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Cartes de Visite

Cartes de Visite

Destined to typify Victorian portrait photography, the carte de visite - a small albumen print mounted on a card the size of a traditional visiting or calling card (about 4 by 2½ inches) - resulted from attempts to reduce the price of the newly-invented albumen print. A method of taking several photographs on one plate allowed small prints to be produced in greater quantity and sold more cheaply. They were mounted on card because of the albumen print's determination to curl. Noticing their resemblance to a visiting card, the Paris photographer Disdéri (97944, 12626) patented and promoted the carte de visite photograph in 1854; and the name stuck even though in fact their use as visiting cards was rare. Because they were collected in albums, the English name for them at first was 'album portraits' (see 12102). From 1860 the carte de visite was the unrivalled popular portrait format, in succession to the daguerreotype and collodion positive.

The so-called 'cabinet' portrait, a larger version of the carte de visite, was introduced in 1866. Examples include William Harvey (50524, an early one), Richard Owen (12341), J. G. Galle (51377), G. B. Airy (49808), W. T. Thiselton-Dyer (32310). Both formats survived into the 1900s. The fashion waned as society and taste changed, and as new photographic formats and techniques competed and offered greater variety. Gelatine and carbon prints were more robust than albumen prints, amateur photography was becoming easier and more widespread, and new photo-mechanical processes (photogravure, collotype, half-tone) allowed the commercial publishers to mechanise. From about the turn of the century and especially with the First World War, the picture postcard and postcard-format private photograph inherited the carte de visite's role, both as a popular celebrity collectible and as a souvenir of loved-ones.

Boosted by the participation of classy photographers such as Mayall (53342), the patronage of Queen Victoria, and the widespread marketing of portraits of celebrities, the carte de visite became a huge social and commercial phenomenon in the 1860s, literally millions being produced. The Queen was a popular and willing carte de visite subject (an early example is 12771), as well as a collector herself. The Victorian ideals of family, hierarchy, and patriotism came together in cartes de visite - your album could begin with the royal family, and include the great men and women of the day, but side by side in identical quality and format would be yourself and your own family and friends. It became a social convention, and was taken as a compliment, to ask for someone's 'carte', and offer them your own image in return. Yet at a matter of a few pence nearly everyone could participate in the fashion.

The basis of the carte de visite's popularity and success was this demotic combination of celebrity and domesticity, coinciding as it did with a kind of coming of age of photographic portraiture. The one-off and expensive daguerreotype founded the fashion, and taught people how to pose, but then gave way to an equally elegant portrait that you could order by the dozen. A group of photographs of the London surgeon William Harvey illustrates how a professional man of some social position would - seemingly in quite a short space of years, judging by his appearance - visit several high-class studios, and strike several different (or, perhaps more significantly, quite similar) poses, to keep his friends (and his own ego) supplied with images. Harvey's portraits take us on a tour of the best London studios of the time: as well as an anonymous full-plate albumen print dated 1861 (69029), there is a cabinet portrait by Maull & Co. (50524), and cartes de visite by Disdéri's London studio (97944), Bassano (87853, 90672), and Mayall (53342, 65274). Both the latter include standing and sitting poses, which was probably normal.

The Museum has not collected private or domestic albums, but a carte de visite album of an unusual nature was produced at the height of the fashion, commemorating the award of royal patronage to the Royal Microscopical Society in 1866 (11837). Prepared for the society by the London photographers Maull & Co., the album contains a unique assembly of carte de visite portraits of the scientific worthies of the time, especially on the medical and natural history side. Many of the photographs were (it is assumed) taken specially, though some are evidently from slightly older stock negatives. Several early stalwarts of the society who had died in recent years are also included; and some later photographs have been added or loosely inserted. Although a few famous scientists like Richard Owen and Michael Faraday are present, its real value lies in the many minor figures, doctors and amateur naturalists and the like, of whom there are no other known portraits, but who formed the bedrock of the society's membership.

The 79 photographs include (to give just a sampling of the album's variety and interest) the scientific publisher John Van Voorst, the inventor of scientific instruments Charles Brooke, the microscope maker Joseph Beck, the surveyor and mining engineer Thomas Sopwith, the distinguished dental surgeon Sir John Tomes, the biologist E. Ray Lankester as a gangly youth of 19 or 20 (his stout figure is famous from later portraits), the only early photograph of the scientific amateur, geometrician, and eccentric Henry Perigal (of whom the Museum has a collection of photographs as an old man), and the meteorologist James Glaisher, who was president of the society at the time it became 'Royal'.

