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Photo of the Month - June 2014

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Genes Advisor 9 Jun 2014 12:57

Dress-historian, portrait specialist and photo detective Jayne Shrimpton is on hand to date your family photos.



This is a glass plate photo taken in, I believe, Oxfordshire or Warwickshire. I would like it dated please: then I may be able to work out which family is pictured.

Jayne Shrimpton's analysis:

As you say, this is a photograph on a glass plate, a format known as the collodion positive or, more commonly, the ambrotype. During the early-mid 1850s, when photography was still in its infancy, some photographers began to use a new method of turning their original glass plate negatives into an apparently positive photograph, by bleaching the image and blacking one side of the glass, usually using a black lacquer called shellac. Generally these vulnerable, unique photographs, irreplaceable if scratched or broken, were presented in a folding case or protected under another layer of glass and set into a frame. Impressive numbers of ambrotypes survive today, but, especially if the protective case or frame has been lost, then often the black varnish has peeled off in places over the years, as we see from the patches of clear glass on this one.

Ambrotypes set in the photographer’s studio were fashionable for only a brief time, until the 1860s, but those taken outside in natural settings remained popular for several decades, the last that I know of dating from the beginning of the 1890s. They were favoured especially by outdoor and itinerant photographers who might set up their equipment on the beach and at local beauty spots and other locations where they could be sure of passing trade from holiday-makers and day-trippers. Your photograph fits perfectly into this category: we see from the surroundings that your ancestors are grouped on a pebble beach in the lee of a cliff or against a rocky backdrop. The setting looks to be genuine, so unless they were visiting an inland lake or river with coastal-like shores, then I would suggest that they were enjoying a day out at the seaside. The location is probably not, then, Oxfordshire or Warwickshire, although your forebears may well have travelled away from home for a short holiday.

Glass ambrotypes gave little opportunity for the photographer to identify him/herself and are very rarely dated, so all we usually have to go on when trying to date and understand such scenes is the visual image. Here we see what looks to be a large family group or – less likely, perhaps - a gathering of friends/neighbours on an outing. Everyone is well-dressed in smart, fashionable clothing, as was usual when going out for the day, or enjoying a special occasion. In a mixed group scene such as this, the best indication of the date is provided by the ladies’ appearance and here the women’s stylish daytime costumes confirm that this photograph was taken c.1886-90. Their close-fitting bodices exhibit the high necklines and narrow sleeves typical of these years, the lady in the front wearing a pale ensemble displaying a very fashionable plastron front to her bodice, with contrasting panels – a distinctive style of the later 1880s and c.1890.

Another key dating feature that places this image firmly between 1886 and 1890 is the tall style of the ladies’ headwear. Fashionable hats developed tall crowns from 1885/6 onwards and even the older lady’s conservative dark bonnet follows this trend. The children all wear picturesque juvenile clothing characteristic of this era, the girls’ clothing following adult female styles to some extent and a small boy just visible centre-left wearing the sailor suit that first became widely popular during the 1880s. Two of the older girls and a lady seated far left wear the straw boater hats that were coming into vogue for summer outdoor wear by the later 1880s. The man is dressed in a lightweight, pale-coloured summer lounge suit and a semi-casual hat, his full beard a common choice among older males at this time.

Assuming that these are all ancestors, three generations of your family seem to be represented here, although the absence of men is striking, particularly as several ladies aged 20s-early 40s are present and are probably the mothers of the children. I suspect that some or all of these adult women are the daughters of the older couple, but where are their men folk? In view of the summer season, I wonder whether they were, for example, farm workers and were too busy bringing in the harvest to go on an excursion. There are still questions surrounding the exact purpose and precise location of your photograph, but, most importantly, you now have a firm, accurate date range and should be able to begin working out which family/families are pictured here.


If you have any 18th, 19th or 20th century pictures, and are happy for Genes Reunited to share the image and findings, please scan and send a copy to with PHOTO in the subject.

Images used will be selected at random. Please scan the front and back of card-mounted photographs. Could we ask that you do not any original images in the post.

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The Genes Reunited Team