Hidden Behind Time: A New Way to Recapture Lost Images

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This daguerreotype was thought lost to the ages until rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging analyzed the plate. Courtesy Western University of Ontario.

By University of Western Ontario

Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after a team of scientists led by Western University learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.

Research published in June 2018 in Scientific Reports—Nature includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.

“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. student in Western’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the scientific paper.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” continues Kozachuk. “But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the tablecloth.”

The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.

For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.

Invented in 1839, daguerreotype images were created using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light when exposed to an iodine vapor. Subjects had to pose without moving for two to three minutes for the image to imprint on the plate, which was then developed as a photograph using a mercury vapor that was heated.

Kozachuk conducts much of her research at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and previously published results in scientific journals in 2017 and earlier this year. In those articles, the team members identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it changed from one point to another on a daguerreotype.

“We compared degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs during production versus degradation from the cover glass. When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation,” says Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS and one of Kozachuk’s co-supervisors. He is also a co-author on the research papers.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong Sham, Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation at Western University. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.

This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.

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What scanning revealed: A Victorian beauty, now no longer forgotten. Courtesy Western University.

The prospect of improved conservation methods intrigues John P. McElhone, recently retired as the chief of Conservation and Technical Research at the Canadian Photography Institute of National Gallery of Canada. He provided the daguerreotypes from the Institute’s research collection.

“There are a lot of interesting questions that at this stage of our knowledge can only be answered by a sophisticated scientific approach,” said McElhone, another of the co-authors of today’s paper. “A conservator’s first step is to have a full and complete understanding of what the material is and how it is assembled on a microscopic and even nanoscale level. We want to find out how the chemicals are arranged on the surface and that understanding gives us access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”

As the first commercialized photographic process, the daguerreotype is thought to be the first “true” visual representation of history. Unlike painters who could use “poetic license” in their work, the daguerreotype reflected precisely what was photographed.

Thousands and perhaps millions of daguerreotypes were created over 20 years in the 19th century before the process was replaced. The Canadian Photography Institute collection numbers more than 2,700, not including the daguerreotypes in the institute’s research collection.

By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century can now be found. Ω

Those I Know Not

A selection of vintage images from my collection featuring sitters whose identities, sadly, are unknown.

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An English matriarch sits resplendent for this tinted 1/6th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1849. It is likely by Beard’s Photographic Institute, London and Liverpool, which was run by Richard Beard (22 December 1801–7 June 1885). Beard enthusiastically protected his business through photographic patents and helped establish professional photography in the United Kingdom. He opened his London and Liverpool studios in 1841. Clouds were frequently painted in as a backdrop by his studio staff.
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A woman wearing spring fashions uses a finger to mark her place in a book in this 1/6th-plate American daguerreotype, circa 1852. Perhaps she wanted to imply that she had been reading outdoors.
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I title this American, circa-1858, 1/6th-plate ambrotype “A Man, His Hair, and His Wife.” The husband has a feminine beauty, especially with the delicate tinting of his cheeks. His wife, brooding, intense, and potentially vengeful, may be wearing a large mourning brooch.
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This early English, 1/4th-plate ambrotype features a Victorian teen who could be a character in a Dickens’ novel. She points to an illustration in a book, but I cannot decipher the title or the meaning of her gesture. The image was taken in about 1852.
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As photography matured, it became possible to make copies of early, singular photographic images. In the 1890s, this cabinet card was created of a daguerreotype taken in about 1855.

Ω


All images copyright the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

The McGrawville Experiment

In about 1849, a mother and child were photographed in a New York town where visionaries struggled to change the world.

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1/6th-plate daguerreotype from the Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

A long inscription is penciled inside the case of this daguerreotype: “The picture of Flora and her mother, taken when she was three years old at McGrawville, Cortland Co., NY.

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The penciled inscription inside the daguerreotype case.

“I’ll think of thee at eventide/ When shines the star of love/ When Earth is garnished like a bride/ and all is joy a-bove/ and when the moon’s pale genial face/ is shed or [sic] land & sea/ and throughs [sic] around her soft light/ t’is then I think of thee. EM

“Flora & I are in the parlor as I write this, talking of the war, etc. etc. Henry …?… is buried Thursday Oct. 30th, ’62.”