A slightly later album once represented the staff of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and associated astronomers, by means of cabinet format portraits, assembled by the Oxford professor H. H. Turner. Unfortunately Turner was not only a keen collector of photographs of the astronomical community, he was also very generous, and later gave most of the album's contents to the Royal Astronomical Society Club. Consequently the album is empty (13001); though a few portraits that remained in it are now loose in the University Observatory's general collection of photographs (23234, 38728, 49808). Among them is a carte de visite stuck on to a cabinet-size card so that it could be included in the album (61072); more often one finds the opposite, cabinet or other portraits cut down to carte de visite size in order to fit into the more common albums for that format (12626, 94016).

A different sort of dedicated carte de visite album is represented by 13007, which belonged to W. Hargreaves-Mawdsley. It is pocket-sized, with just 16 spaces/pages, opening like a Chinese book, and contains 14 cartes de visite and 2 printed cards. There are two commercial photographs, of the Royal Family (a composite image made to look like a group) and of a relatively youthful-looking Gladstone (who first became Prime Minister in 1868 aged 59); two private cartes de visite, of Mr Hargreaves-Mawdsley's mother and of his uncle; private photographs of places associated with him, or one anyway - 'W. H-M.'s orange grove (Los Angeles, California)' (he was English but presumably owned it as an investment); and the rest are commercial photographs of landscapes and buildings, some of them places he visited on holiday, including Versailles, Windermere, and the dining room of 'Smedley's Hydropathic Establishment' at Matlock (the Derbyshire spa town). The one untypical thing about its contents is that cartes de visite of places or landscapes (and in horizontal, landscape format) are comparatively rare, whereas 10 out of these 14 are of places.

Most of the photographs in the Hargreaves-Mawdsley album have not been taken from their sleeves for examination of captions or photographers' names, because doing so would damage the album. The Matlock photograph is by the Derby photographer W. W. Winter, whose printed details mention a medal he won in 1885; the earlier Windermere view is by local photographers R. & J. W. Brunskill of Bowness; the Versailles photograph, by Le Lieure, has an identifying inscription in French; and the Gladstone portrait is a small 'cameo' image pasted on to a printed surround incorporating the line 'Presented by Nelson & Emmens, Photographers', implying it was given away for promotional or celebratory purposes. The dates even of this very small group thus span the heyday of the carte de visite format, from the early 1860s (the Royal Family) to the late 1880s.

'A Miniature Portrait Gallery of Men and Women of the XIXth Century' (11843) is a ready-made album, an expensive book published by subscription, consisting of 17 large albumen prints bearing multiple images of celebrities and society figures of 1889, reduced in many cases from their cartes de visite. Starting as usual with royalty, it moves down the social scale through nobility (lords and ladies), clergy, judges and lawyers, medical men (surprisingly well represented with four pages), art and science grouped together, literature, as far as singers and actors. It is a map of the British class system, and (like many photographs themselves) perhaps more interesting as a social document than from a photographic point of view.

The heart of any collection or album was an ordinary person's photographs of friends and relations. Mr and Mrs Fox (70434), Mrs Alfred Carpenter (64226), Mrs Edmund Fry (55669), Mr and Mrs William Inwards (60385 and 79027), Jabez Inwards (68683, 80244), and his son Richard Inwards as a young man (12862 with friends, 85664, and unmounted examples 18524, 50601, 81669) all belonged to Richard Inwards, together with cartes of some of his scientific friends and of collectible subjects. The Elliott Brothers, proprietors of the instrument making and engineering firm of that name, and Mrs Susan Elliott, wife of one of them (12625, 12628, 12627), are preserved in the company's archive along with various of their acquaintances from the world of electrical science, such as Latimer Clark (12629) and a young William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin (12632). They are probably all of the 1860s.

Some scientists were famous enough to sell commercially: T. H. Huxley certainly was (31848), as was Michael Faraday (a carte de visite is in the RMS album 11837, a cabinet portrait issued as late as 1902 by the London Stereoscopic Company is 36981). Note also the composite or faked group of scientists of about 1865 (cabinet 12099, larger version 12098), which presupposes a wide audience. As with the Royal Microscopical Society, what might be termed a collegiate market would exist for leading figures in scientific organisations: G. G. Stokes was photographed at 'Sawyer's Italian Studios' in Norwich during the 1868 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in the town, a stamp on the back indicating that a London firm then distributed it commercially (30130). More often perhaps scientists' portraits, like those in the Inwards and Elliott groups, were given to friends, colleagues, and devoted students.

In Oxford Frederick J. Smith (later Jervis-Smith) wears his academic dress, presumably in 1885, the year he was appointed Oxford's first lecturer in mechanics and engineering (78028). The chemistry lecturer J. E. Marsh (57523, 91537) has in both cases an inscription on the back written later in life by the distinguished chemist N. V. Sidgwick, calling him 'My Father in Chemistry', which not only indicates how such photographs were treasured but is also a valuable record of Sidgwick's indebtedness to Marsh, who coached him privately, a fact not recorded in biographies of Sidgwick. The Oxford medical professor Henry Acland (12637) is photographed by J. Guggenheim not in a studio but out of doors, in a more deliberately 'artistic' pose than is usual, at least for such small portraits. The photograph belonged to a colleague, the obstetrician Sir Francis Champneys. Other Oxford academics include Charles Daubeny (37061, 63304), T. H. T. Hopkins (62306), Edward Chapman (cabinet 66542), and A. G. Vernon Harcourt (94016, cut down to carte de visite size, probably from cabinet format).

