carte de visite of the week #11 robert graham and the love letter

This week’s cdv is a rather charming portrait of a young lady reading a letter. Her natural pose and slight smile make a pleasant change to the forced artifices found in many portraits, where the sitters appear uncomfortable, are grimacing rigidly, or else are engaged in some pretence such as rowing a boat inside the studio. All portraiture, of course, involves an element of performance, and this was even more the case during the early years of photography. However, a cdv portrait like this could almost be imagined as a candid shot in the corner of someone’s living room. Was this letter a studio prop, or did the girl bring it along with her? Does it have personal significance – a letter from a distant relative, friend or lover? Perhaps the carte-de-visite was made for the person who wrote the letter, and would be posted back to them as an affectionate sign that his/her correspondence was both received and valued.

The reverse of the card identifies the photographer as Robert L. Graham, operating from his studio at the Top end of the Parade (No.6), Leamington, Warwickshire. It probably dates to the 1890s: Graham opened his studio at 7a Upper Parade in 1873, later moving to York Terrace and then to No. 6 Parade, expanding into the next door premises (No.8) as his business flourished.

Graham appears to have been a prolific photographer, making many thousands of images during this period. After his business closed in the 1920s, the store of negatives ended up – no one knows how – in the cellar of a house at 16 Augusta Place, a couple of blocks away from The Parade.  They were forgotten about and the cellar was bricked up, sealing the negatives away for decades. They were only discovered by chance in April 1987 when workmen happened to break through the cellar wall, and found stacks of glass negatives, piled up to five foot high. The total number was estimated at between 40-50,000, but most of them were damaged beyond repair. Thankfully, around 5000 of Robert Graham’s negatives were rescued safely and are now held by the Warwickshire County Record Office. You can read more about this remarkable story here.

Carte-de-visite of the week #10                  Henry PhilLpotts, Bishop of Exeter


The photograph above was taken in the mid-1860s at the London studio of William Walker (1791-1867) and his son Samuel Alexander Walker (1841-1922.) Clearly visible in the picture are the gaiters worn by the bishop. This was standard ecclesiastical dress for bishops and archdeacons until the mid-20th century. Some readers may remember a BBC TV series in the late 1960s, All Gas and Gaiters, with Derek Nimmo, William Mervyn and Robertson Hare playing comical clergyman of St Ogg’s Cathedral.

Henry Philpotts (1778-1869), the redoubtable Bishop of Exeter
Phillpotts was Bishop of Exeter from 1830 until his death and ruled the diocese with an iron hand, imposing order in a region that had long been disorganised and demoralised. He was, however, a pugnacious character who relished conflict and detested compromise. Walker’s portraits capture the bishop’s forceful character – the massive brow, granite features and clenched jaw support Owen Chadwick’s description of him in action: ‘exposing opponents’ follies with consummate ability, a tongue and eyes of flame, an ugly tough face and vehement speech.’ (The Victorian Church Vol.1)
Unsurprisingly, Phillpotts was embroiled in controversy throughout his life. Local conflicts included his long-running feud with Thomas Latimer, editor of Western Times, the Exeter surplice riots (1844-45) – which saw violent mobs protesting in Sidwell Street – and the Gorham case (1847-50), a long-running dispute over the bishop’s refusal to allow the Rev. George Gorham to take up his appointment in Brampford Speke. Philpotts believed Gorham’s views on baptismal regeneration to be out of line with Anglican orthodoxy, but when the bishop’s judgment was overruled by an appeal court, High Churchmen were appalled at the idea of secular authorities overruling the episcopate on matters of religious doctrine.


St Peter’s Church in the quiet village of Brampford Speke, a short distance from my home. It was Phillpotts’ refusal to ordain the Rev. George Gorham as vicar here in 1847 that led to deep unrest within the Church of England.


The Lower Cemetery in Exeter, showing the wall dividing the Anglican graves from those of Nonconformists. Phillpotts consecrated the Anglican side on 24 August 1837 but refused to have anything to do with the ‘dissenters.’
Although it is tempting to dwell on the conflicts and controversies, Phillpotts made many positive contributions to the diocese of Exeter, including restoring part of the cathedral, founding a theological college and library, and working with Lydia Sellon to revive religious communities for women. He didn’t like the city much, however, and preferred to live in Torquay rather than in the episcopal residence attached to the cathedral.


