Medals Galore!

With rapidly increasing technological advances, the 19th century was a boom time for exhibitions and expositions. One of the biggest and best was the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London which provided a model for exhibitions on a national and international scale. Not only did these exhibitions showcase art and technology to an admiring public, they also rewarded those who excelled in their respective fields, photographers among them.

Awards of certificates of merit and medals of bronze, silver and gold soon proliferated

International Success
International Success

among every area of photographic endeavour. Awards for portraiture and composition were eagerly contested at local, national and international level. Due to the number of medals being handed out it soon became fashionable among the photographic fraternity to adorn their ‘carte de visite’ photos with representations of the honours that had been heaped upon them. In so doing, those who had triumphed in portraiture, technical prowess or best portraits of children had a ready-made endorsement for the services they provided.

Medal Design
Medal Design

However, as with so many things, the medals that studios so proudly displayed on the backs of their photographs were not always what they seemed. At first glance it might be assumed that some photographers had gained many more awards than was the case. It was common practice to display both front and back of each medal, thereby implying that twice as many had been awarded. Other studios added medal-like designs to their cdvs, which at a cursory glance would pass as the real thing, and an example of this can be seen on the reverse of a photograph by Naudin & Co. of London. Others showed depictions of medals while neglecting to state what the award was for. Netterville Briggs, though, made sure that his clientele knew why his work had been praised. Awards for best portrait, best portraits of children, large portraits and best series of portraits, were awarded to his studio between 1865 and 1870.

Garrett Cocking of Peckham, near London, gained a medal at the London International

A Fine Display of Awards
A Fine Display of Awards

Exhibition of Inventions in 1874 as well as at the Photographic Society of London exhibition in 1877. However, Mr H P Robinson of Tunbridge Wells outshone most of his competitors by gaining awards from the Paris Universal Exhibition as well as from displays in Scotland, Bengal, Vienna, America and more prosaically, Cornwall, between 1862 and 1877. F. Whaley too distinguished himself if the number of medals on his cd is anything to go by. The Royal Cornwall exhibition appears to have been a favourite with many photographers as their medals appear on many cards from across the British Isles. Other regional exhibitions that featured frequently in photographic adverts were those held in Bristol, Dundee, Newcastle and Falmouth. This trend reflected the numerous regional photographic associations that sprang up in the middle years of the 19th century as photography for the masses continued to grip the imagination of the public.

The logistics of transferring photographs safely halfway round the world or even across the country must have been fraught with difficulties. No doubt the burgeoning railway networks played their part but there must have been much forward planning and sturdy packaging needed to make sure work arrived at the right destination and in good condition for each exhibition. Evidently photographers thought it was worth the time and trouble as the medals and other awards that were gained show another side to the life of the nation’s photographers. However, by the end of the 19th century, the use of medals as status symbol and design feature was fading. As the 20th century arrived it was no longer necessary to present photographs on highly decorated cards. By this time, the public had begun to take its own photographs and the age of the carte de visite photograph was almost over.

A Medal from Parisjpg766

Perils of the Photographic Trade

It wasn’t always easy being a photographer in 19th century Britain. As with any new technology, many jumped onto the bandwagon with hopes and dreams of a prosperous future. However, unless they were among the upper echelons of society, there were many pits into which these young hopefuls could fall.

The first hurdle to overcome was finance, buying all the right equipment and funding premises for a studio. Also needed were the blank cards onto which photographs could be mounted; for one printing firm, Marion of Paris, this proved to be a very lucrative market. For photographers with deep pockets this was not a problem, though for those who were restricted financially, the possibility of failure was ever-present.

A Grand Setting
A Grand Setting

The next problem for every photographer was how to attract customers to the studio. At first this would have been achieved by word of mouth or perhaps adverts in the local paper. Once carte de visite photographs became the norm, the backs of these mini-images provided the ideal space for decorative and advertising purposes. As photographers vied for custom, the designs became ever more fanciful and eclectic, though the more sophisticated photographer would retain a certain restrained elegance of style. As well as the initial outlay for equipment etc, the studio itself needed to be ‘dressed’. Curtains, drapes, painted backcloths, carpeting, chairs and tables were all utilised to present the visual environment in which the sitter was positioned for their image to be captured. Other props such as books, floral arrangements, and even the family dog, were roped in to provide a hopefully artistic atmosphere. Once captured, the image was by no means safe. It wasn’t unknown for the volatile chemicals in the developing process to burst into flames if laid out to dry in the sun.

Despite, or perhaps because of, all these preparations, many businesses were

A Man of Many Parts
A Man of Many Parts

doomed to fail. Reports in newspapers, entries in trade directories and the census tell a sad tale of short-lived business partnerships being dissolved and photographers being forced to take on alternative occupations to keep their families afloat financially. Some canny photographers got a head start by combining photography with established businesses such as chemist, instrument maker or picture framer. Portrait painters were another group that soon latched on to the advantages of photography, replacing the old art with the new technology. One resourceful photographer even worked as a gardener in between sittings in his studio.

