Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Sepia Saturday 164 : Wedding group protocols

Sepia Saturday by Kat Mortensen and Alan Burnett

Once again I'm straying somewhat from the theme of this week's Sepia Saturday image, in that only my first image has anything in common, a military uniform with moustache accessory dating from the Second World War. It gives me an excuse, if I ever needed one, to use scans of a couple of recent purchases by Derbyshire photographers, as well as to dip once again into the archives of Gail Durbin's Flickr photostream (aka lovedaylemon).

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified newly married couple and flower girl, c. early 1940s
Postcard portrait by H.I. Hawkes of 19, Chestnut Ave., Derby
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The happy couple in this postcard portrait are unidentified, but they also appear in a group wedding portrait, below, that was part of the same eBay purchase, taken by Derby photographer H.I. Hawkes.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Unidentified wedding group, Derbyshire, c. early 1940s
Postcard portrait by H.I. Hawkes of 19, Chestnut Ave., Derby
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Judging by the groom's uniform and the clothing styles of the other attendees, this was probably taken during the Second World War. From a brief researching of his cap badge and collar dogs, I think he must have been serving with the Royal Engineers.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Postcard portrait from H.I. Hawkes of 19, Chestnut Ave., Derby
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The back of the postcard is of an unusual, but generic, "K" Kodak design dating from the late 1930s (Playle's list has a similar example from 1936) with Hawke's stamp at upper left indicating that he was operating from 19 Chestnut Avenue, Derby. Since this is, and was then, a residential address of terraced houses, it is likely that he did not have a studio on the premises, perhaps only a processing dark room.

Image © and courtesy of Marilyn McMillan
Double wedding of Dorothy Hirst and her brother George, Derbyshire
Postcard portrait by H.I. Hawkes of 19, Chestnut Ave., Derby, early 1944
Image © and courtesy of Marilyn McMillan

Another example of this photographer's work sent to me by Marilyn McMillan also depicts a wedding party, that of the double marriage of sister and brother Dorothy and George Hirst in early 1944. A third Hawke wedding portrait taken at St James' Church, Dairyhouse Road, Derby in early 1951 is shown in a 2008 Derbyshire Telegraph article (This is Derbyshire).

But is not the photographer as much as the subjects of these wedding group portraits that interest me this week. I have spent some time looking at the members of the Royal Engineer's Derby wedding party, trying to decide who was related to whom, and that led to further thoughts on what protocols are prevalent around the positioning of family members in formal wedding group portraits. I suspect that fellow Sepians will have a far better idea of such conventions in their own necks of the woods than I do, so I would welcome any contributions, either by email or as comments at the end of this article.

Image © and collection of courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Unidentified possible wedding group, c. 1864-1866
Carte de visite by John Burton & Sons of Derby
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Photography was used as a technique to capture wedding parties from as early as the 1850s, in the form of daguerreotypes. This format, however, was expensive, and the much cheaper cartes de visite introduced in the 1860s were not really large enough to display large wedding groups effectively. One such portrait by John Burton & Sons shows a large group at Derby in the mid-1860s, but the faces are hardly identifiable, and it's even difficult to pick out the bridal couple with any certainty.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Wedding group at Upper Blakenhall Farm, c.1868-1870
Carte de visite by William Farmer of Barton-under-Needwood
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Long time devotees of Photo-Sleuth will recognise this portrait of an wedding group as a carte de visite which I discussed almost four years ago in the "Mystery marriage" series. My identification of the couple being married is now under some doubt, the marriage of a younger sister of the suggested bride having been offered as an alternative possibility by a reader and potential family member. However, the location of the portrait - as co-sleuth Nigel Aspdin will be pleased to hear - is probably not, and it is an nice early example of the white bridal gowns popularised by the Queen Victoria and her daughters from the 1840s onwards.

Image © and courtesy of Ben Hodgkiss
Wedding of William Hodgkiss & Charlotte Stirland, 16 August 1904
Large format mounted print by J.N. Perks of Swadlincote
Image © and courtesy of Ben Hodgkiss

The introduction of the larger cabinet card in the late 1860s helped, but it wasn't until the popularisation of larger format mounted prints in the 1890s and early 1900s that studios commonly produced decent sized prints of large groups, such as this 1904 example by Joseph Perks of Swadlincote, in which people could easily recognise themselves.

