Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Edward Smith of Derby: Enlargements and Portraits in Oil

Following on from a charcoal-embellished portrait discussed in the previous article on Photo-Sleuth, an further example of a photographic portrait embellished to a high degree would, I think, be instructive.

Image © and courtesy of Chris Underhill
Mary Ellen Storer (1873-1957) of 24 Talbot Street, Derby
Enlarged and coloured print by Edward Smith of Derby
Image © and courtesy of Chris Underhill

There is little evidence from the appearance of this potrait of a seven year-old girl, painted in oils on an oval piece of thick card measuring 182 x 231mm (slightly larger than 7" x 9"), that it is anything other than a simple oil painting. That is, except for the unpainted bits at the top and bottom of the oval which reveal the unexposed photographic emulsion on a thin paper print pasted to the card, and a hint of the girls clothing showing through the border of pale brown wash. The rough nature of this pale brown border suggests that it would have been mounted passe partout and framed behind glass.

Image © and courtesy of Chris Underhill
Reverse of print by Edward Smith of Bramble Street, Derby, dated 1881
Image © and courtesy of Chris Underhill

The back of the card, however, reveals a printed label (measuring 118 x 171mm) for the West-End Photographic Studio of Edward Smith:


Bramble Street, Curzon St., Derby
Portraits for Lockets, Brooches, &c.
Cartes, Vignettes, Cabinet Portraits,

Copying & Enlarging expeditiously and cheaply executed.

The Rowditch Buss runs by every Half-hour.

Simpson, Printer, St. Peter's Street, Derby.

Edward Smith was a former jeweller who operated a photographic studio from his home, first in Upper Brook Street, later Bramble Street, in Derby's West End, from 1861 until at least 1901. His entries in the 1871 and 1881 Censuses show him as an artist so, even though his photographic portraits tend to be competent rather than inspiring, it is not surprising to find an example of his advertised "portraits in oil," handily dated 1881, midway through his career. The photographic print on which the painted portrait is based would probably have been enlarged from a cabinet portrait format to roughly double the original size of the glass plate negative.

Apart from the photograph/painting, the advertisement on the label may also be used to illustrate the affordability of portraits to ordinary folk. He advertises cartes de visite at four shillings per dozen, and a single portrait could be had for a shilling. Given that the average weekly cash wage for the ordinary agricultural labour in England at this time was between 11 and 15 shillings, and that of a high end skilled industrial worker was 30 shillings, it was perhaps still something of a luxury, but was definitely affordable to a large majority of the population.

I make this point because I often come across the assertion by family historians that their ancestors were probably too poor to afford such luxuries as having their portraits taken in a photographic studio, used on occasion to explain an absence of such portraits from the family archives. From what I have read, both in contemporary and current literature, during the heyday of carte de visites in the late 1860s, 1870s and 1880s such portraits were well within the reach of most families.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
1872 carte de visite mount by A.L. Henderson of London

It is also informative to compare this advertised price with the 5s./doz from the well known and prolific A.L. Henderson of London in 1872, and a similar 5s./doz from F.W. Broadhead of Leicester in 1887. It seems likely that Smith catered for the lower to middle section of the market, perhaps one step above an itinerant photographer whose name might be absent from the card mount. Certainly his portraits do not have quite the professional finish that studios such as those of Pollard Graham and W.W. Winter.


Jay, Bill (1980) Prices of Photographs, from Bill Jay On Photography

Robert Hirsch (2009) The Carte de Visite and the Photo Album, in Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography, Second edition (McGraw-Hill, 2009), Chapter 4, Section 5, reproduced on Luminous Lint.

Payne, Brett (2007) The carte-de-visite - fit for the Queen and commoners alike, on Photo-Sleuth, 28 August 2007.

Payne, Brett (2011) Sepia Saturday 70: A boy and his toy, on Photo-Sleuth, 15 April 2011.


  1. Another fascinating article that further enlarges my knowledge of early photography.

  2. Yes,I agree with Alan.An Area I Never Knew or considered.Nice One!

  3. Fascinating. I've often seen CDVs that mention on the back that the photorapher also did painted portraits, but it hadn't occurred to me that they just painted over a photograph. I'm going to keep a lookout for these.


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