News / Ask the photo expert – ancestor’s engagement?

Ask the photo expert – ancestor’s engagement?

Our photo dating expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.

Janice Horne sent us her photo and asked:

‘I would be very grateful if you could identify the era that this photo was taken. I have two more of the same woman in our family, one with small child and one that might appear to be in the 1910-20 period. Many thanks for any help you can give to start me off.’

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Jayne says:

‘Unlike our other photograph this month, yours is a professional studio portrait, as seen from the card mount naming the photographer as J S Protheroe of Swindon. Judging from its appearance, this is probably a cabinet print or cabinet card – a standard card-mounted photograph measuring around 16.5 x 11.5cms.

The cabinet, first introduced in 1866, took a while to become established. It became more popular from the later 1870s onwards and by the 1890s was the most favoured photographic format for studio portraits. Cabinet prints continued to be produced in the early 1900s, finally becoming obsolete around the beginning of WWI. Many late Victorian and Edwardian examples survive in family and public collections today.

We don’t have a view of the reverse of this photograph, the design of which would help with ascertaining a timeframe; nor is there a handy online database offering operational data for early Swindon photographers. The various clues that are present here, however, are very useful and date this photograph firmly to the 1890s.

The pale grey card mount with rounded corners is typical of the 1890s and early 1900s, while the three-quarter length composition of the subject was popular at that time. We also notice certain studio props relating to this period – a potted palm and an exotic screen, the screen especially fashionable during the late 1880s and 1890s.

Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton

The fashionable appearance of the young woman in the photograph narrows the date range to within just a few years. Female dress and hairstyles generally offer an accurate date for a photograph, especially when the subject is young. Even ordinary working girls and women in the Victorian era often enjoyed spending their income on stylish, up-to-date clothes, especially when single, before they gained family responsibilities.

Here, this attractive young lady wears a formal bodice and skirt typical of the 1890s. We see the shapely silhouette admired around the turn of the century and, in particular, the style of her puffed gigot or ‘leg-o’-mutton’ sleeves confirm that she was photographed some time between 1893 and 1897.

Formal studio portraits were very often taken to signify a special occasion and the floral bodice corsage worn here supports the notion of celebration – the marking of an important event. We notice that this ancestor places her left hand carefully on the screen, so as to show a ring on her engagement/wedding finger. We cannot see the details of the ring very clearly but since she is posing alone in the studio, it is highly likely to be her engagement ring, since wedding couples were usually pictured together.

Hopefully this image of a young forebear who became engaged some time between 1893 and 1897 and who lived in the Swindon area will be possible for you to identify. The close timeframe here should also help you to pinpoint the likely period of your other photographs of the same person.’

If you’d like to send your photo to Jayne Shrimpton, please register or opt to receive newsletters in ‘my account’. Jayne only has time to analyse two photos each month, but if yours wasn’t chosen this time, you could be lucky next month!