The sentimental verse is likely based on “Better Moments,” by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), printed in 7 July, 1827’s New-York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, Volume IV, as well as and in the New Mirror’s Poems of Passion in 1843. Willis’s poem includes the lines: “I have been out at eventide/ Beneath a moonlit sky of spring/ When Earth was garnished like a bride/ And night had on her silver wing.” It is uncertain whether variants of Willis’s poem existed that included the stanza scriven in the case, or whether the writer “borrowed” a few lines of it for his or her own poetic creation.

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Charles Reason was a born in New York City of a free black family from the Caribbean. At New York Central College he was, until 1852, a professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin, and French, and an adjunct professor of mathematics.

McGrawville, Cortland County, New York, was once home to New York Central College, an institution of higher learning founded by the antislavery American Baptist Free Mission Society in 1848 and which held its first classes in 1849—a date congruent with the fashions worn by Flora and her mother.

The college “opened its doors to any student able to pay the modest tuition regardless of sex, race, or religion. Blacks constituted an estimated half of its enrollment,” explained historian Catherine M. Hanchett. “Some came from New England, from Virginia, from Canada West [Ontario]. Some where fugitive slaves, others newly freed. Several were members of prominent black families.”

The college employed at least three Black professors—Charles Reason (1818-1893), George Boyer Vashon (1824-1853), and William G. Allen (1820-aft. 1878), the latter of whom was at least two-thirds white, but who would cause scandal by asking for the hand of a Caucasian student, Miss Mary King.

Fittingly, the college also served as a stop along the Underground Railroad that assisted escaped slaves heading to Canada.

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This article from the Carolina Watchman of Salisbury, North Carolina, 24 February, 1853, both excoriates and libels Professor Allen and Mary King. The couple would eventually marry and leave the United States. They remained together for the rest of their lives, living in Italy, Ireland, and other European nations.

A smallpox epidemic in 1850 led to the deaths of some of the college’s African-American students—all were buried on the campus beneath tombstones extant today. Illness at the school seemed persistent, as student William Austin wrote to his family on 23 May, 1852, “There has been and is at present a considerable sickness among students but Mumps and Measles are to blame but I think they will not injure me.”

Otherwise, Austin found the nearby villages and the college bucolic. “This is a beautiful section of country, somewhat uneven, but just enough to awaken mankind to the romantic beauties of nature,” he wrote. “The boarding hall is some thirty rods [165 yards] from the college so that we have a pleasant walk to get there to meals which are at 6 1/2 o’clock in the morning, at noon, and at 5 P.M. The Ladies all room at the hall. The Gentlemen at the College.”

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Throughout its existence, New York Central College faced constant racist and misogynist criticism from both southern and northern states. It was “an institution confessedly established for the purpose, figuratively speaking, of whitening the blacks and blackening the whites,” pronounced the Buffalo Courier of 4 July, 1851, during a state funding appropriation battle. “It is said that one of the professors, an accomplished and skilled teacher, has crispy hair and a southern skin,” the Orleans Republican of Albion, New York, snickered on 9 July. The article continued with a quote from a Mr. A. A. Thompson, who was of the opinion that “‘Rather than give $4,000 [in state money] to that vile sink of pollution … they ought to give it to a mob that would raise [sic] it to the ground.’” Later in July, the Albany Argus called the college, “an institution repulsive in its objects and character.”

However, one female graduate had another opinion of the school that recognized her innate equality. Angeline Stickney wrote of her alma mater, “I feel very much attached to that institution, not withstanding all its faults, and I long to see it again, for its foundation rests upon the basis of Eternal Truth—and my heartstrings are twined around its every pillar.”

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Classes were taught on the first two floors and the men’s dormitory was on the third. Courtesy McGraw Historical Society.

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The inscription states that Flora was three when the daguerreotype was taken in McGrawville, which, when fashions are considered in tandem, makes the approximate year of her birth between 1848 and 1850. On 30 October, 1862, the writer was in the parlor with Flora, then in her teens, speaking about the ongoing Civil War. The indecipherable surname of Henry, who was buried that day, might lead to a breakthrough, but thus far no guesses of mine have yielded results.

