Friday, 2 September 2011

Which sibling is it? The importance of a detailed date

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait A - Carte de visite, Burnley-Leigh-Peterboro-Derby, #15008

Probably the most common problem I'm asked to solve by clients is to identify which of several family members the subject of a photograph could be. Is it the father or the son, the mother or the daughter, or which of several brothers or sisters could it be? Sometimes it's as easy as estimating the approximate age of the subject and which decade he or she visited the studio.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait B - Cabinet card, Derby-Burnley-Peterboro-Leigh, #15008

All too often though, and particularly in the case of sibling identification, a more accurate date and a firmer handle on the age are required. Age evaluation is a subjective process, and I usually leave open the widest possible margins for error. When the subjects are younger, I usually ask my own teenage children what they think - they seem to have a better idea than I do, probably because they are closer to the ages of the subjects. I very rarely offer an opinion when asked about potential similarity of facial characteristics between family members - that's a minefield best left to the family themselves to ponder on.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait C - Carte de visite, Burnley-Leigh-Peterboro-Derby, #16706

There are many aspects of a portrait which can be used to estimate an approximate date, but I concentrate here on one which can often provide the most accurate dates of all. A good understanding of photograph types and formats, together with a knowledge of clothing styles and hair fashions, will usually get you to the right decade, perhaps even down to a five-year period or so. Detailed documentation of a photographer's career, including the addresses of his various studios and any negative numbers he may have used during that time, can in some cases be used to narrow the time frame right down to a year or two. A word of warning, though - it's usually the most time consuming of all the techniques available, and it doesn't always yield satisfactory results.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait D - Cabinet card, Derby-Leigh, no negative #

Anyway, I thought I'd give readers an example of how this can work well. I recently completed a detailed study of Derby photographer Pollard Graham, culminating in the compilation of a new profile and gallery, including several dozen new images that have been sent to me by visitors to my Derbyshire Photographers web site over the last three years.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait E - Cabinet card, Derby-Burnley-Peterboro-Leigh, #16790

This analysis resulted in the identification of at least 38 distinct card mount designs and photograph formats used during a career which spanned five decades. I've put forward a provisional sequence in which these card designs and photo formats were used, together with a dating guide, although the paucity of accurately dated portraits with which to anchor the sequence means that it must be considered, at best, tentative.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait F - Carte de visite, Burnley-Leigh-Peterboro-Derby, #18359

The six Pollard Graham portraits that accompany this text are from my aunt's collection. As can be seen from the annotations on the reverse of the card mounts, there is some confusion in the identification of the subjects. However, it is almost certain that they are one or more of the daughters of Henry Payne (1842-1907) and Henrietta Christina Benfield (c1842-1912). I left them out of my analysis inadvertently, but can now use this to some advantage, by comparing them with the dating study to see whether (a) they fit well into the proposed sequence, (b) approximate dates can be estimated, and (c) the subjects can be identified with any greater certainty.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portraits A & B - #15008 - Taken c. early 1906

The first pair of portraits, a carte de visite and a cabinet card with the same negative number, are from the same negative. The mounts used are Types 14 and 15 in my Pollard Graham classification, probably used between 1905 and 1908. The hat appears to be somewhere between the cartwheel amd merry widow hats described by Geoff Caulton in his excellent guide to Edwardian and later fashions, Photo Detective, confirming a date of between 1905 and 1908. I think this is Helen Payne (aka Nellie), who was born on 18 October 1883 and would have been in her early 20s at the time.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portraits C & D - #16706 - Taken July 1906

The next pair, likewise a cdv and cabinet, are also clearly from a single negative, even though one of them is unnumbered. The mounts used are Types 15 and 16, from c.1905-1908 and c.1908 respectively. I note that this negative number is immediately adjacent to that on a portrait of Sarah Emma Payne née Parker, sister-in-law of the Payne girls (see pgraham38), suggesting that the subject may have visited the studio together with Sarah. That photograph is dated July 1906, so we have known point around which to anchor the negative number sequence - the previous sitting was possibly earlier in 1906, or late the previous year.

