In the second half of the 19th Century, at the height of the Victorian Age, the union of photography and the supernatural spawned strange and enthralling results.
By Beverly Wilgus and Ann Longmore-Etheridge
Early in the practice of the photography, ghostlike images appeared on daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. The explanation for them was not supernatural: Because of the need for long exposures, in some cases of more than a minute, anything that moved whilst the camera lens was open went either unrecorded or appeared transparent in the final product. In 1856, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), an important figure in photography’s evolution, described in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction the method by which amusing extras could be created in photographs. Brewster advised that sitters should be posed and after the majority of the plate exposure was finished, a new person should move into the scene and stay for the final seconds. This would result in a “spirit” presence.
Whilst Brewster clearly promoted this method for what it was—a trick—others with an interest in the expanding religion of Spiritualism saw ghost images as proof of life after death. It should be noted that the Victorians were not the only folk taken in by the callow exploitation of technology they did not fully understand.
“It was the purpose of the author to describe a number of novel and curious effects that can be obtained by the aid of the camera, together with some instructive and interesting photographic experiments.”—F. R. Fraprie, 1922
By Beverly Wilgus
In 1893, H. P. Ranger was granted Patent No. 505,127 for a “Mirror For Use In Photography.” This was a device comprised of two adjustable mirrors set at an angle. When a subject was placed in front of it, his or her image was reflected in each mirror and that reflection was again reflected, resulting in five or more figures—the number of figures determined by the angle of the mirrors.
The above schema is from an article published in Scientific American in the 1890s that was included in the 1896 book Photographic Amusements by Frank R. Fraprie and Walter E. Woodbury. My husband and I own a copy of the 1931 edition that still contains the original illustrations.
Also from the book is the illustration above: “Diagram Showing The Method Of Production Of Five Views of One Subject By Multiphotography.”
This mid-1850s, whole-plate daguerreotype of a woman and three children is from the collection of Beverly Wilgus, another of the antique photo collectors of Flickr who has graciously allowed me to present her images. Of it, she writes, “[W]e have had the glass replaced by a conservator. It is our only whole plate daguerreotype (6 ½” X 8 ½”), which is the largest size that was in common production…. I have been asked why there is not father with the family. While it is possible that the father is deceased, I like to think that the photograph was a gift for him.”
If this image was a gift for Father, it was almost certainly purposefully posed to remind him, or any viewer, of his absence—the blank space in the middle the group screams to be filled. It is reminiscent of the portrait of the Bronte sisters, now known as the “Pillar Portrait,” which hangs in the National Gallery in London.
Painted in 1834 by the sisters’ talented, ego-driven, and alcohol-fueled brother who was then attempting to become a portrait artist, Branwell Bronte chose to eliminate himself and insert a column instead. It has been argued that he felt the composition was too crowded or that it was done in high dudgeon—we may never know which for sure. Charlotte died in 1855, at about the same time as Beverly’s daguerreotype was taken. After the death of Charlotte’s father in 1861, her husband, the Reverend Arthur Bell Nicholls, cut the painting from its frame, folded it up, and took it with him to his native Ireland, where it languished for many years. During that time, the “ghost” of Branwell began to appear through the paint—part spectral bogeyman, part prodigal son.
Another of Beverly’s images—this one an ambrotype also taken in the mid-1850s—again makes use of empty space to convey the message of loss. And in this image, it is indisputably death that has struck twice, leaving two pointed shapes like stab wounds between the three young people. A “reader” of this portrait, and it was yet very much a time of encoded meanings in art and photography, would know immediately that the teenage girls wore mourning gowns: the dark, wide lace collars of their dresses leave no doubt that the entirety of their costume is black. Between them is their younger brother, now the man of the family, reassuringly touching his elder sister’s arm. He seems stoic but unprepared for the task.
This final image used props to fill the void caused by death. Whilst the husband and wife focused on a point stage left (she almost certainly dressed in mourning), between them sat a plant stand covered by what must have been a colorful, almost childish string doily, upon which an elaborate picture frame was placed. It contains an image a girl and possibly a boy. The message can be taken no other way: “These were our children; now they are no more.” Ω
“I’ve felt for the first time in my life the joyful consciousness that I am truly loved by a truly good man, one that with all my heart I can love and honor… one who loves me for myself alone, and with an unselfish, patient, gentle affection such as I never thought to waken in a human heart… a man in whom I can trust without fear, in whose principles I have perfect faith, in whose large, warm, loving heart my own restless soul can find repose.”—Anna Alcott Pratt, 1859
“[M]y love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break… ”—Sullivan Ballou, letter to wife Sarah, 14 July, 1861.