There were two other aspects of life in the 19th century that might cause a photographic business to fail. One was bankruptcy, the other, shocking to us today, of racial and religious antipathy. One photographer who suffered both the indignities was Augustus Mahalski who set up as a photographer in York, having fled from his native Poland. There were many newspaper reports over the years of the trials and tribulations of the unfortunate Augustus, including anti-Semitic abuse. Despite this,  he worked hard to succeed in his new environment; that he did manage to keep his head above water, just, was a tribute to his powers of endurance and determination. This same story could be repeated for many other photographers escaping poverty and persecution in their own homelands.

In the end, though, whether they succeeded or failed, the photographers of Victoria’s reign left us a lasting legacy in the sheer number of photographs and advertisments that survive to this day, including those included in this piece. I hope you like them.

Snapped by Augustus Mahalski
Snapped by Augustus Mahalski
Victorian Excess
Victorian Excess
A Society photographer
A Society photographer

19th century cross-dressers ?

A man in female attire?
A man in female attire?

In most of the photographs in this collection, the sitters are unequivocally male or female. Their clothing, facial features and even the way they present themselves to the photographer suggest that most sitters are what they appear to be, either men or women. However, one or two photos seem to idicate that there was a degree of cross-dressing going on. Two images may be seen as men posing as women, one may be that of a young woman in male attire, in the photographs shown here.

The Victorian era is usually associated with strict moral codes and a fair degree of prudery but the newspapers of the day prove that there was another side to society at this time. There are many instances of women taking on the guise of men either for economic reasons or simply because that was the way they chose to live. Maria Cummings was a case in point; her story appeared in the Preston Guardian in 1860. She had left her home in Ireland and came to take on harvest work in England. Finding that she was paid less than men doing the same job, she successfully posed as a working man, receiving her due for the work that she did.

A female cross-dresser?
A female cross-dresser?

Catherine Coome of Cheltenham had a different story to tell. Having married her first cousin at the age of 16, she then adopted the persona of ‘Fred’ and passed herself off as the son of her husband. The couple moved to Bedford where ‘Fred’ formed an attachment with another young woman, Ellen Smith, and the pair became sweethearts. The relationship was eventually reported to the police who took ‘Fred’ into custody. A newspaper description of ‘Fred’ paints a picture of a slender, handsome person with closely cropped hair. ‘He’ was dressed in a cloth coat, vest and trousers, though no explanation could be found for this charade. In the end, ‘Fred’ and Ellen were parted by their families, the rest is silence. At the same time, Freeman’s Dublin Journal reported that a woman aged 97 had died in Wigan, Lancs. For fifty years she had lived as a man, being known as John Murphy and it was only after her death that her true sex was discovered.

Lady or gent?
Lady or gent?

It wasn’t just women who were dressing up as the opposite sex, which was considered a crime in 19th century England. Young men too were indulging in the pastime of ‘larking’, i.e. dressing in women’s attire for a lark. One was a Mr Ludlam, a grocer of Broomhill. On one occasion he was found drunk and in ‘female attire’, a black silk dress, with a shawl and a muff. It seems that in this area of Sheffield   complaints had been made by the townsfolk about young men ‘very foolishly, improperly and wickedly’ dressing in female clothes. Mr Ludlam received a night in police custody for his misbehaviour, though no further charge was made. However, this Sheffield man was a mere bit-player compared to two young persons who flaunted themselves in the fashions of the opposite sex. They were the outrageous Fanny & Stella, aka Mr Park and Mr Boulton.

The two young men were often to be seen in full female attire, waving and nodding to other men at the theatre. When their activities aroused suspicion, they were arrested. They turned up at court in the ‘full costume of the period’, green and pink silk gowns set off with ribbons and lace. A large crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle of their court appearance, where Constable Chamberlain said that he had seen them in low cut dresses with bare arms. Although feminine in appearance it was obvious that they were men. Their apartments were searched and a quantity of photographs, some in albums, was recovered, showing the two in both male and female attire. Much female apparel was also found, as well as wigs with long tresses or chignons. Even feminine underwear was discovered, indicating how far Fanny & Stella were prepared to go to pass as women. Even though no complaint of indecency was found against them, they were sent to the house of detention, having changed into men’s attire for their term of imprisonment. The story ran in newspapers such as the Evening Standard for several months. Today, the story of Fanny and Stella and other cross-dressers of history is as fascinating as it ever was. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether the photos I have included show cross-dressers or not.

Saving Faces

A Small Selection of Albums
A Small Selection of Albums

As the deluge of photographic portraiture, in the form of the carte de visite photographs, poured out of the studios of Victorian photographers, it soon became apparent that there was a market for a medium in which to keep and display them. Thus the photograph album was born.

Like photography itself, initially it was the well-to-do section of society that drove the demand for books or albums in which to house these small photographic treasures. As can be seen from the above image, they came in a variety of shapes and sizes and like photographs themselves , the albums also revealed something of one’s status in society. An example of this is the album at the back of the group, sold by Jennett & Co, Booksellers of Stockton on Tees. This album, measuring 300 mms by 220 mms, came in stylish tooled red leather set off by an embossed cartouche with gilded ornamentation and a sturdy clasp on the side.