Image © and courtesy of Robert Silverwood
Wedding of Louisa Rice and George Storr, 1 July 1914
Postcard portrait by Harold Burkinshaw of New Road, Belper
Image © and courtesy of Robert Silverwood

The postcard format was first used for photographic portraits around the turn of the century, after which it rapidly superseded the carte de visite as the cheapest option available. The increase in size meant that large groups could be accommodated quite comfortably, although the difficulties in coping with lighting conditions indoors meant that formal portraits were taken usually on the steps of the church, or in the garden of the ensuing reception.

Image © and courtesy of Adrian Farmer
Unidentified wedding group, 1925
Postcard portrait by F. Clark of Belper
Image © and courtesy of Adrian Farmer

Even in the slightly less formal garden portraits, there appear to be very definite conventions on the arrangement of people within the group. I conducted a survey of one hundred group portraits from Gail Durbin's huge Vintage weddings Flickr set in which the bride and groom are clearly identifiable, in a wide variety of settings. The groom is placed to the right of the bride (facing the photographer) in 87% of them - in other words, only 1 or 2 out of every 10 arrangements has the groom standing or seated to the bride's left. A similar ratio emerges from an analysis of fifty portraits showing only the wedding couple: 81% have the groom standing to the right of the bride.

An 1893 description of wedding etiquette includes the following:
When the ceremony is performed in church, the bride enters at the left, with her father, mother, and bridesmaids; or, at all events, with a bridesmaid. The groom enters at the right, followed by his attendants. The parents stand behind, the attendants at either side.
My guess is that photographs taken after the ceremony tended to follow the same conventions as those observed inside the church.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Wedding of Charles Leslie Lionel Payne and Ethel Brown, Derby, 1926
Loose amateur 116 (2½" x 4¼") film print
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

This amateur portrait of my grandparents' wedding party, taken in the bride's parents' garden (probably with something like the No 1A Folding Pocket Kodak camera), shows the typical standard convention for small family group wedding shots: the groom's parents are immediately to his right, while the bride's parents are to her left. As is often the case, both mothers are seated.

Image © and courtesy of Kevin Rhodes
Wedding of Leslie Falconer and Edith Smith, 1934
Postcard portrait by W.W. Winter of Derby
Image © and courtesy of Kevin Rhodes

This wedding photo and that displayed below, both from the Derby studio of W.W. Winter, were taken indoors. By the mid-20th Century lighting technology was sufficiently advanced such that being indoors no longer presented much difficulty to photographers. Winters in particular had a large, well appointed studio in Midland Road, Derby with modern lighting apparatus and all of their studio portraits were of excellent quality.

Image © and courtesy of Kathleen Garner
Wedding of Fred Garner and Gertrude Trueman, Chaddesden, 1944
Postcard portrait by W.W. Winter of Derby
Image © and courtesy of Kathleen Garner

It may be, however, that the Garner-Trueman portrait was taken in Chaddesden. Winter's photographer Hubert King describes taking wedding portraits "on location" using a hand-held 5" x 4" glass plate Press camera in the 1940s and 1950s (Winter, 1996).

Arrangement of guests in Garner-Trueman wedding group portrait

This photograph is particularly useful as the contributer supplied me with IDs of the entire group, including their relationships to the bride and groom. The recently married couple, with the groom (bright blue) conventionally standing to the right of the bride (bright red), are immediately flanked by a couple who were friends of the bride (pale pink), and presumably acted as best man and maid of honour during the ceremony. Surrounding them are the immediate members of the groom's family, comprising his father and four sisters (light blue), while the bride's parents (pink) have been relegated to the far right of the photograph. More distant members of the grooms family (pale blue) then complete the picture.

Image © and courtesy of Gail Durbin
Wedding of Arthur Durbin to Hilda Scott, 10 July 1937, Stoke Newington
Unknown format and photographer
Image © and courtesy of Gail Durbin

Gail Durbin has kindly identified several family members in this 1937 photograph of her parents' wedding party.

Arrangement of guests in Durbin-Scott wedding group portrait

The happy couple (bright blue/red) are seated in front of this large group, with the best man and maid of honour (light purple), both friends of the couple, standing immediately behind them. The front row is dominated by the immediate family of the bride (pink), perhaps because both parents of the groom were deceased by this time, although his sister-in-law (light blue) and her children (pale blue) were present.