“To lovers, I devise their imaginary world, with whatever they may need, as the stars of the sky, the red, red roses by the wall, the snow of the hawthorn, the sweet strains of music, and aught else they may desire to figure to each other the lastingness and beauty of their love.”—Williston Fish, A Last Will, 1898
I am delighted to announce that I have joined the staff writing team at Historical Diaries. Material from Your Dying Charlotte will appear there regularly.
I am also delighted to note that I will be able to bring you material from James Morley, who maintains his vast and wonderful collection on flickr, here, and is the founder of the blogWhat’s That Picture?His twitter handle is @PhotosOfThePast.
If the baby was not dead, but sleeping, why was he laid on a covered cushion or small table instead of being held in his nanny’s arms?
This is an puzzling image—and one for which I am interested in reader input. The inscription on the image, printed in pencil, reads: “Mother, Me, Duncan (died 10-19), and Nanny McFalls.”
When I purchased the cabinet card, I presumed that it was a postmortem image showing a deceased child guarded by his or her nanny, who wore a black bow on her white cap as well as a black dress with a white pin-front apron. The child’s well-heeled mother, in a proper dark dress, raised her eyes to heaven as if for angelic support, clutching her remaining offspring, who held a large china doll and looked warily at the camera.
The baby rested upon a draped piece of furniture in a position that indicated the illusion of sleeping rather than in-one’s-face death, which was a style of Victorian postmortem images that grew increasingly popular as the turn of the millennium approached.
The infant showed no visible signs of illness, rigor mortis, or decomposition. The child was not dressed for burial but wore regular clothing for an infant of his age, including little hard-soled leather walking shoes. The nanny’s hand rested on his arm while she faced the camera without any grief apparent. If the baby was not dead but sleeping, why was he laid on a covered cushion or small table instead of being held in his nanny’s arms? Also, he was old enough to be woken to have his picture taken. Why would he have been posed this way if he was just having a wee nap?
The fashions shown in this image date it, I am confident, between 1887 and 1890. This accords exactly with the presence of photographer Edmund Geering in Abderdeen, Scotland. Geering was an Englishman born in Sussex in about 1843. He was active as a photographer in Kincardineshire by 1871. He married a Scotswoman and was, according to Aberdeen city directories, operating out of 10 Union Place from the early 1880s to about 1889.
So the fashions, the type of photo, and the career of the photographer all place the image in the late 1880s. This brings me to the death date noted in the inscription: “10-19.” What does it mean? October 19? October 1919? If the latter, this is not a postmortem image at all and is instead simply a photo of an affluent woman, her children, and her servant. If the date refers only to a month and a day, why is there no year?
One possibility is that Duncan was not the baby, but the child. The baby grew up to become the writer of the inscription and Duncan was actually the child in the frilly dress holding the doll. In fact, the child’s hair was parted on the side, which was one indicator of maleness in an age where boys and girls dressed alike during the first years of life. In this scenario, it was the baby’s brother, Duncan, who died as an adult in October 1919.
My fellow Flickr historian and actual cousin, Laura Harrison, opined, “If you look at the order of names, it would seem ‘Me’ is the tot and ‘Duncan’ is the baby. With October 1919 being the date of death, and assuming the picture was taken between 1881 and 1891, the baby could have served in World War I and died in 1919 from battle injuries. A lot of soldiers died in the years after the war due to injuries.”
Good point, cousin.
After looking at the reverse inscription, Flickr user Christie Harris chimed in, “The inscription looks like it was probably written well after the photo was taken; I think the 1919 [death date] would be more likely.” I agree with Christie that the handwriting of the inscriber was quite modern and was added many years later.
And so we are left with a mystery. Actually, two: I genuinely want to know more about Nanny McFalls. I searched for her as best I could, but with so little to go on, I could not identify her. In the image, she seems a cheerful, young Scottish woman who cared about her charges and who was loved enough in return to earn a place in her employer’s family portrait. Ω