How was Flora’s family connected to McGrawville? Was she the child of a teacher, an administrator, abolitionist Baptists, or simply part of a local Cortland family? Where did Flora and her people go after leaving McGrawville? Why did the burial of Henry raise memories of the more than decade-old daguerreotype, and what motivated the writer to pencil the poem and message in the case at that time? These questions remain stubbornly unanswered. Ω

Their Lives Well Lived

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”―Marcus Aurelius

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An elderly woman in her final sleep, 1/9th-plate postmortem ambrotype, circa 1860. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

We see the still, worn body of old lady, prepared for burial by her family and laid out, most likely, upon her own bed.

This photograph may have been both this woman’s first and her last. She was likely a child in the 1790s and a young wife and mother when Jane Austen wrote her literary oeuvre. The story of her life unfolded during the waning of one century and the child years of another. For many, by the time this post-mortem ambrotype was taken, familiar patterns of life had been radically altered by the industrial revolution. The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars had rolled by like awful storms. The British Queen would shortly lose her dearest love and plunge herself into perpetual mourning. America was spilling out across a vast continent and tensions were escalating to the point of eruption between its North and South. War was a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening the young men of her family, but mercifully, she never saw it blot out the sun.

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Grandmother Whitney, postmortem cased melainotype, circa 1856-1860.

A note tucked inside the case of this 1/6th-plate reads, “Grandmother Whitney—mother of Samuel. Born between 1775 & 1780.” The plate is stamped “Melainotype for Neff’s Pat 19 Feb 56.”

In John Towler’s 1864 opus on what was then state-of-the-art photographic technology, The Silver Sunbeam, he writes, “The melainotype takes its name from the black background upon which it is taken…. Very thin plates of sheet-iron are covered with a protective varnish or Japan, of which one is of a rich black or brown-black color, highly polished, and without flaw, for the reception of the collodion and the collodion picture. Glass in this sort of picture is entirely dispensed with, and so is also the black Japan, the black velvet, and paper. This type is by far the easiest and the quickest to take, and in general the most satisfactory when taken. Melainotype plates of all the variable photographic sizes, and of variable qualities, can be obtained from the photographic warehouses.” Ω

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Postmortem tintype of a very old woman, circa 1863. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.
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An elderly nun in her coffin, 1/6-plate daguerreotype, circa 1858. Courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

For Want of a Surname, Her Lifestory is Lost

Julia was one of thousands of Americans who made for California after gold was discovered in 1848.

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Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This wonderful 1/6th-plate daguerreotype shows a plump, well-dressed, melancholy woman whose first name was Julia. An inscription in the case reads “Aunt Julia. mothers [sic] sister that went to Calif. in 1851 or 52.” Unfortunately, the niece or nephew who penned this message to posterity left out Julia’s last name. Lacking it, we will never know Julia’s story, save that this daguerreotype almost certainly marked her departure west, as her fashionable clothing and coiffure can be dated to about 1851.

After the Gold Rush kicked off in January 1848, many thousands hurried west to seek their fortune or to provide goods and services for those allured by gold’s siren song. This mass movement lifted the nonnative population from less than a thousand to 100,000. Filled by newcomers and new wealth, the California Territory was quickly admitted as the U.S. 31st state on 9 September, 1850.

The society that Julia joined was only somewhat more than nascent. One new arrival, Jessie Benton Fremont, who came by sea to San Francisco in 1849, noted her first impressions from the deck of the vessel, “A few low houses, and many tents, such as they were, covered the base of some of the wind-swept treeless hills, over which the June fog rolled its chilling mist.” (A Year of American Travel, published 1878.)

Fremont, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of military officer and politician John C. Fremont, was used to the finer things. Her account of society in early San Francisco and Monterrey makes for enticing reading. I quote her here at length not necessarily as a member of the social class that Julia represented, but as one of the few surviving women’s voices from the Gold Rush era.

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Jessie Benton Fremont

“I was taken to one of these houses, which had been the residence of Liedesdorff, the Russian consul, who had recently died there. It was a time of wonderful contrasts. This was a well-built adobe house one story high, with a good veranda about it, and a beautiful garden kept in old-world order by a Scotch gardener. Luxuries of every kind were to be had, but there were wanting some necessaries. Fine carpets and fine furniture and a fine Broadwood piano, and no house-maid. The one room with a fire-place had been prepared for my sleeping-room, and had French furniture and no end of mirrors, but lacked a fire. The June winds were blowing, and I felt them the more from recent illness, which had left the lungs very sensitive. There was no fuel proper; and little fagots of brush-wood, broken-up goods boxes and sodden ends of old ship timber were all that could be had.

