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Those tantalising family pictures!

Posted by on October 9, 2013

Many of us have inherited pictures or photos of ancestors, with only a vague idea of when they were done or who they portray.  Although there is published guidance on how to date them, personally I did not find any of it sufficiently helpful to enable me to make judgements in which I had any confidence.  So I tried the services of a professional dress and picture dating specialist, Jayne Shrimpton, with five pictures ranging from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries.  Below are extracts from two of her findings.

The unknown lady positively identified!

The unknown lady positively identified!

The mysterious Whitby lady photo portrait came to me from my paternal grandmother, with no identification at all. Jayne suggests: –

Firstly we notice the most typical composition of the 1870s, the subject portrayed in a long half-length or short three-quarter length view. This particular pose, elbows resting on a velvet-padded chair, is also characteristic of the decade, while the fashion clues here indicate a time frame of c.1871-79. The main dress features that provide this date range are the lady’s ornate hairstyle incorporating plaits (probably false hair), and her velvet jacket-bodice set off by a decorative lace neck piece and a black velvet choker. I cannot see how far her skirt protrudes at the back: the projecting bustle was fashionable during the early 1870s but it gradually ‘collapsed’ after mid-decade. The lack of an obvious bustle here could suggest a date range of c.1876-9, although to keep all options open, we should consider the wider 1871-9 time frame. As far as I can see, this ancestor is wearing rings, although the image is murky and I can’t quite make out which finger: if this is her ring finger, it is possible that this photograph was her engagement portrait.

Anne Harrison (nee Robinson) 1854-1912 was my paternal grandmother’s mother who married in 1877 – so I am now as certain as I ever will be that it is her.

The other image is a photo of a portrait since lost, said to be Mary Susannah Burnley (nee Milner) 1804-1831 with her first born son on her knee.  I felt I needed some corroboration.

Corroboration that this is Mary Susannah Burnley (nee Milner) 1804-1831

Corroboration that this is Mary Susannah Burnley (nee Milner) 1804-1831

This portrait is attractive but not really of the best artistic quality: for example, poor treatment of scale and perspective has given the lady a larger head than upper body, which creates the effect of a thin figure, as you mentioned. However, even for two people together to be portrayed by a ‘provincial’ artist, as this craftsman would be called, would probably have cost a few guineas – far more than the average working family could afford.  Dating this picture is very straightforward as the lady wears fashionable dress that can be firmly dated to c.1823-8. This is based on the shape of her ornate cap – the indoor head wear of a married woman at that time – and her distinctive curled hairstyle, as well as the lines of her day dress, with its belted waistline, slightly puffed sleeves and high collar. You have suggested that she could be Mary Susannah, 1804-31, with her child born early in 1826 and this tentative identification fits the time frame perfectly. The infant looks to be about eighteen months or two years old, as far as I can tell, which would give a date of late 1827 or early 1828 for the portrait.  

I am delighted with Jayne’s service and feel it has helped me gain valuable insights from some precious material.


Jayne Shrimpton, MA History of Dress
Professional dress historian and picture specialist

5 Responses to Those tantalising family pictures!

  1. Nicola Stevens

    What fascinating information – I am so glad to read how Jayne’s services helped you – boxes & scrapbooks full of un-named people is the bane of every family historian. Having identified the person in the photograph then you can study which of their features has been passed down through the current generations, which brings the image back to life!

  2. Susie Gutch

    So interesting to read about Jayne’s detailed information concerning the sitters in your photographs. I have several I’d like her to advise on – including some early glass ‘daguerrotypes’ – so your research has spurred me on,
    Good luck with the research – and the writing.

  3. Diana

    Thanks so much, Margaret. Her comments sound so detailed and helpful. As Susie says, it spurs us on to get our own photos and pictures looked at.

  4. Susie

    I’ve been able to enlarge the first image on my I-pad and can see more clearly that the sitter has a ring on her wedding finger. it looks like a pearl , and she is wearing a large earring which also looks as if it is made of pearls.The pose to me suggests an engagement portrait as she is so clearly displaying her left hand. Perhaps the ring and earrings matched? Did you ever come across them in your family, or hear anyone mention them? Fascinating area to research!

  5. Margaret McAlpine

    How fascinating – many thanks Susie. I do not remember seeing any jewellery of this sort, but my grandmother was only one of her four female children so may not have inherited them.

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