After royalty and political leaders, cultural heroes were the most popular, figures like Alfred Lord Tennyson (36187) and John Ruskin (78217). French publishers developed a line in cartes reproducing engravings of cultural, literary, and political figures of the past (such as Molière 52774, Henri de Navarre 94207, Sir Walter Scott 23135). But the world of the 1860s was not short of its own celebrities. The dramatic events of Italian unification came at just the right time to provide people drawn equally to gung-ho patriotism and to liberal idealism with a hero who combined the two. The Museum's four cartes de visite of Giuseppe Garibaldi represent only a fraction of the images that were circulated after he shot to fame in 1860 (12102 to 12105) - including the curiously awkward (and false) view of him with his leg in plaster in 1862, being told that it would not have to be amputated.

Equally to Victorian taste were proud and exotic anthropological figures such as the Maori chieftain (12107) and a native Peruvian (13191). And of course there are the inevitable curiosities of human physique. The Mexican midget Lucia Zarate (12864) has a carte that doubles as an advertisement for the public displays at which she was exhibited during her 1881 visit to London.

Curiosities in the way of costume or props are often the focus in cartes de visite. The guardsman and policeman (12109) are not real, but we do not know whether they are from the theatre, or ordinary men availing themselves of fancy dress provided by the photographer. The boy with the penny-farthing bicycle almost as tall as himself (12108) is presumably proud of his new possession. The photograph has the added interest that the base of the stand or clamp that was holding him still (usually well hidden) can be seen behind him; the rather precarious-looking bicycle also has a support coming in from the right-hand edge of the photograph. Early or peculiar bicycles were evidently considered photogenic, examples in other formats being a four-wheel velocipede (72770) and a tandem tricycle (11911).

Carte de visite cards usually bore the photographer's (or retailer's) name and address printed below the image and also on the back. From quite simple inscriptions amidst a blank space (such as 12771 and 63304, or even 64226 where the photographer's details are handwritten on the back), they evolved into wordy or decoratively designed advertisements filling the whole back (27271, 78028, 78217, cabinet 52663). Brunskill's Windermere card (in 13007) gives extra value for money with a nicely engraved little view printed on the back. They became much more a trade card for the photographer than a visiting card for the subject. But then latterly, after the introduction of gelatine prints, there was a fashion for dark coloured card with the backs blank (such as 91537, cabinet 11866).

The carte de visite fashion, and the rise of photography generally, created a new profession. Within a generation of photography's invention its practitioners were to be found in even the smallest town, and in large numbers in big ones. Particularly in view of the anonymity of most daguerreotypes and collodion positives, carte de visite imprints are a valuable record of the trade of photographer as a social and economic phenomenon, and of the careers of individual photographers or companies. Well-known firms like Maull & Co. (11837, 12034, 37061, 50524), otherwise Maull & Polyblank (12633) and Maull & Fox (32310), Elliott & Fry (12106, 36187, cabinet 12341), and Hills & Saunders (63304, 78028, cabinet 66542) established themselves as photographers to high society. The latter were the portrait photographers to the old universities, Oxford and Cambridge, with branches in London and (to catch them early) at Eton and Harrow.

A. C. Hyde Parker's treasured (and nearly mint condition) carte de visite of himself in 1890 at the age of 10 (12964) was of added interest to him later, when he became interested in the history of photography, because the photographer Pollard Graham, of Derby, was also a pioneer manufacturer of photographic dry plates (see 93932). The latter enterprise went bankrupt in the very year that Mr Hyde Parker's photograph was taken, but Graham's portrait studio prospered and he opened branches throughout the country.

William Friese Greene, a famous name in the history of cinematography, was also a provincial portrait photographer by profession, his staple trade being cartes de visite of ordinary folk like Jane Bleach and Lizzie Packer, who came into his studio in Bath (27271). So was Henry Peach Robinson, represented in the Museum's collection not by any of his famous artistic photographs but by a carte de visite of Ruskin, one of his artistic mentors, which Robinson printed and distributed on behalf of the original photographer C. L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) (78217). Their entrepreneurial flair and ambition is suggested by the extravagent advertising texts on the back of their cards: Friese Greene's full of slogans for every imaginable variety of photography, Robinson's recording no less than 41 medals awarded at photographic exhibitions between 1860 and 1878.

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