Bishopstowe, Phillpotts’ residence in Torquay and the place where he died on 18 September 1869

Celebrity cards like these were inexpensive to buy – typically between 1/ and 1/6d – and would be sold in stationers shops or other outlets. There was an insatiable market for collecting carte-de-visites of famous people in the 1860s, though one wonders how popular Bishop Phillpotts’ portrait was among collectors, given his unpopularity and fearsome reputation. I remain curious to know more about the person who originally bought this pair of cards. Were they an admirer of the bishop? Did they acquire the cards to go in an album with cdvs of other church dignitaries, or were they collecting cards of local interest to the Exeter area?

Original albums of Victorian cartes-des-visites regularly come up for sale, but often we know little about the way these collections were put together. How often were people buying cards? How much was acquired as part of a clear collecting strategy and how much was picked up on arbitrary impulse, according to what was available or looked appealing? What personal use did the collector make of the images he had acquired? Was the album taken out in the evenings to be pored over as we might do with a glossy ‘coffee-table’ book?

Questions such as these invite comparisons with modern habits of collecting, as well as highlighting the extent to which the meaning and nature of celebrity status has changed over the last 150 years. Some people might be bemused today at the notion of a man like Bishop Phillpotts being regarded as a celebrity, but his contemporaries would be equally baffled, if not more so, at the activities and achievements of those accorded the status of celebrity by the modern media.

Carte de visite of the week #9 – Ross & Pringle


Continuing on the Scottish theme, this week’s cdv comes from the Edinburgh studios of James Ross (1815-95) and Thomas Pringle (died 1895), who were in partnership from 1867 until 1883.

Pringle –   an assistant in the firm for many years – became Ross’s business partner following the retiral of John Thomson (born 1808/9) – not to be confused with another Edinburgh photographer named John Thomson (1837-1921) who became famous for his views of China and London street life.

James Ross was working with the calotype process when he went into partnership in 1848 with Thomson, a skilled daguerreotypist. They were appointed photographers to Queen Victoria in 1849, and later switched to using glass negatives following the introduction of collodion in the early 1850s.

James Ross has been in the news recently because of the hypothesis – advanced by American researcher Patrick Feaster – that he may have been the first photographer to produce a sequence of moving images, preceding the man usually accorded that honour – Eadweard Muybridge – by two years. Feaster’s theory is based on a reference in The British Journal of Photography, 14 July 1876, which describes a sequence of three photographs taken:

by Mr. Ross, of Edinburgh, in one of which a girl on a swing is caught just at the instant when the rope had reached the highest elevation; in another a girl is skipping, the picture showing the rope passing under her feet; while a third is that of a boy jumping over a large stone. The last is peculiarly interesting, as it was stated to be taken with a camera fitted with a number of medallion lenses, placed in threes, one above another. The exposures were made by causing a sheet of metal with a hole in it to fall so that the aperture was for an instant brought successively in front of each lens. To the lower end of the sheet was attached a heavy weight, and it was held up in such a position that the three lenses were all covered. At the proper moment the suspending thread was severed, and, although the time between the passing of the opening in the sheet from one lens to another must have been almost inappreciable, the plate showed the three pictures in very different positions.

It would appear from this passage that Ross used a single camera, but one that was specially-constructed with three lenses, allowing him to take three photographs of a moving person, animal or object in rapid succession. Muybridge used a line-up of twelve cameras to photograph a running horse in California in June 1878, with each camera activated by a trip wire as the horse passed by. His experiment was carried out to settle debate over whether a galloping horse ever had all four hooves in the air at the same time. He was able to carry out a series of trials using an array of equipment thanks to the financial support of Leland Stanford, a wealthy horse-owner and businessman.  James Ross appears to have funded his own, more modest, experiments himself. For a fuller version of Feaster’s theory, see his article here.

This attractive little family group sat for their portrait around the time that Ross was working on his motion photographs, as a handwritten note on the back gives the date as July 1875 – shortly before Ross and Pringle moved from 114 George Street to 103 Princes Street. The studio was at the west end of George Street, close to Charlotte Square. The mother and her young children may have lived in the west end, but studios with a good reputation such as Ross and Pringle could attract clients from quite a distance. The only clue to their identity lies in the scribbled names and initials at the foot of the card.

Carte de visite of the week #8 The Scott Monument in 1869

After spending the last few days in Scotland it would be churlish of me not to feature a Scottish cdv in this week’s post, so I’ve chosen one that depicts that most iconic edifice of the capital city – the Scott Monument, completed in August 1844.

The monument has been photographed from the north side of Princes Street, looking to the SW with the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy in the background, and beyond that, the hazy silhouette of the Mound and Edinburgh Castle.

