An Intriguing Victorian Scrapbook

An Intriguing Victorian Scrapbook

 

victorian scrap book cover leather bound book

 

 

I have been fortunate to be sent a very special Victorian scrapbook by a private client: he had inherited it from a relative believed to have bought it at a car boot sale or similar. The substantial volume, measuring 37.5 x 27.5 cms, had no apparent connection to their family and its origins and provenance (ownership history) were unknown.

 

 

masonic emblems free masons horse shoe painting scrapbook victorian

 

The scrapbook looks plain enough from the outside, but inside, arranged on 69 pages of stout card, lies a visual treasure trove – engaging and vibrant images ranging from photographs, through hand-crafted paintings and sketches to complex montages, such as that on page 1, displaying a horseshoe, masonic emblems, a bible and pictures of half-ruined Welsh priories.

 

 

masonic emblems free masons horse shoe painting scrapbook victorian

 

Scrapbooking was very popular in the 19th century, especially amongst ladies and children, who collected and organised all manner of ephemera and mementoes, including letters, decorative greetings cards, trade cards, favourite poems, even locks of friends’ hair. The rise in production of printed photographs from the 1860s onwards meant that portraits of relatives, pictures of family homes and other familiar people and places could also be added to the collection of personal memorabilia inside a scrapbook. In this instance the compiler has re-touched or decorated many such photographs, using watercolour paint, creating attractive and unique images.

 

 

illustration of victorian manor house

 

 

In fact the only clues as to who may have compiled this fascinating book and whom it could possibly represent rests with the many portraits of people and depictions of country houses displayed inside. A few of these are identified but many remain anonymous, although dating the photographs confirms that they originated during the 1860s and 1870s and were probably arranged in the scrapbook around that time.

 

 

victorian group photo women

 

 

Research into this intriguing album is beginning to reveal aristocratic connections, stately homes and privileged country life in Huntingdonshire in the mid-Victorian era.

An Unusual Victorian Painting

An Unusual Victorian Painting

 

painting early 1800s

 

One of the most exciting and satisfying aspects of my job is meeting new people and, especially, seeing a fascinating range of inherited family pictures, from artworks to photographs. After talking to the Hastings & St. Leonards National Trust Association earlier this year, one of the group’s members, Paul Cabban, showed me a copy of a large painting that had been passed down within his family. It is believed to portray prosperous Irish ancestors on their estate at Belvedere, Kent: Eli Earle Collins, b.1814; his wife Mary (nee Fenn), b.1821; and their children, Horace (on the pony), Mary Emma (holding the dog) and probably James, Edwin, Seldon and another.

I work on dozens of family paintings every year but had never before seen anything remotely like this ambitious picturesque scene from a private collection. As is usually the case, the picture is not identified, dated or signed by the artist, so one can simply hope to date the image accurately from the appearance of its human subjects.

 

painting early 1800s

 

The head of the family, Eli, seems to be wearing rather plain early-nineteenth century male attire, while Mary and her daughter, Mary Emma, broadly follow contemporary Victorian fashions. Their ringlet hairstyles and deep V-necklines date to the 1840s/1850 and indeed the date of the scene seems to be c.1850, based on the apparent age of Horace (b.1848) on the pony. Otherwise, these ancestors are wearing whimsical costumes comprising elements of 17th-century dress, such as the wide-brimmed ostrich-plumed hats and lace collars, while the boys’ colourful tabards and the flying pennant convey a lively sense of pageantry.

Such were my initial thoughts and later Paul kindly emailed me some comments from Amina Wright of the Holburne Museum in Bath, who saw the painting some years ago and had also suggested a date of c.1840s, noting the fanciful dress details reminiscent of the period of Rubens, Van Dyck etc. Paul also quoted from a professional Irish conservator’s report that he had previously commissioned. The conservator had identified the cart on which some of the family are ‘travelling’ here as being of traditional Irish style, supporting the probable identity of the family portrayed in this wonderful and curious painting.

Dating Portraits from Fashion Clues

Dating Portraits from Fashion Clues

 

 

jacobean fashion ruff lady

 

 

 

Our interest in historical fashions dates back centuries: in the 19th century, especially, there was aesthetic and antiquarian enthusiasm for earlier styles, inspiring many fashion revivals. However it wasn’t until the 1950s that the study of dress history became recognised as a serious and respectable academic discipline. At that time the art establishment first acknowledged that the costume depicted in portraits provided a unique and valuable research tool. Since then generations of art historians have commonly used fashion clues to accurately date and, in some cases, interpret historical portraits.

 

 

 

roman bust hair style curly wig

 

 

 

Tracing historical fashions necessarily closely follows the development of figural art, which extends back several thousand years to those ancient and classical civilisations who left behind representations of themselves wearing contemporary garments, hairstyles, jewellery and other accessories. Dating surviving images from fashion clues embraces not only conventional artworks such as paintings and drawings, but a wide range of portraits in different media, including sculpture, textiles and stained glass.

 

 

 

Greek Attic vase fashion

 

 

Traditionally-trained dress historians are equipped to date the appearance of figures depicted in art forms as diverse as Greek Attic vases, wood carvings, tomb effigies, manuscript illuminations, oil paintings on canvas, portrait miniatures and Victorian studio photographs. The types of pictures that societies produced changed significantly and expanded over time, but any kind of historical image portraying human figures wearing secular (non-religious) dress can be effectively dated, using knowledge of fashion history.

 

 

medieval book of hours duc du berry

 

 

 

It is usually possible to identify and date very early styles of dress to within around 50 to 100 years, and from the 12th century onwards, when garments, headwear and footwear began to assume more distinctive shapes, the time frame begins to narrow. However ‘fashion’ as we understand it today – that is, rapid and continual change in dress – is generally said to have emerged in the late Middle Ages, along with the growth of European cities and the birth of ‘mercantile capitalism’. Certainly, from the early 15th century onwards, the date range that can be assigned to fashions occurring in visual sources becomes significantly closer.

 

 

thomas gainsborough georgian

 

 

 

During the European Renaissance secular portraiture – paintings of named individuals – became an established art form and its growth in subsequent centuries enabled first-generation dress historians to determine a more precise chronology of dress from the 16th century through to the present day – a timeline against which any historical portrait spanning these years can now be successfully measured. From the mid-Georgian era onwards, both fashionable dress and the vogue for portraiture accelerated, facilitating the firm dating and effective analysis of many portraits originating in recent centuries.

 

 

 

cdv victorian photograph studio man suit 1860s

 

 

In the mid-19th century the new invention of photography offered a more democratic and popular way of representing the population at large and consequently many of us are more familiar with photographic portraits than with traditional, elitist artworks that only the prosperous could afford. By the Victorian era fashion was moving swiftly and old photographs can usually be closely dated to within five or ten years, from their fashion clues.

Society of Genealogists: How to Get the most from Family Pictures

Society of Genealogists:

How to Get the most from Family Pictures

 

 

 

how to get the most from family pictures book jayne shrimpton

 

 

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.

 

 

ambrotype photograph victorian

 

 

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.

 

 

ambrotype photograph victorian

 

 

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.

 

 

ambrotype photograph victorian

 

 

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.

 

 

 

cabinet card photograph victorian

 

cabinet card photograph victorian

 

 

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.

 

 

studio photograph victorian

 

 

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.

 

 

studio photograph victorian

 

studio photograph victorian

 

 

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.

 

 

studio photograph victorian

 

 

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.