Monday, 18 February 2013

Portraits in Sepia ... and Charcoal

Joan Hill has a blog Roots'n'Leaves through which she shares memories, family history, and of course old photographs, many of which form part of her regular contributions to Sepia Saturday. Joan recently sent me some images of an old photographic portrait, framed and mounted behind glass. She was wondering whether the subject could be her great-grandfather, and was therefore looking for an approximate date that it could have been taken.

Image © and courtesy of Joan Hill

The frame is a fairly typical moulded and painted papier-mache on wood frame, common in the latter part of the 19th Century. The moulding appears to have worn or broken off on the two lower corners, revealing the plain wooden base underneath, again not unusual for a frame of that age and quality.

Image © and courtesy of Joan Hill

Joan was able to remove the picture from the frame, but at 16" x 20" (400 x 500mm) it was too large to fit on her scanner so she photographed it. She also noticed an unusual feature of the photograph:
I was surprised when I took the picture out of the frame; it appeared to have a charcoal overlay on all of the dark surfaces. (When my finger tips brushed the edge of the picture, there was a dark residue and the picture actually felt like charcoal.) Was this charcoal overlay a style? If so, about when was this popular? There is a halo effect around [the head], but that is created primarily by how the "charcoal" was applied.
The portrait is of a style quite commonly produced in the late 19th and early 20th Century. I believe it was originally a photographic portrait, almost certainly with a camera which used glass plate negatives (probably 4" x 6"), but then enlarged roughly by a factor of four to produce the print which you now have in your possession.

One of the side effects of such enlargements from smaller negatives is that any blemishes or imperfections in the original, including a lack of contrast between light and dark shades, would be enlarged and/or enhanced in appearance. As a result, such enlargements were often retouched or embellished in a variety of ways. In some cases the customer might even have requested, for example, a special colouring of the portrait, whatever the quality of the black & white or sepia version.

These effects were achieved using pencil, charcoal, pastels, water colours or oil paints, and I've discussed a number of examples of retouched or otherwise modified portraits previously on Photo-Sleuth:

Sometimes the retouching was so extensive that little was left of the original photograph. Usually the medium used for the retouching would later be "fixed," but in this case that does not seem to have happened, perhaps because it was to be mounted immediately under glass. Besides, they wouldn't have had access to the wide variety of fixatives that are available today.

As far as a date is concerned, it is difficult to be very precise, but I estimate from the style of portrait and the man's clothing that it was taken in the mid- to late 1880s or early 1890s. Part of the reason for my uncertainty is that this particular style of enlargement/retouching with charcoal was a good deal more common in North America (particularly the United States) than in England.


  1. Once again I've learned something new. And how easy it is for us these days to apply digital charcoal.

  2. Yes indeed. I'm not much good at applying digital charcoal with very pleasing effects, but there are some experts out there.

  3. Very informative. It helps explain some things. I have a large (16 X 20) photo of my grandmother taken early 1900s. It once had something painted on it, I think I was told it was an armchair, but that has faded leaving her gloved hand hanging over some framework. I've thought of having it restored, but somehow I think it is best left as is and get a copy made that can be played with.

  4. Photoshopping in the 1880s!

  5. Mike - Yes, that is a perennial debate, raised again by Alan on FB today.

  6. Wow, a lot of good information. I've seen many images that looked like charcoal drawings but also seemed photographic. Now it makes sense!

  7. Very well written and informative. I need this info. Thank you so much.


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