The photographer was Archibald Burns (1831-80), who began taking pictures as an amateur in the 1850s before turning professional. He joined the Photographic Society of Scotland in 1858, but is first listed in the trade directories as a professional photographer in 1867.  The back of the card gives the date as August 1869, when his studio was still based at 22 Calton Stairs, a terrace building on Calton Hill. In 1871 he moved further up the hill into Rock House, the former studio of the great pioneering partnership of Hill and Adamson. Hill moved out of Rock House in 1869, the year before his death, and for a short period it was occupied by the Annan brothers, Thomas (father of James Craig Annan) and John. It must be remembered that at this time many photographers preferred to buy an existing photographic business – complete with a well-equipped studio and a ready-made customer base – rather than start their own one from scratch. Studios were therefore occupied by a series of photographers in succession, often over many decades.


The reverse of the card

Most of the cartes-des-visites I’ve featured so far have been portraits, and landscapes were far less usual as subjects. Burns was a prolific photographer of Edinburgh scenes, a large number of which were sold in the cdv format.  In 1868 fifteen of his photographs were published Picturesque Bits of Old Edinburgh, including albumen prints of Cardinal Beaton’s house in the Cowgate and John Knox’s House in the Royal Mile. After moving to Rock House, he was commissioned by the city’s Improvement Trust to photograph the ‘closes’ between the Cowgate and University’s Old Quadrangle (what is now Chambers Street), which were scheduled for demolition.  It was an area of overcrowding and poor sanitation, described in John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Scotland (1868) as ‘one of the poorest and filthiest lanes in the United Kingdom.’ Burns photographed the tenement closes in February 1871, just after they had been cleared of their inhabitants. This was a very different aspect of Edinburgh life compared to that symbolised by the carte-de-visite above.


Detail from the above, showing the photographer’s emblem

Carte-de-visite of the week #7                                      A Visit to The Cobbler

I’m cheating again this week by posting a cabinet card rather than a cdv. (Although I don’t anticipate any complaints, if anyone wishes to do so, they send their postcards to the usual address…)

The photograph was probably taken in the early 1900s, as Robert Forbes is known to have run his business from 79 George Street from 1903 to 1910. Although he operated as a professional portrait photographer, the picture above was clearly taken outside the studio – presumably in the house of the cobbler, unless the scene is completely staged.

At first glance one might imagine that the photograph is an illustration of the old proverb, ‘The cobbler’s children are always the worst shod’, but a closer look reveals that the girl is holding one of her boots and socks in her hand, and is therefore the owner of the boot that the cobbler is repairing. Regarding the rest of her clothing, she is wearing a white pinafore of the type that was popular for girls from late in the nineteenth century through till the time of the First World War. It was meant to protect her dress from getting grubby, as the cotton was easier to wash.

In the background an advertisement for Wood Milne Heel Pads is visible. This was a British company, founded in 1896, which manufactured rubber goods including shoe heels, golf balls, car and motorcycle tyres, Also suspended from hooks on the wall are notebooks, photographs and cut-out pictures of footwear. It is intriguing to see large stone slabs stacked up in the fireplace. This jumble of miscellaneous workaday objects reinforces the impression that this is an authentic setting, although this does not exclude an element of careful staging.

A clue about this can be found in the National Archives at Kew, which holds three photographs that Forbes originally deposited in the Copyright Office in 1903:

‘”The Widow’s Mite,” taken at the entrance to Culross Parish Church. Old lady with little child dropping in penny in the collection plate and looking up into the presiding elder’s face. Two figures entering church’.

‘”Waiting.” Figure study. Old lady with bowl in hand standing at door.’

‘”The Village Well.” Photograph of old lady drawing water from well.’

The title and descriptions suggest that the photographs were imitating the genre paintings which had been so much in vogue during the Victorian era. These pictures depicted everyday domestic scenes in a realistic manner, but were often coloured with a touch of sentimentality. They were not allegorical, but sometimes the artist wished to illustrate certain moral themes or quaint character types.

The photographer had a personal link to the setting of The Widow’s Mite for his parents, Thomas and Catherine Forbes, lived in Culross. Robert was born in Edinburgh in 1879, and later married Florence Ethel Pursey; they had eight children (three sons and five daughters.) At the outbreak of the WWI he joined the Highland Light Infantry and served with them until the end of the war. The family then moved to Street in Somerset, where their youngest child was born, and where Forbes continued to work as a photographer.