Some people say that photographs today are as cheap as chips. This is untrue, as anyone who has been to a fish and chip shop recently will know: a bag of chips can set you back the best part of £2. Photographs, captured on smart phones and shared with friends are essentially free goods, and like all free goods, we tend to take them for granted. We can snap a selfie, and if it doesn’t hold up to our glorified self-image, we can dump it quicker than a political adviser.
Go back 150 years, and that was not the case; photographs were a rare thing, something you had to save up for, pose for, and frown for. Nobody was willing to pass up their one chance of immortality in exchange for a cheap grin or a cheeky gesture. If you go back thirty or so years ago, however, back to the late pre-digital age, it was the era of the photo booths. You could put a coin in a machine and produce four portrait poses: one serious one for your passport or driving licence, and three silly ones just for the fun of it.
So how would our perceptions of the Victorians be changed if they had coin-in-the-slot Photo-Me booths? Perhaps we would be left with more than endless portraits of serious and unsmiling faces. Modern technology helps us to test these theories out, so here is our Victorian lady relaxing in front of the Photo-Me camera …. with a little help from Photoshop’s new Neural filters!
Consider the journey, if you will. This beautiful photograph of a young woman was taken at the studios of P & H Koch in the city of Crefeld (now Krefeld), just north of Dusseldorf in Germany. The reverse of the Carte de Visite makes reference to the Koch studio having won medals at a photographic exhibition in Dusseldorf in 1896, so that probably dates this portrait to around the turn of the twentieth century. How did this young lady get from pre-Great War Germany to a box at the end of my desk?
Did she dance at balls in Rhineland-Westphalia and shop on the elegant boulevards of Dusseldorf? Did she lose a lover or a son in the mud-caked trenches of the Great War? Did she scrape for food during the Great Inflation and the depression years that followed? Did she hide in the shadows, or cheer in the streets, during the rise and fall of Hitler? Did she survive to see hope and prosperity again?
Her secrets are hidden deep within the pasteboard, at rest – and at peace – in the box at the end of my desk.
I am not sure if I was attracted to this little Victorian portrait by the look in the eye of the sitter or because in was taken in the studios of Sydney Barton in New Brighton. I remember New Brighton well from childhood seaside trips (the name “New Brighton” was a triumph for positively-spun nomenclature second only to the island of “Greenland”). Barton was listed in the 1901 census as living at 95 Victoria Road, New Brighton along with his wife, three children and a live-in maid. His occupation was that most trendy of late-Victorian occupations – “photographer”. It always amazes me how a bit of pasteboard, just four inch by two and a half, can have so much history stuck to it.
If Shakespeare had been around in the days of Brexit, he might have written a play called Two Gentlemen Of Brighouse, in which two friends, Herbert and Wilfred, travelled to Bradford in pursuit of the same girl, Ethel. This lovely little Victorian photo from the studio of the Brighouse photographer, Martin Manley, would have made a perfect illustration for such a play.
The career of Martin Manley traces the rise and fall of the Victorian studio photography craze. Born in Brighouse in 1850, he was the son of a family of moderate means who owned land and houses in the Bonegate area of the town. In the 1871 census, he is listed as “living from income derived from homes and land“, but by 1881 he is listed as being a photographer. This little Carte de Visite must date from the 1880s or 1890s and he is now listing himself as an “Artist in Photography, Miniature and Portrait Painter Etc“. By the time of the 1901 census the boom years for Victorian studio photographers are beginning to fade, and Manley is now listed as an “optician and photographer“, and ten years later all reference to photography are dropped.
Irrespective of his career path, Martin Manley appears to have remained a keen photographer all his life. He was one of the founder members of the Brighouse Photographic Society, and as early as 1874 there are newspaper reports of him exhibiting his photographs of members of the Royal Family and “famous views of London” at local gatherings.
My research into the life and times of Edward Gregson, photographer, of Halifax and Blackpool is both illogical and unstructured: flitting between odd facts and unrelated times, and punctuated by portraits of anonymous Victorian worthies. It is a journey of discovery in which gazing out of the window and enjoying the scenery is far more important than any promised destination. Today, it takes me back 150 years to January 1869, when Edward appears to have branched out from his core photographic business, to supplying everything from ear drops to book slides, from tooth brushes to toilet soaps.
An advert in the Halifax Courier of the 7th January 1869 gives notice of the type of sale that has been a familiar feature of markets, fairgrounds, and auction houses over the centuries; a sale of surplus, damaged or delayed stock, which promises the type of bargain that you cannot afford to miss. If we take the description of the items in the sale as being “surplus stock” which has been delayed – by those familiarly unreliable railway companies – with a pinch of salt (one of the few items not being sold at the sale), we get the impression of Edward Gregson as an entrepreneur who is branching out far beyond the confines of his photographic studios, into all manner of fancy goods. The musical boxes, watch stands, china ornaments and mechanical toys might well have sold well in the Blackpool studios of Edward Gregson, and he may have seen the opportunity of making them available to the Halifax public.
If nothing else, it shows that by as early as 1869, Gregson – still in his thirties – already had a well established photographic business in both Halifax and Blackpool, and was confident enough to describe himself as a “photographer and dealer in fancy goods“.
This little Carte de Visite from Gregson’s studio probably dates from a few years after the sale of fancy goods mentioned above. Nevertheless, could this rather stern-looking lady, captured by E Gregson the photographer, be wearing a necklace and bracelet supplied by E Gregson the fancy goods merchant?
This little Victorian Carte de Visite dates from a time when photographs were for special occasions, rather than the result of a selfie-click on a smartphone. Young men or women would have their photographs taken on birthdays and holidays, wearing their very best clothes, and posing against a background of stone antiquities and tree-trunk props (the props really were to prop you up and keep you still to accommodate the lengthy shutter speeds of the Victorian cameras). Every northern mill town would have its fill of photographic studios, and these would often have branches in the seaside towns that were becoming more and more popular for Bank Holiday trips.
Who this young lady is, I have no idea, but she has the look of a woman of strong character, who might just have severed that tree branch all by herself.
Like some latter-day Victorian parson, I occasionally think I am in the business of saving souls. Many of the nineteenth century studio portraits that come into my possession are showing their age: spots of mould eat into the very soul of the image. A little careful renovation makes them fit for another century or two.
This is a Cabinet Card from the studio of Alfred Hughes of 433, The Strand, London. Normally one has no idea of whom the subjects of such portraits are, but here we have been provided with a signature at least – and the Rev W Murray seems set to save some souls of his own.
There is something very distinctive about this Victorian lady, who was photographed by Dupont’s studio in Brussels in 1893. There is a signature on the reverse, but it is indecipherable. It also says the word “Eindhoven” which I assume was where she was from.
The Dupont family had been leading photographers in the Belgian capital since the 1840s, and later went on to open studios in a number of other European cities. At the time that this photograph was taken, the Dupont Studio advertised itself as: “Photographers to the diplomatic corps, to the great bodies of state, the magistrature, the army, the ministries, the public administrations, the world of letters, science and the arts etc” What more can be said?
This is a nineteenth century photograph (but only just) from the studio of Borman and Johnson of Main Street, Danbury in Connecticut. Before Norman and Johnson took over, the studio belonged to a certain Mr Blackman. On the reverse, the names of the two children are listed as A Howard Bantes, age 12; and Louise Rosina Bantes, age 5. The date “Xmas 1899” is also inscribed.