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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree August 2018 > ADVICE…


With our experts Jayne Shrimpton, Mary Evans, Celia Heritage, Steven Smyrl, Tim Lovering, Janet Smith and Emma Jolly


Trying to determine the date around which a photo was taken involves analysing the format of the photo, the composition and the clothing in fashion at the time



We welcome your family history queries, and try to answer as many as we can, but we do have a considerable backlog at the moment, so, if possible, we recommend in the first instance posting your query on or tweet us @familytreemaguk and we’ll aim to help you there


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Identifying an ambrotype

Q This photograph came to light at a recent family reunion, and I am hoping that, going by the type of photograph and style of dress, she could represent my 3x great-grandmother, Amelia Scarborough/Priestley (1795- 1863), who lived in Huntingdonshire. I am guessing that her son, Charles Priestley, brought the photograph with him to New Zealand in the 1850s. Robin Amelia Hodkinson

A This professional studio portrait represents one of the early photographic formats: either a daguerreotype or an ambrotype. Daguerreotypes were unique pictures – luxury photographic images struck onto a silvered copper plate, set into a brass surround (mat), protected under glass and presented in a folding case, a velvet pad facing the picture. Surviving daguerreotypes date mainly from the early-1840s to the late-1850s, becoming obsolete c1860. Expensive in their day, they are rare in ordinary British and New Zealand family photograph collections. Ambrotypes – photographic images on glass – were also one-off photographs set into a metal mat, protected under another layer of glass and sometimes framed, or cased in similar fashion to daguerreotypes. Studio ambrotypes were mainly produced between the mid-1850s and early-1860s and, being more affordable, began to bring photography to a wider population.

The two types of photograph can be hard to tell apart from a digital scan and unfortunately I would need to view the actual object to be certain of the correct format. You may be able to judge for yourself if you still have access to the original: daguerreotypes have a polished, mirror-like surface and when tilted fluctuate between a negative and positive image; ambrotypes may show signs of flaking behind the glass, where the varnish used to blacken the back is deteriorating.

Photo 1

The composition

Studying the visual image, we notice the fulllength composition of the subject, who stands in a contrived drawing room interior. Confusingly, this pose and setting are not typical of either daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, which generally portray their subjects close up in a half-length or short three-quarter-length composition, against a simple background. Rather, this type of image, depicting the subject as a doll-like figure in a room, complete with patterned flooring, ornate furniture and draped curtain is most characteristic of carte de visite printed photographs produced during the 1860s. We know from its appearance that this photograph is not a card-mounted carte de visite, but it combines one of the old formats with the new 1860s composition associated mainly with early cartes de visites. Based on the available evidence, then, this could be an exceptionally late daguerreotype, but is more likely an ambrotype.

The costume

The lady wears a classic mid-Victorian daytime costume comprising a pleated bodice attached to a wide crinoline skirt, accessorised with a matronly indoor day cap. The style of her bodice spans the late before 1860.

In conclusion

Considering also the 1860s-style composition, I therefore think we are looking at a date around the end of the 1850s or early 1860s. She looks to be aged in her late 50s or 60s, and so could well, as you believe, be your 3x great-grandmother Amelia (1795-1863), photographed not long before her death.

I’m not aware of the exact year in the 1850s in which her son emigrated to New Zealand, but in view of the tight timeframe, it seems more likely that she had this photograph taken and sent it to him there some time after his arrival. He may even have acquired it via another English relative following his mother’s death in 1863, adding greater poignancy to this special portrait. JS

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