Blog25 Jul 2012
Our photo expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.
John Pettifer sent us his photo and asked:
‘I should be most grateful if you could comment on the attached photograph. As you will see, I have also included a scanned view of the reverse. I have written 1874-87 on this as these were the dates I found some years ago on a website for when RH Tear was in business. If these dates are correct, it seems unlikely that the lady was in fact Charlotte Kenyon (born 1800) as she does not appear to be as old as 74. Any help you can offer would be much appreciated.’
‘Like most surviving Victorian photographs in family collections, this is a professional studio portrait – probably an example of the small carte de visite photographic print measuring around 10 x 6.5cms and popular from c.1860 until the early 20th century. This was the most common type of card-mounted photograph until the 1880s/1890s, when the larger cabinet print became increasingly fashionable.
Cartes, cabinets and other non-standard mounts were usually printed on the reverse of the card with the photographer’s name and studio address and in theory it’s possible to discover when a photographer was working at a stated address. There is a useful database of early London photographers – www.photolondon.org.uk – but sadly there is no entry for RH Tear of Kingston Road, New Wimbledon, S.W., perhaps because Wimbledon was officially located in Surrey until the 20th century. You mention that you have established his operational dates as 1874-87 from a website. I have been unable to verify this, but can confirm that the reverse design, displaying central lettering and filigree decoration was common during the late 1860s and 1870s.
Let’s look more closely at the image now. Ancestors visiting their local photographer would dress up in their best clothing and pose in a contrived studio setting with pieces of strategically-placed furniture and ‘props’. Every aspect of the scene was controlled by the photographer, who wished to create as attractive a picture as possible. The book on the table may possibly have been the lady’s own volume, but is more likely to have been a ‘prop’, used to convey a genteel impression and imply literacy, at a time when not everyone could read!
The lady’s appearance gives us the best clue as to when the photograph was taken, her layered outfit with flounced edges typical of the 1870s. During the first half of the 1870s, fashion dictated a protruding bustle pad behind the waist, with drapery piled up over the projection. After mid-decade, when the bustle declined, some residual fullness remained at the back of the skirt. Unfortunately we can’t see the precise shape of her skirt from her seated position, so the exact style isn’t clear and to include all possible years, I would suggest that we consider a date range of c.1870-77. Her hairstyle, dressed in a low chignon, is rather old-fashioned for that period and she wears the narrow day cap of a mature married woman or widow.
I would judge this lady to be aged in her 40s or thereabouts, so, as you suspected, she can’t possibly be Charlotte Kenyon, born in 1800. The boy looks to be aged about nine or 10 years old and could be her son, or even a grandson. Since there is no male adult in the scene it seems possible that the lady was a widow. Hopefully the date range, along with these clues, will help you to work out these ancestors’ identities.’
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