Dress-historian, portrait specialist and photo detective Jayne Shrimpton is on hand to date your family photos.
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I’m attaching an old mystery family photograph. I’ve been told that it is a copy of an American photograph and was probably taken by a travelling photographer. An aunt told me that the man portrayed here “left his family in the lurch and went off to look for gold.” The nearest ancestor who fitted this description was my great great grandfather, William Davies (b.1838) – a coal miner and publican who might have gone to America in 1873, after his wife left him and their children. The photographers named on the back worked in Sunderland and South Shields, suggesting that this copy was made for William Davies’ son, who was in that area during the Edwardian era (early 1900s). However, I am worried about this theory as I have been told that the original image looks to be earlier than 1873, even though the other facts seem to fit my identification. I would be grateful for your expert opinion and observations. I also wonder whether the accordion was a prop or whether it belonged to the sitter.
Jayne Shrimpton's analysis:
Firstly, I can confirm that the photograph in your possession is definitely a copy of an earlier photograph: this is immediately obvious, because the time frame of the visual image is significantly earlier in date than the card-mounted photographic print. Copies of photos could be made by virtually any local photographic studios: indeed many publicised this service on their card mounts. There were two main reasons why a copy photo might be made and sometimes they were connected: either a family member wanted a carte de visite or cabinet print of an older photograph to put into a family photograph album, and/or the subject of the photo had died and a descendent ordered copies from their local studio, so that relatives could each have images by which to remember the deceased: these are usually called ‘memorial portraits’.
When photographs were copied later on, any information concerning the original photograph was lost, so unfortunately we don’t know where in the world this photo was originally taken, or by whom. All we can do is to date the image accurately from the appearance of your ancestor, using the evidence of dress. The style of his slender dark frock coat with narrow sleeves, deep V-fronted waistcoat showing an expanse of white short and coloured silk horizontal necktie all point to a year around the mid-19th century, as does his distinctive hairstyle, slightly curled above the ears. A very precise date is impossible as men’s fashions were relatively uniform at that time, but the year of this image will fall between the mid-1840s and the late-1850s.
This date range means that the original was an early type of photograph - either a daguerreotype on a silvered copper plate, or an ambrotype, a photographic image on glass. Daguerreotypes were first produced during the 1840s and were more common in America, while ambrotypes, introduced 1851/2, were more common in Britain. Both formats used the kind of composition seen here, a close-up, half-length or short three-quarter length view of the subject who was usually seated facing forward, like this, with one elbow on an adjacent table. The use of studio props was fairly limited in the mid-19th century and I have never seen an accordion displayed in such a portrait before, so I believe that this musical instrument probably belonged to your ancestor.
The young man is clean-shaven, reinforcing his youthful age and, going by photographic evidence, I would suggest that this photograph may originally have been taken to mark his 21st birthday – a popular occasion that often inspired a trip to the photographer. Assuming that he is aged somewhere between his late ‘teens’ and early twenties and considering the mid-1840s – late-1850s time frame, he would be an ancestor born somewhere between the early 1820s and 1840 at the latest. Therefore he could, indeed, be your 2 x great grandfather, William Davies (born in 1838), but photographed here when a young man in Britain, that is, many years before his possible departure for the United States in 1873.
The final clue as to the likely identity of this ancestor lies in the date and location of your card-mounted printed copy photograph. As we see, your copy was created by A & G Taylor, who ran a vast chain of commercial photographic studios throughout late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. It will have originated in Sunderland or South Shields and the mount dates to the very early 1900s. Although Queen Victoria is named on the front of the card, on the back are mentioned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, so presumably the date of this copy is at least 1901. Hopefully this concurs with William Davies’ son’s period of residency in the area, supporting the likelihood that he had this copy photograph made, probably soon after his father’s death.
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The Genes Reunited Team