While visiting my parents recently, I saw these little framed photos on the mantelpiece in the guest bedroom. The house has always been a kind of museum as my mum sells antiques: for all I knew, these may have been gathering dust there for years, hiding in plain sight among the bric-a-brac.
But that’s not why I hadn’t noticed them before. It’s a magical house: objects inside are - if not invisible - unseen. Since they exist solely not to be broken, they only appear to visitors when in danger - and even then briefly - with the aim of revealing their weight, material and potential repair cost. It takes a second or third look to actually notice anything, to see something as an object of interest.
Anyway, I was intrigued. There’s something of the gothic about them. And, as personal pictures, they seem familiar as they look out from their tiny, ornate frames. But no, they don’t look like any of the rest of my family at all. Their faces don’t elicit any emotion. None of that sudden sorrow pricked by the image of a great-aunt I might half-remember. These were definitely strangers.
I was also curious as a couple of the sitters are looking off camera. I felt this seemed odd in more traditional times, where a photo-session would take some time and be expensive, I imagine. In other words, you have one shot, but you choose to look away for it. Either they’re dead (Victorian post-mortem photography may or may not have been a thing) or these weren’t family portraits at all, but official royal / celebrity photographs.
Also, there are just four - this is an aside, as I’m aware people didn’t own cameras a hundred years ago - but it made me think: my own childhood fills a couple of albums of images. A hundred photos. Fewer? Not enough to tell a story, but there’s a flavour, perhaps. And throughout the house, on tables, walls, mantelpieces and shelves there are a few dozen framed.
I already have several thousand photos of my family and friends, very few of which I’ll care for enough to print and get anything more considered than an Oliver Bonas frame. I don’t whittle them down: I barely look at them. Everything is downloaded, then uploaded for some future date. Unlike the attic where albums end up (awaiting being thrown away by children on the parents’ death, after just one, cursory, curious browse), there’s infinite space in the cloud.
Memory really is cheap, it seems.
In this stream of recorded consciousness, there’s no hierarchy, no defining moments, no defining times. No editing. Just a near-continuous record of everything both important and irrelevant. Everything captured, just in case, because of the fear of forgetting (as if forgetting’s so awful). Surely we remember what’s important?
Anyway, back to the thread. This lovely collection of four photos.
Who were these people? Were they related? When were the photos taken? They must have been important to someone. The main difference with our current culture of recording is that these are not ‘moments’ - well, one moment in a person’s life, perhaps - but instead, portraits. They may each be the only picture of the person in existence, and as such have a lot of work to do.
Immediately I put them into my bag (without telling mum - it’s easier to seek forgiveness than permission), planning to return them after taking pictures. I later emailed to ask her about them.
They belonged to a Mrs Annie Haines - she became a family friend when she baby sat [my uncle] when he was a toddler. She died twenty odd years ago so unless I can find a medium and a ouija board - I can’t ask about her connection - if any - to the subjects.
I helped clear her few belongings when she went into a home a couple of years before she died and kept the photos because I liked them. They are typical of late Victorian/early Edwardian family photographs - especially (as in photo two) where the husband is seated while the wife stands!
I may be wrong but I think that the handsome young man in the fourth photo could be a ‘celebrity’ of the day rather than a family member. His face is familiar. Sorry, can’t be of any more help. Might be worth taking the photos out of the frames to see if anything is written on the backs…”
So that’s what I did:
Not much. The only one with anything useful to go on is the first picture. A quick search yielded a list of photography studios in the West Midlands in the later half of the 19th century, in this case it looks like Sunderland and Hudson. And the picture is labelled “Great-Grandma Gammage”.
Oddly, I remember Mrs Haines - we used to visit her when I was little.
The rest of her email talked about photos she has at home, on which she does have information. Photos of Georgie, whose death (aged three) was predicted by a gypsy. John, a murderer. An uncle, one of thousands who died building the Burma Railway for the Japanese. I’ve managed to get hold of these and will scan and write about them once I’ve get everything together.
As for these, I don’t really care that I don’t know who they are. They’re nothing to do with me, and there’s no mystery or rabbit-hole of research I’m going down. But in time I’ll inherit them and - just to mess with visitors - put them up somewhere prominent.