Blog22 Jan 2013
Our photo dating expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.
Anne Lo Forte Willson sent us her photo and asked:
‘This image is a scan my cousin made some years ago and we do not know which family member owns the original photograph now. There was reportedly no photographer’s stamp on the image but written on the back is: ‘Mary, half-sister to Charles.’Mary Collis Taylor was the daughter of Charles Taylor and Ann Clarke Morgan. She was born in 1846 in Liverpool and always lived in the Liverpool/Merseyside area. After her mother’s death in 1856, she remained for the rest of her life with her father’s brothers and sisters. The Charles referred to in the note was Charles Taylor Jr, born 1868 in Liverpool to the same Charles Taylor and his second wife, Mary Ann Moore. He was my great-great-grandfather. He and two of his sisters emigrated to the US in May 1885 after their mother’s death.
One person that I spoke with mentioned that a pendant on a black velvet ribbon came into vogue after King William’s death in 1837. What I understand about clothing says that this girl’s dress must be around 1875-1880, yet clearly Mary Collis Taylor (b.1846) would not have been as young as this girl at that time. Mary married Edward Francis Dickins in 1880; they had no daughters and their three sons were born 1882-1886. This photograph was in my family’s possession when they emigrated to the US in 1885. Can you verify the date of this image and the age of this girl as matching – or not matching – the woman she is attributed to be?’
‘This query raises the tricky but important question concerning how far we can trust hand-written information on the backs of old photographs. Quite often a past family member has named the subject of a picture but we should treat their identification with caution. I often work on photographs that have been ‘named’, but accurate dating of the image reveals that in a large number of cases, the identification can’t possibly be correct.
Of course, the writer was trying to be helpful, but perhaps they were elderly and their powers of recognition were failing, or they had ‘remembered’ the wrong person – or maybe they were themselves given the wrong information. When inheriting a photograph with a name written on the back, it is always best to start by having the photograph accurately dated and then consider whether that ancestor could conceivably fit the timeframe.
Your estimate of the date of this photograph, based on the fashion clues, is spot on. We see here the fashionable narrow silhouette that evolved following the introduction of the elongated cuirass bodice or corset in 1874/5. Tightly encasing the body and creating a smooth line that extended over the hips, this new, elongated foundation garment effectively forced downwards the early-1870s bustle but leaving a residual cascade of drapery at the back, as seen here. This back drapery extended into a long train behind the skirt (not visible here), until c.1880 when the train began to disappear from day wear, leaving a narrow skirt. The fashionable look is well established here, so I would suggest that the earliest likely year is 1876, while the latest is 1880, so we have a probable date range of c.1876-80 for this photograph.
I’m afraid that the advice about the pendant on a black ribbon being introduced in 1837 is misleading: this style of chunky jewellery – especially a large pendant or locket on a short silk or velvet ribbon or a metal chain – was very fashionable in the late-1870s and early-1880s and is completely in keeping with the outfit worn here. Incidentally, the velvet tasselled chair with a rolled back was a very popular studio prop during the 1870s, offering another useful picture dating clue.
This ancestor looks rather young, evidently still in her ‘teens’, although she is dressed in adult clothing. It seems very likely that this was her ‘coming of age’ photographic portrait, taken to mark the point at which she officially progressed from adolescent styles to full adult dress. This important Victorian and Edwardian rite of passage usually occurred when a girl was aged about 15 or 16 years old and that sort of age seems to fit well the appearance of this girl. As you point out, therefore, she cannot be Charles’s half-sister, Mary Collis Taylor, born in 1846, but must be an ancestor born c.1860-65.
Reading through the family story – and bearing in mind that this photograph is closely linked to your great-great-grandfather, Charles Taylor (born in 1868) – it seems possible to me that this girl was one of Charles’ full sisters, born to the same father and mother as he: Charles senior and his second wife, Mary Ann Moore. Often children were named after a parent, so did Charles perhaps have a slightly older full sister named Mary, after her mother? Another Mary might explain the confusion over identity. Since this photograph was taken to the US in 1885, I believe it could represent another sister who did not accompany Charles and two sisters overseas. Often family photographs travelled far and wide across continents, to keep relatives in touch with one another and to stand in for absent loved ones.’
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