I should note that it is not unusual to see one spouse's family over-represented in a wedding group. This might have several reasons:

  • a subsequent portrait in the series may have included more members of the other spouse's family,
  • the under-represented spouse may have come from further afield, making it difficult for family members to attend the wedding, or
  • an under-represented family may have been smaller to begin with, or some could have died.
Absence of a particular family member from any group portrait should not, however, be taken to mean that person is deceased. In the double Hirst wedding group by Hawkes above, it would be easy to assume from the absence of the siblings' mother that she was deceased, but this would be incorrect, as Thirza only died in 1951, seven years after the wedding.

Image © and collection of Marilyn McMillan
Horace Watts Woolley and Phyllis M. Woolley née Hirst, 21 Sep 1942
Postcard portrait by Jerome studio, 26 Victoria Street, Derby
Image © and collection of Marilyn McMillan

After a week of perusing several hundred wedding photos, and dredging up memories of the weddings I've attended in the past, I've come up with some broad guidelines on the conventions around wedding group arrangements. I hope these may assist some researchers in the identification of family members in old wedding photos in their collections. I should note that these conclusions are largely taken from shots of English ceremonies, and may not hold elsewhere. I'd be keen to hear feedback from readers concerning similarities or differences in other parts of the world.

  • The first thing to emphasize is that there are no hard and fast rules. As quick as I list a guideline, I find several examples showing something quite different. Quite a few less formal group portraits can be found, in which many or all of the guidelines are ignored.
  • The bridge and groom are usually together and central to the group, but may be slightly displaced or even, in some groups, at one side of the group. In 8-9 out of 10 cases, the groom is seated or standing on the bride's right, but a significant number of cases show the reverse. It may be that the latter are mostly among less formal group photos.
  • The best man and maid of honour, often friends of either or both the bride and groom, if present in the photo, are usually standing immediately adjacent to or behind them.
  • Bridesmaids and flower girls are often standing or seated in the front row, particularly if they are carrying flower bouquets, presumably so that the arrangements are in full view.
  • The next closest to the bride and groom, usually in the front row, are their immediate family, including siblings and their spouses, parents and nephews/nieces. Each branch of the family are not necessarily restricted to a single side of the group.
  • Children generally stand in front of the adults or are seated on the ground.
  • One person's hands on the shoulders of another usually indicates a close relationship.

Image © and collection of Marilyn McMillan
WOOLLEY-HIRST. - On September 15, 1942, at Alvaston Parish Church, Derby. L/Bdr. Horace Watts Woolley, son of Mr. and Mrs. S. Woolley, of 138, Raynesway, Alvaston, to Phyllis M. Hirst, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. G. Hirst, of 176, Brighton-road, Crewton, Derby.
A final cautionary note concerning dates on portraits which appear to be celebrating weddings: as demonstrated by the example above, the photograph may not have been taken on the day of the wedding. The portrait of Horace and Phyllis Woolley by Jerome studios of Derby is marked on the back with Jerome's usual purple date stamp, in this case Monday 21st September 1942. However, a newspaper cutting also affixed to the back of the portrait shown in the image sent to me by Marilyn McMillan demonstrates that the wedding actually took place at the parish church, Alvaston, near Derby, on Tuesday 15th September, six days earlier. Presumably they didn't have an opportunity for photographs on the day, and paid a visit to the studio a few days later to record their nuptials.

While clothing fashions changed continually, the conventions surrounding seating arrangements appear to have remained much the same over time and, from my own limited experience of weddings, survive largely intact to the present day. I'd be interested in hearing what your impressions are.


A Bride and Her Bridesmaids, 1851, by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, Whole plate daguerreotype, Smithsonian American Art Museum, in The Wedding Story, by Merry Foresta, 2009, The Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife on their wedding day, 30 December 1852, b&w film copy neg. of daguerreotype by unidentified photographer, Ref. LC-USZ61-900, Library of Congress.

Wells, Richard A. (1893) Manners, Culture and Dress of the Best American Society in Chapter: Courtship and Marriage, Springfield, Mass.: King, Richardson & Co.

Winter, W.W. Ltd. (1996) The Winter's Collection of Derby, Volume Two, Derby: Breedon Books.


