Sepia Saturday 125: A portrait at home, by James Brennen of Derby
The Sepia Saturday photo prompt this week is an image showing Queen Victoria's vast kitchen, part of the newly released (online) Diamond Jubilee Scrapbook 1897. Rather than try to match that, I'm goping to down-scale considerably, although remaining with domestic interiors.
John Bradley sent me this image of a rather unusual carte de visite portrait some time ago, but I neglected to include it in the revision of my web page for Derby photographer James Brennen a year ago. It is unusual for the three-dimensional feel of the photograph, in spite of it being an very early example of this format. From a close examination of the image I believe this is partly because it was taken in a real living room, rather than in a manufactured studio setting.
The subject, an elderly woman wearing a bonnet, is seated in an armchair which is mostly in shade, emphasizing the bright shaft of sunlight falling on her skirt. It is the shadows, often purposely absent from artificial studios, which give the portrait much of its character. The furniture in the background, possibly a fireplace and mantelpiece, appear to be real, rather than painted onto a coloured or patterned backdrop, lending to the enhanced depth of field. The bell-pull - if that's what it is - suggests a house big enough to have servants who could be summoned. Perhaps not Buckingham Palace, but probably a family of some means.
The reverse of the card mount is imprinted with a design that I have classified as one of Brennen's earliest, used c.1862-1863. The seated view, with the subject's body facing forwards, directly into the photographer's lens, is typical of portraits taken in the previous decade, when collodion positives (aka ambrotypes), and less commonly daguerreotypes, were the norm. James Brennen was, in fact, one of Derby's very early photographic practitioners, having first opened a studio at 14 Irongate in 1853 or 1854, so would have been quite practised in studio portraiture by the time this was taken.
It would not be long, however, before he was taking more conventional full length standing portraits with the obligatory ornate high-backed chair and curtain which became the accepted style, as demonstrated by the example above, also taken by Brennen, probably c.1862-1863.
So was Brennen making house calls in 1862-1863? Perhaps only for the elderly and infirm who couldn't make it to his studio. We shall probably never know, but this portrait is worth valuing for the character invoked by the photographer's use of a little extra light and shadow.