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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree Christmas 2019 > Your questions answered

Your questions answered

With our panel of experts Jayne Shrimpton, David Annal, David Frost, Simon Fowler, Graham Caldwell, and Mary Evans

What was the occasion?

QThis photo taken by F Valery in Beckenham shows Daniel and Sarah Ollett (née Wiltshire). I have two of Jayne Shrimpton’s excellent fashion books and, using them, I originally thought the photo was taken c1898 to mark either their 25th wedding anniversary or their daughter Sarah’s wedding.

Daniel would then be about 46 years old and Sarah about 42, and Sarah is showing a ring on her finger.

However, I also have a photo taken in 1907 at their son’s wedding and they both look more than 10 years older than in the photo of them as a couple. Daniel is the first man and Sarah the lady far right in the second row. So, returning to the studio photo, Daniel and Sarah were married in 1871, when Sarah was 17 and Daniel 21: Sarah was seven months’ pregnant with her first child. Could this be their wedding photo? Yet they don’t appear young enough and the dress does not look right. Please can you help.

Mary Ollett

AYour studio photograph appears to be a cabinet print/card measuring around 16.5 x 11.5cms, which was the most popular photographic format of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Accurate, comprehensive studio data is not freely available online for Frederick Valery’s photographic business, although some images on diverse websites are of similar date and one early photographer website provides useful, if incomplete, dates: 1891 and 1903: Your estimate of the date range based on fashion evidence is spot on, for the style of Sarah’s formal daytime costume suggests a date range of c1897-1900.

At the time of this portrait your ancestors were indeed aged in their forties, which looks correct. Undoubtedly they visited the studio to mark a special occasion, but Sarah’s outfit is slightly too late in style to accord with their 25th wedding anniversary, which I calculate as 1896.

However, we have another clue here, for Sarah’s costume is fashioned from dull black fabric, while her high collar, the centre front of her bodice and her cuffs are of distinctive textured ‘crape’ – the term for the crimped gauze or crêpe used specifically for female mourning. Therefore she, or the couple, had recently (within a year or so) lost a close family member such as a parent or sibling – perhaps even a child – and are posing here for a formal mourning portrait.

Your second photograph, the wedding scene from 1907 does appear to depict a significantly older Sarah and Daniel, but I don’t see any problems as regards either its date or identity.

We should remember that these ancestors were now aged firmly in their fifties, so hair would typically be visibly grey by that time. Sarah is also wearing spectacles and the rather fussy clothing and matronly style of bonnet favoured by older Edwardian ladies. The couple may well have considered themselves much older than in the 1890s: they were the senior generation by now, expected to present a sober, mature image. JS

• The greyish colour of the card mount is characteristic of that period, the ornate pictorial design on the back typical of the years spanning late-1880s to late- 1890s

• At the time the photo was taken (late 1890s) the female bodice was cut more or less straight across at the waist and attained wide shoulder detailing during the second half of the 1890s, both of which features we see here

• The form of the sleeves can pinpoint a closer date and Sarah’s sleeves represent the later phase of the wide ‘leg-o’-mutton’ sleeve, which reduced in size, displaying some residual fullness, or a neat high puff towards the end of the decade

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