  1. In a blog dedicated to a celebration of old images you could never wander off-topic. This post is wonderful and a perfect example of a post that should be "cut out and kept" (I can do this digitally via Evernote) as it provides a splendid reference source for helping to date old family photographs. As always, we are in your debt, Brett.

  2. Interesting research and lovely photos.

  3. It's interesting what you say about the lack of wedding photos inside the church.Maybe,as well as the lighting issues, photography was thought somehow 'profane'at one time?
    As to groupings....I never considered that before.Maybe it's a sociological thing? As the importance of The Extended Family has declined ,so has it's 'ranking' in 'official' photographs?I would imagine,these days thought is usually only given to the prominence of the very immediate family?

  4. Alan - Thanks, and of course us in yours. I haven't used Evernote, being more familiar with the academic research tool and citing software EndNote, but I must investigate.

    LisaB - Glad that you enjoyed them.

    Tony - Yes, I thought of that too. I think perhaps some clergymen still do not permit photographs to be taken inside the church. I didn't include any pst-1940s wedding photos, and I suspect you're right, there could be a trend away from such conventions, although in the former colonies the practice still seems to be alive and well.

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and like Alan I will store it. Usually I select the text, copy it to MS Word and produce a PDF based on that *.docx. I admit it is kind of devious but I don't mind doing that.
    One remark about the date on the back of the Woolley-Hirst picture. Could that be the development/print date? That was the habit of many labs.
    My collection of wedding pictures consists of 16 grooms to the right of the bride and four to the left. But all these picture just show the happy couple.
    Great post, Brett!

  6. Great work Brett.
    Now I'm off to check out the Flickr set you mentioned.

  7. A brilliant post, Brett. I've often wondered how wedding ceremonies evolved with religious practice and society conventions. This is a great method to work out the photographer's seating plan to make identification. I wonder if part of the hierarchical system relates to the elaborate royal ceremonies, especially the wedding of Victoria and her many children.

    At my wedding which was in London, my family was limited by the expense of travel to just my parents and my grandmother. And my father acted as my best man in our civil ceremony. Being also the official photographer, he attempted to photograph the official signing of the registry book, but was stopped by the registrar. We had to make do with a posed signing on a blank page of the book! Rules are rules, no flash photographs please.

  8. Excellent post. I never realized that wedding photos could be so interesting.

  9. Your selection of wedding photos, is wonderful. Those flowers arrangements are beautiful, I wonder if they were very heavy.

    Thank you for all the information on how they decide who goes where in the family groupings.

    Excellent post, as usual.

    Kathy M.

  10. A fascinating and absorbing post which got me looking back on my own wedding collection. Remember one of my early SS posts 'Wedding Day Delay'? There was a different reason in that one for the photograph not being taken on the actual day.

  11. This is interesting but at our wedding and most I have been to when it came to the photographs it was the photographer who decided who went where. All as far as I can remember had the groom and his family to the right. Of course these days inside the church it seems to be a case of an 'approved' video camera operator.

  12. Now you have me wondering about the etiquette of wedding photo arrangement. In my wedding photos, my family stood next to and around me, while my husband's family stood next to him. If we ever divorced, I suppose we could have cut the picture in half. HA!

  13. Very interesting post. I noticed in the 4th photo somehow had scribbled out the face of the seated man. Wonder what that was all about.
    In the 1925 photo you could tell that traditions were becoming more relaxed as that girl in the front is sure relaxing.
    My daughter is a wedding photographer. She uses 8mm film for her medium of choice, but always works with a still photographer so she will probably know if there is still a tradition in photos as to who stands where. I'll ask her.

  14. This is so very interesting. I always thought the photographer posed everyone as he/she saw was appropriate, height and girth obviously playing a role. Pleased to find out about Evernote as well.

  15. Firstly love all the old wedding photographs, it shows so well the traditions families adhere to. I am amazed at the two Mothers wearing the same dress, I wonder why, I have never seen this. I thoroughly enjoyed your grand collection of wedding photography.

  16. Nancy - I thought of you when I posted that first photo, and your request for the bathroom in the middle of the ceremony. I'd be interested to hear your daughter's comments on the conventions of today. Yes the scratched out face actually appears to have the surface emulsion removed as well - who knows why.