Another Album
Another Album

Open this album and the class of the purchaser is immediately apparent. The ladies are elegantly dressed without ostentation, the menfolk often bewhiskered and always dressed in jackets, waistcoats and trousers. They present a prosperous yet anonymous face to the world as none bear any name or date that might help to identify the family. As well as these portraits there are two other c-d-vs of particular interest. One shows a small dog begging for contributions to the album, the other advertises a similar album which was probably put out by Ashford Brothers and Co, Photographic Publishers.

The album on the right is much smaller, containing only one photograph per page, whereas the red album held four images to each page. Like the other it is made from tooled leather and decorated with two ornate metal clasps This album originates from 1861, if the date inscribed within the front cover is to be believed. The portraits inside show seemingly affluent people yet without the same air of confidence of those in the larger album. Again, there is almost nothing to identify who this family is despite the three initials, L.J.S., that appear above the 1861 date.

The album to the left has seen better days. Its spine has fallen away and half its hinged clasp has vanished. However, despite its battered appearance, more is known about this little album than the other two. An impressed oval on the first leaf tells that it was made by Henry Naylor, 157& 161 Oxford Road, Manchester, who doubtless made a whole range of albums varying in both size and price. This was probably from the cheaper end of the range.

The Face of Mrs Bardill?
The Face of Mrs Bardill?

As well as this there is also a pencilled inscription that reveals the owner of the album to be Mrs L Bardill, 60 Bridge Street, Langley Mill, Notts. If the first portrait in the album is of its owner, then one can safely say that here is a woman who has seen life. She stares impassively into the camera wearing a beribboned bonnet and a heavy knitted shawl over a dark, tight-fitting dress. Her eyes are pale and piercing and she reveals a depth of character lacking in the portraits of the more elevated sitters in the other two albums.

These are just three of the thousands of photographic albums that must have been sold in the nineteenth century and it is a minor miracle that we can still open them and marvel at their contents just as the Victorians did all those years ago.

By Royal Appointment?

Prince of Wales Feathers
Prince of Wales Feathers

As photographers nationwide latched on to the power of advertising, a noble or even royal patron was seen as a sure way to boost the popularity of the studio. The most prestigious patrons were the Royal family and even if they had never set foot in the door it was still possible to claim an association, however spurious. One ploy that photographers used was to decorate the backs of their cartes de visite photographs with emblems such as the Prince of Wales feathers or the very British Lion and Unicorn. In this way, subtle or not, the photographer implied that there was a connection between his studio and the higher-ups in society.

While some studios merely made claims of royal patronage, others were more blatant. J C burrow of Camborne declared himself ‘photographer to the Prince of Wales’, while Guttenberg of Manchester revealed that their studio was ‘patronized by Her Majesty’. It wasn’t just the British Royals that were ‘adopted’ in this way. One photographer, S. Long of Woolwich, headed his advert with a stirring recommendation from no less a person than the Prince of Siam, who had made ‘honourable mention for excellence of portraiture’ to the studio. Schreiber and Dutton, again of Woolwich, claimed that their work was ‘By appointment to H.R.H. Prince Ibrahim Hilmy, Pasha of Egypt’. In the meantime, Audas of Grimsby made do with the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and H.R.H. Prince Albert Victor.

H.I.H the Prince of Siam
H.I.H the Prince of Siam

The truth of these Royal connections may or may not have existed but as one firm found, it didn’t do to bandy the name of Queen Victoria about, as the firm of A. & G. Taylor found to their cost. Although a nationwide and even worldwide firm, they were called to account for ‘using in connection with their business the Royal Arms without the permission of the Queen’. Representatives of the company were taken to court, had their wrists slapped and warned not to transgress again.

The widowed queen
The widowed queen

However, the best way to exhibit the fact that the Queen had indeed sat for her portrait was to make sure the public saw the image that one had captured. In the photograph by Mayall of London & Brighton, the widowed Queen is seated between her son, the Prince of Wales and his new wife, the Princess. Prince Albert also makes an appearance in the form of a white, probably marble, bust on a nearby plinth. Doubtless at least some of the photographers who claimed Royal patronage actually did so and it would be easy to smile at the pretensions of those who did not. But business is business and a little Royalty goes a long way.

Making the most of this Blog

Almost all the photographers listed on this blog are from my own collection. This means that if you find a photographer who is of interest to you, I can scan in his or her trade card for you to see.

The exceptions are those mentioned in ‘Miscellaneous jottings’, which are based on information passed on by followers of the blog.

A selection of photographers trade cards is already available to view. Just follow the links from ‘About this Blog & photographer’s trade cards’.

A gallery of  ‘named sitters’ is also included. These are quite rare as very few 19th century photos carried the name of the subject. Again, the link is found at the head of this page.

There is a wealth of info. on the site, both factual and visual, so go ahead, CLICK THE LINKS above and see what you can discover. If all else fails, I can also access trade directories for most of England and Wales to establish a timeline of when specific photographers and their studios were in business.

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