“The club of wealthy merchants who had this house together had excellent Chinese servants, but to make everything comfortable to me they added the only woman that could be procured, who accepted a temporary place of chamber-maid at two hundred and forty dollars a month and perquisites. One of the perquisites was the housing of her husband and children as well as herself. She had been washer-woman to a New York regiment, and was already the laundress of these gentlemen. She was kind enough to tell me that she liked my clothes, and would take the pattern of certain dresses, and seemed to think it a matter of course that I would let her carry off gowns and wraps to be copied by her dress-maker, a Chinaman. I declined this as civilly as I could, but the result was that she threw up the situation.

“The only really private house was one belonging to a young New-Yorker, who had it shipped from home, house and furniture complete—a double two-story frame house, which, when in place, was said to have cost ninety thousand dollars. At this price, with the absence of timber and the absence of labor, it will be seen that it was difficult to have any other shelter than a tent. The bride for whose reception this house was intended arrived just before me, but lived only a few weeks; the sudden and great changes of climate from our Northern weather into the tropics, and from the tropics again into the raw, harsh winds of that season at San Francisco, were too much for her, even with all the comforts of her own beautiful home. At a party given to welcome her the whole force of San Francisco society came out, the ladies sixteen in number.”

Later, to aid her health, she and her husband went to Monterrey, finding “There was none of the stir and life here which made San Francisco so remarkable. There was a small garrison of married officers with their families, but no man of any degree voluntarily kept away from the mines or San Francisco; it was their great opportunity for sudden money-making. Domestic matters were even more upset than in San Francisco, where Chinese could be had. Here it was like after a shipwreck on a desert shore; the strongest and the most capable was king, and, to produce anything like comfort, all capacities had to be put to use. The major-general in command of the post, General Riley, was his own gardener. He came to me, proud and triumphant, with a small market-basket on his arm, containing vegetables of his own raising. And as we would bring roses of our cultivation, so he brought me a present of a cabbage, some carrots, and parsley.

“The French ships brought cargoes of everything that could be sealed up in tin cans and glass, but the stomach grows very weary of this sort of food. It was barely a year since the gold had been discovered, but in that time every eatable thing had been eaten off the face of the country, and nothing raised. I suppose there was not a fowl left in the northern part of the state, consequently not an egg; all the beef cattle left had been bought up by ‘Baron’ Steinberger in San Francisco; there were no longer vaqueros or herdsmen, and flocks and herds had dispersed. There were no cows, consequently no milk. Housekeeping, deprived of milk, eggs, vegetables, and fresh meat, becomes a puzzle; canned meat, macaroni, rice, and ham become unendurable from repetition.”

The Fremonts eventually left California, but she and her husband returned to settle in Los Angeles later in life. On the whole, Jessie’s was a happy, adventurous story, which ended 27 December, 1902, in her adopted state. Her ashes were buried at Rosedale Cemetery. We know nothing of Julia’s fate. The inscription implies that she never returned from California, rich or otherwise. She was an aunt unknown and passed into legend— just “mothers sister,” long away, dead or not in contact with the clan; a vestige of family recalled only by her mirror image on a metal plate. Ω

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Daguerreotype case inscription.

Fashion Fix

“The woolen dress in this portrait has been finished with self puffing to emphasize the waist taper, the shoulder caps, and the sleeve cuffs.”

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Dennis Waters, who conserved this 1/6th-plate daguerreotype in 1994, helpfully left a note on the reverse that says, “Pemberton & Co, Conn. Very rare plate mark. C. 1850.” Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This circa-1851 daguerreotype, now in my collection, was published on page 126 of Joan Severa’s seminal work on nineteenth century fashion, My Likeness Taken. Of it she wrote, “The woolen dress in this portrait has been finished with self puffing to emphasize the waist taper, the shoulder caps, and the sleeve cuffs. The fitted and darted bodice has the shorter waist point of the [1850s], and the skirt is taken into the waistline by small knife pleats. It is interesting to speculate on the color of the dress, as it is not black. Cherry red is a possibility, but soft brown is more likely.

“A standing band of whitework, with lappets crossed, is worn at the neck, and fine, close undersleeves extend the somewhat shortened sleeves. The netted mitts cover the fingers to the first finger joint, a new style for the year.

“The hair is done in long curls hanging behind the ears on either side.”