This young woman looks a little older than Helen, and her clothing is perhaps a little more mature, fashion-wise. The straw boater is typical of the Edwardian era, but not as wide-brimmed as they would become later in the decade. I think the caption on the reverse correctly identifies her as Lucy Mary, otherwise known as Maggie. She was born on 29 November 1876, therefore 29 years old when she visited the studio, and would marry Robert Nathan Chadwick in February the following year.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara EllisonImage © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Portrait E - #16790 - Taken c. late 1906
Portrait F - #18359 - Taken c. 1907

The fourth and fifth portraits in the sequence have negative numbers suggesting they were taken slightly later in 1906 and in 1907, respectively. Both hats are closer to the typical merry widow hat, although lacking in extravagant ostrich feathers usually seen with that style, so perhaps tending towards a swaithed hat, which became popular around 1910. The subject looks like Helen again. There is a possibility that it is Lily, who was only 19 months older than Helen, but in the only other photograph that I have of Lily from that period, she looks more like Maggie than like her younger sister.

Image © Brett Payne
Pollard Graham's Negative Number Sequence, 1905-1922

Pollard Graham only started annotating the card mounts of his portraits with negative numbers when he opened his branch studio in Burton-upon-Trent around 1895. He appears to have used this same sequence more or less continuously from then until around 1922, after which a new sequence may have been started. The lowest and highest negative numbers in the sequence found thus far are 34 and 92985 respectively. This suggests an average rate of roughly 3400 and 3500 sittings per year, or just under 300 sittings a month.

Due to the paucity of accurately dated examples from this photographer, it is difficult to gain an accurate picture of how the "production rate" varied over time. That there was some variation, I have little doubt. The business brought in during the pre-War heyday from 1906 to 1914, when they had eight branches operating simultaneously, for example, would have been drastically reduced during the war. This hiatus appears to be reflected in a flattening out of the "curve" around 1914-1917 in the provisional chart above.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Payne family members and friends, Derby, c.1900-1903

Plotting the negative numbers of the above six portraits on this chart confirms that they were probably all taken within a short period of time, between 1905 and 1907. I can therefore make tentative identifications of the subjects with a much greater confidence, knowing how old the three Payne sisters would have been at the time. Unfortunately the only photograph that I know of which shows all three sisters in the same portrait is the out-of-focus, probably amateur, group portrait of Payne family members and friends taken a few years earlier, around 1900 to 1903, in the garden of 83 St James' Road (New Normanton, Derby).

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison
Detail of group portrait showing, from left to right, Lily, Helen, Aunt Sarah, Lucy Mary and my grandfather Leslie (aged about 8-11 yrs)

The facial similarities between Lily and Lucy Mary are evident in here, although all three understandably look very alike.

The ability to narrow down the dating of a portrait to under a year depends on many factors, not the least of which is a good knowledge of the photographic studio's history. Of course only a tiny proportion of individual photographers have been studied in much detail. Apart from my own work on Derbyshire photographers, there are several other online works in progress, such as David Simkin's Brighton Photographers and Sussex PhotoHistory, Peter Stubbs' EdinPhoto, the photoLondon database, and several ongoing projects by Ron Cosens, including a Photo Dating Wizard.

However, lists have been prepared of photographers/premises/dates for most areas of the United Kingdom, for example, by the Royal Photographic Society Historical Group, as supplements to their quarterly publication, The PhotoHistorian. These supplements are available from the RPS - a full list and contact details are provided here. They, and many other studies of photographers worldwide, are also listed in Richard Rudisill and Peter E. Palmquist's annotated bibliography, Photographers: A Sourcebook for Historical Research.


  1. Such a scholarly account Brett. The knowledge you have built up through careful study and analysis is mind-boggling. All I can tell by looking at the back of a cdv is that the studio was in London

  2. Excellent analysis! It is an inspiration to crack my books and dig deeper. :)


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