magnets signifying his "Magnet Studio," was part of the growing British enthusiasm for all things oriental (e.g. The Mikado). He used it for some years, including variants printed by other card publishers.

Image © & Collection of Brett PayneImage © & Courtesy of Ron Cosens

From the late 1880s and into the 1890s, numerous classical elements, such as Doric colums, lavish drapes, Greek vases, flowering plants, cherubs and toga-clad ladies began to grace card designs, particularly those for the larger cabinet format. On cartes de visite, where there wasn't quite as much space to fit the myriad of new motifs, stylisation of the classical motifs was more prevalent, and such was the case with a series of lavish designs which Walter Clayton depicted in a variety of colours in the late 1880s.

Finally in the early 1890s, in keeping with a style adopted by many of his co-workers in the mid- to late 1880s, he banished all previously used design elements. Thick glossy card- white or dark green - was adorned merely whith his name and location on the front printed in gold ink. The edges of the card were bevelled, as well as being highlighted with gold ink.

Walter Clayton retired in 1892, and therefore missed a few of the final developments in card design, such as more elaborate classical ensembles, art deco elements, square corners, and wide margins containing embossed patterns on the front. However, his range over a period of 32 years has a good selection indicative of the main trends. For further detail regarding card designs, I recommend spending some time perusing Roger Vaughan's study. I still use it frequently to provide a background for my own research.

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