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Photo of the Month – August 2014

ProfilePosted byOptionsPost Date

Genes

Genes Advisor 7 Aug 2014 15:13

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

Photo: http://cdn.genesreunited.co.uk/_Resources/images/email/campaign/2014-08/sepia-victorian-family.jpg

Background:

Please could you analyse the attached photo with particular attention to the date. I have been informed that the man on the right is my great great grandfather, but I am doubtful as he died in 1858 and I think the quality of the photograph is too good for that time. Having an accurate date would help me to identify these individuals.

Jayne Shrimpton's analysis:

Most of our surviving Victorian family photographs are posed in the photographer’s studio, but, like this example, a few are set outdoors. During the 1880's more convenient photographic equipment made it easier for commercial photographers to undertake location work away from the studio, so by the late nineteenth century sometimes professional photographs were being taken in the garden of our ancestors’ own homes. A representative from a local studio could be hired to visit a family if they wished to commemorate a special occasion but could not easily travel into town, if, for example, they were very elderly or if the group was large, as here. This is definitely a professional photograph: the composition is good and there is a pleasing symmetry to the group; the picture quality is of a high standard and everyone in the scene is clear.

As we would expect, everyone here is well-dressed in their best daywear for the photographer’s visit. In a group scene like this, representing both genders and mixed ages, the appearance of any adult women generally provides the most accurate date range, for female fashions are usually possible to pinpoint to within a specific time frame. Three females here wear adult dress - the plain, rather severe-looking black or dark woollen cloth costumes typical of the later 1880's and turn of the 1890's. Characteristic fashion features of this period are their close-fitting, front-buttoning bodices with high, tight necklines and narrow, slightly shortened sleeves. We cannot see the shape of all of their skirts but the style of the young lady’s skirt on the left suggests the late-bustle era. Considering all the dress details, I believe that your photograph was most likely taken c.1888-90; however, in view of what looks to be a rural location and bearing in mind the possibility of a slight time lapse before adoption of the latest fashions, I would suggest that you consider a time frame of 1888-1892 for this scene.

Clearly you were right to question the traditional identification of the man on the right as your 2 x great grandfather. Since he died in 1858, when photography was still in its infancy and not yet taken up by a wide population, it is unlikely that he ever stood before a camera. As the late 1880's/early 1890's time frame of this image confirms, here is a family from a later generation altogether: might the man in question be his son, your great grandfather, I wonder? If so, one of the boys could be your grandfather, bringing these ancestors much closer to the present generation. Hopefully the date range will determine whether this is likely – or at least offer you some realistic alternatives. It would also be helpful to investigate the building: is it familiar from other late-Victorian or Edwardian family photographs? Where were your ancestors living at the time of the 1891 census?

The man originally thought to be your 2 x great grandfather and the lady next to him look to be aged in their 40's or thereabouts, and I would suggest that they are a married couple – probably the parents of all, or most, of the younger figures in the group. Like many Victorian wives, evidently the woman has given birth to a number of children over about a 20-year period, creating a large age gap between her youngest infant, the toddler sitting on her lap, and her oldest child. Looking at the group, I believe her first-born is either the young man or the young woman to the left, who appear to be a couple, rather than brother and sister. All the other children, aged between about four and sixteen or seventeen, are grouped in the middle and there look to be strong facial resemblances among them, supporting the likelihood that they are all siblings.

A large family gathering like this was almost certainly organised to mark a particular occasion, an event, or events that warranted the taking of a special group photograph. One distinct possibility is a landmark wedding anniversary for the older couple – perhaps their 20th or 25th wedding anniversary. This was a popular subject for professional photographs by the late 1800's, yet usually the anniversary couple would be seated right in the centre of the group, whereas here they are placed to one side. On the opposite wing are the younger couple and, judging from the careful display of the young woman’s rings, they were either engaged or already married when the photograph was taken. This is not a marriage scene, but perhaps their engagement was another motive for the group portrait: the young woman also wears some little festive bows pinned or tacked to her sleeves that may well signify a personal celebration. Scrutinising the details of this group it seems plausible that the photograph may have represented two different events that were being celebrated simultaneously within the family. Either way, a possible engagement and a possible landmark wedding anniversary are two more clues that may well help you to make a positive identification of these ancestors. By checking your recorded dates you may even be able to calculate the exact year of the photograph.

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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 theteam@genesreunited.co.uk 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.

For further information on Jayne Shrimpton, visit http://www.jayneshrimpton.co.uk

The Genes Reunited Team