  17. In double weddings, do they say "I do" together or one by one?

  18. Really interesting post - I'm off to look at all the wedding photos I have with fresh eyes.
    We didn't have a wedding photographer as such, we had a farm picnic wedding and asked all our friends to give us copies of all their photos. I also took about 4 rolls of film. This should confuse people in years to come - a real hotchpotch of a wedding album!

  19. There used to be set out, almost, by formula. Nowadays it is a jumble with the wedding couple somewhere in the middle.

    In old photos every one seems to be in the best outfits, nowadays your just as likely to see trainers (dirty) jeans (un-ironed) and T-Shirts (Dribbled)as you are collar and tie.

    Lack of standards or am I a snob?

  20. When I first looked at the 4th photo, I wondered who invited the ape. Then looked closely and saw that it was a drawn on beard(?) Maybe it was an ex-boyfriend that got invited by mistake. I guess we'll never know.

    Very interesting and informative post

  21. So, if I follow your list of rules here, I supposed that, in the "c. 1864-1866 Carte de visite by John Burton & Sons of Derby", it could be the groom's father, this seated figure, that lost his head. I wonder what happened that he'd deserve that fate. Or is it just a printing defect?

  22. Interesting and an eye-opener for me. I first thought -- I dinna have any wedding photos. Upon review, there are a number of weddings in my archives. Now what I need to attend to is doing a better job of archiving my photos -- I have an archaic system of my own devising (OMG)which as resulted in a plethora of duplicates. Guidanc? Anyone?

  23. Peter - I'm glad you enjoyed the article and that it was of some use.

    Yes, I think it is a possibilty that the stamped date on the back is that of the developing/printing, as I've certainly seen month-year dates on amateur prints from the 1950s and 1960s, signifying the print date at a commercial lab, who couldn't be expected to know the date the photo was taken.

    However, the country-wide Jerome studios took these portraits themselves, and all branches used these date stamps. What would be the purpose of having an exact date of development? There would, hoewever, be a good reason to have the date of the sitting, as when the customer returned to collect the prints, they could easily be referenced.

    You could well be right, but in my view the Jerome's dates are more likely to be of the sitting.

  24. Boobook - ... and that will have kept you busy for a while, I'm sure.

    Mike Brubaker - Certainly the white dresses worn by the brides developed as a result of Victoria and her daughters using that colour, and I suspect many aspects of the wedding day conventions also followed suit. Interesting what you say about signing the register - you mentioned it previously in response to a photo that I included here on Photo-Sleuth of someone doing just that (SS 140).

    Postcardy - Thanks, I didn't either, but that goes for many photos. If you look at them for long enough, eventually you'll find something of interest.

    Kathy M. - I'll admit that I hadn't spent much time thinking about the flowers ... a topic for yet another post, perhaps, although best left for someone who knows more about such things.

    Little Nell - Yes, I do remember that one, nd possibly I even had it in mind when I wrote this.

    Bob & Helen - That's interesting, perhaps the photographer had to balance the family pecking order and height/balance requirements.

    Wendy - I get the impression that's the norm, but there are many varieties on the theme, and few can be split exactly down the middle like that.

    Nancy & Barbara - It is an odd feature of the photograph, and I can't give you much of an answer about the "ape." I haven't seen the original, and the identities of the the members of the group are unknown anyway.

    Titania - Well spotted, I hadn't noticed that.

    Hazel - Ha ha, well I'm guessing it would depend on the vagaries of the pwerson conducting the ceremony.

    Jackie - I have been to weddings where there were disposable cameras on every table, and people just took whatever photos they wanted and left the camera there for the happy couple to have printed and enjoy later. At my nephew's wedding a few years ago, they had a proper photobooth there, and everyone could have their photos taken for free - a wonderful idea.

    Mike Burnett - Yes, that has been my experience too, less formality in recent times, although the basic structure is still there. I must admit I have't seen T-shirts and dirty jeans ... yet.

    Bruno - He lost his head after the bride ran away with the best man ... who knows.

    Joan - Yes, that's a mammoth task and one where you have to decide on a system to begin with, stick to it once you've started, and then finish the job.

  25. When I was in college my college friend got married. They did not have money for a fancy photographer so she asked me to do it. Well, all I can say is the marriage did not last. I've seen the photos. I took them. I cannot be held responsible, but I think they'd have been better off with no photos than with what I took.

  26. T+L - Oh dear, that's sad, on nmore than one count, but I don't think you can be held responsible either.


Join my blog network
on Facebook