Close to the heart, the Art of family

In previous blogs about the Rylands photographic collections there has been a lot of focus on architectural photographs and landscapes; due in part to the strength of our collection in this area and also more generally because of the popularity of these subjects in early photography.  In fact, the earliest known example of a permanent photograph is View from the Window at Le Gras by Nicéphore Niépce, and it was also the first architectural photograph as it was a view of buildings.

However this final blog on the material we have catalogued as part of our Paul Mellon fundedOut of the Ether’ project will detail some of our beautiful photographic portraiture. Our portraits range through prints on paper and card to cased photographs and photo jewellery. Like the architectural and landscape examples, we have good representation in the portraits of the early photographic techniques. What is perhaps different is that as well as being interesting from a technical or aesthetic perspective, very often portraiture elicits a further emotional connection to the piece.

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A daguerreotype portrait of Catherine Hannah Dunkerley set in a case.

The images above and below are two of our cased photographs. Above is an example of a daguerreotype and the lower image an ambrotype. A daguerreotype is one of the earliest photographic processes, named after its inventor Louis Daguerre and the format was predominant in the 1840s-1860s.  The support for the image is silver plated copper, which is housed under glass.  The result is an image that when viewed can appear in the negative or as a positive due to the reflective, mirrored surface. This makes them fairly easy to distinguish as a format. Due to the expensive nature of the materials the daguerreotype was a relatively luxury item, so the sitters for such portraits would likely have a degree of wealth or social status. The second is an ambrotype, rising in popularity through the 1860s and beyond. Ambrotypes are photographs on glass plates, produced through wet plate collodian process and made into a positive image by mounting them on a black background.  These were very popular as they were less expensive than the daguerreotype and therefore more accessible.

A hand tinted 1/6 plate ambrotype photographic portrait of an unknown woman and child.

The lady in the ambrotype above is wearing all black clothing, including gloves and bonnet. The attire suggests mourning dress which was quite a formal process in the Victorian era. Children were not subject to the same rules so the little girl sitting on her lap would not have been required to wear the same colour. Mourning and loss was something that definitely influenced the popularity of photo jewellery. The concept of Memento Mori jewellery (‘remember that you have to die’) was not new, but in the Victorian period developed into a complex visual symbolism that was often incorporated into the jewellery. The two items below are examples that are likely mourning pieces.

The first is a brooch containing a daguerreotype portrait of a young man; however the indicator that it may be a mourning piece is the back, which bears an example of ‘hairwork’, often utilised in mourning jewellery.  In this piece, hair (presumably the young mans) has been woven into a beautiful geometric pattern and encased on the reverse of the brooch under glass.  The second is an ambrotype of a very young girl holding a ball. On the reverse is sadly revealed a memorial scene that indicates the death of the child. The urn symbolises death, with the broken or severed tree symbolising that it was unexpected or early.

The last image I would like to highlight is perhaps my favourite.  It is a tondo, (circular) albumen print, by Julia Margaret Cameron. The children in the image are Julia Margaret Cameron’s grandchildren, Margaret and Adeline Norman. A decidedly sombre portrait, the two girls are seated with their heads close together; Margaret (on the left) has her gaze directed towards the floor and Adeline looks off into the distance with her head tipped towards her sister and her arm around Margaret’s shoulder. This photograph was made shortly after the death of Julia Margaret Cameron’s only daughter, Julia Norman, in childbirth. Particularly poignant is that Julia and her husband Charles Norman had been the ones to gift Cameron with a camera, as Cameron herself had described in her own words: ‘My first lens was given to me by my cherished departed daughter and her husband, with the words, “It may amuse you Mother, to try to photograph.”’[1]. It is signed by Cameron, ‘From Life’.

Portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron’s grandchildren, Margaret and Adeline Norman.

As well as being available as records in the University of Manchester Library Search, all these examples are fully digitised and available to view in the Manchester Digital Collections.

This is my final blog from within the Visual Collections team, as the ‘Out of the Ether’ project is now at a close; but I would like to express my thanks to both Clare Baker and Stella Halkyard in the Visual Collections department for making my stay a very happy one. The collections will continue to be catalogued and much more exciting material will continue to be made accessible through the work in the department.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year to all.

All images unless otherwise stated are copyright of the University of Manchester and can be used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike Licence. With thanks to the Heritage Imaging team.


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1 comment on “Close to the heart, the Art of family

  1. Pingback: Portrait of a Living Archive | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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