Society of Genealogists:
How to Get the most from Family Pictures
Every year I run a full-day course at the Society of Genealogists in London. This year’s course took place on 19th May and, continuing the theme of my 2011 book published by the Society, covered all kinds of family pictures – paintings, drawings, silhouettes and photographs.
To fully understand the context of family pictures, it is useful and interesting to look at the portrait tradition and learn how the earlier demand for hand-crafted artworks evolved into the fashion for portrait photography in the mid-19th century.
Predictably, most attendees on the course had photographs that they wished to learn more about and have given permission for me to share these online. One attendee had a collection of several good ambrotypes dating from the mid-late 1850s and early 1860s.
Ambrotypes – also known as collodion positives – are unique photographic images on glass and, being fragile, are often protected under another layer of glass and presented in a hinged case, or framed for hanging on the wall. These examples are typical of ambrotypes taken in the photographer’s studio, which enjoyed a relatively short period of popularity – c.1855-early 1860s.
Although a significant number of researchers and family historians possess ambrotypes, most Victorian photographs surviving in family collections today are card-mounted prints: small cartes de visite and larger cabinet prints. On the course, we looked at how to identify different photographic formats and how to date both the image and the style of mount, as well as investigate the studio responsible for taking the photograph.
The above cabinet print (front and back views) was one of my favourite photographs shown on the course. Dating from the 1870s, it shows a middle-class Welsh family photographed outdoors at a local beauty spot. This is rather an early example of a cabinet print, a format first introduced in 1866 but rarely seen before the late-1870s and only becoming popular from the 1880s onwards. This photographic mount also demonstrates the vogue for coloured cards that developed during the 1870s: this pale sugar-pink shade was especially fashionable and was used for up to 20 years.
Most Victorian photographs were taken in the photographer’s studio. We need to date these accurately and also try to judge what special occasion may have prompted our ancestors to visit the photographer. The above photograph, dating from around the mid-1880s, is typical of a wedding photograph at a time when most ordinary bridal couples simply visited their local studio following the wedding ceremony, wearing their best, most fashionable clothing.
Sometimes photographs can be misleading, until they are explained: for example, the visual image and style of card mount may appear to be of different dates. Above is an example of a ‘memorial portrait’ – a copy of an earlier photograph made after the subject of the picture had died, so that family members could have portraits by which to remember the deceased. The image dates from the 1870s but the mount style is that of the late-1880s or 1890s. Discussing this on the course revealed that, unfortunately, this ancestor died when young, during the 1880s.
Above is a typical early carte de visite dating from the mid-late 1860s. Interestingly this ancestor’s personal letters have been kept by the family and reveal many fascinating details about her life, such as visits to relatives and organising wedding outfits.