The figure at bottom left of this April 1851 fashion plate wears a similar dress and can help us visualize the full length gown worn by the daguerreotype’s subject. Ω

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European Daguerreotypes

Europeana.eu offers up 2 million historical photographs that bring the old Europe and its people to life.

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Courtesy Nordiska Museet.

In this daguerreotype an unknown woman sits in a high-backed chair, dressed in a patterned dress with elbow-length sleeves and a wide slanted neckline. The white paper passe partout is printed with a gold decorative pattern and the stamp “Daguerreotype by J. W. Bergström.” According to Nordiska Museet, Johan Wilhelm Bergström (1812-1881) was born in Kungsholmen to a carpenter’s wife and died quite wealthy, after a decade as a leading daguerreotypist and a career as an inventor.

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Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “This is one of the first daguerreotypes ever taken in the UK. Landscape view of London: Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square. In the foreground to the right is a statue of Charles I mounted on horseback, seen from the back, on a raised stone plinth or column with carved royal arms, surrounded by a palisade of railings and protected by stone bollards. Parliament Street goes to the left, lined with tall buildings of five or more storeys, most of which have awnings over the street. The skyline shows many chimneys and chimney-pots. The pavements have lamps at regular intervals. On the left side of the street is a line of vehicles and drivers. In the distance is the Royal Banqueting House. Note the man in a top hat sitting slumped against the lamp-post in the middle foreground, with four bollards around him.”

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Courtesy Technische Sammlungen, Dresden, Germany

Technische Sammlungen writes of this portrait of an unknown man with glasses and chin whiskers wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, “A simple wooden chair, a cloth as a background, and straight posture are the ingredients of this expressive portrait. The necessity of standing still in front of the camera demanded the anonymous man maintain a firm gaze and physical immobility, which made numerous daguerreotypes appear collective portraits of bourgeois self-confidence…. The unidentifiable order ribbon on his jacket lapel adds extra strength to the man’s proud aspect like a footnote.”

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Courtesy Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom.

Acquired by Queen Victoria in 1852, the process of making this hand-colored, enameled daguerreotype “involved varnishing the daguerreotype and then heating and adding another coat of varnish after the colour pigments had been added. Interestingly, [daguerreotypist Richard] Beard seems to have signed the plate three times, presumably before varnishing and again after each coat was added.” The subjects of the image are “a group of Tyrolese singers called Klier, Rainer, Margreiter, Rahm, and Holaus. Rahm is seated facing partly left playing a dulcimer and Rainer holds a guitar. All are wearing traditional Tyrolese costume, coloured with both dark and pastel tones. Queen Victoria had first seen this troupe of Tyrolese singers at Kensington Palace in 1833. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, later arranged for the singers to perform at Osborne on her birthday in 1852. The Duchess recorded in her diary that ‘dearest Victoria appeared very much pleased with the surprise’. Later the same year Queen Victoria acquired this daguerreotype.”

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Courtesy Archivo Gráfico José Huguet, Spain.

This nude image of an unknown woman was made by daguerreotypist Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin who ran a studio at 31 bis rue du Faubourg Montmartre from 1849. Moulin produced risqué daguerreotypes of young girls, and ultimately his work was confiscated and he was jailed for immorality. After his release, notes Archivo Gráfico José Huguet, “Moulin continued his activities more discreetly. He taught photography, sold photographic equipment, and had a backdoor installed to his studio to dodge further legal problems. His works eventually gained esteem from critics.”

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Courtesy the Royal Collection Trust, United Kingdom

This daguerreotype was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852, notes the Royal Collection Trust. It shows “a group of 15 men, including the gamekeepers Mr. McDonald and Mr. Cowley, gathered in front of a wall of Windsor Castle. At the centre of the group a tall man stands with a gun resting on either shoulder. The man in front of him bends down to button his gaiters. All of the men are wearing top hats and most are carrying sticks…. [Daguerreotypist Theodore Robert] Brunell was invited to Windsor Castle at the beginning of 1852 to photograph the royal family. He spent almost three weeks making portraits of the royal children and also took a number of photographs of the gamekeepers. McDonald and Cowley had originally been employed at Balmoral but by 1848 were working at Windsor, with McDonald in charge of the kennels. Both men were photographed on several occasions over the following years and their portraits appear in the personal albums of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who as well as collecting portraits of their own family commissioned photographs of their staff.”

The Europeana Collections are accessible here. Ω