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Pocketmags Digital Magazines
Pocketmags Digital Magazines

Behind the scenes

Dress historian Jayne Shrimpton sheds light on the photographic studio conventions that can help you to interpret your ancestors’ portraits

Most Victorian and Edwardian photographs were taken in professional photographic studios, our ancestors posing in carefully contrived surroundings. Painted scenery, selected furniture and various ‘props’ created an attractive setting, also providing physical support for the subject and sometimes demonstrating their stage of life, personal interests or occupation. Artistic backcloths and additional accessories followed prevailing fashions and expressed shifting photographic conventions, becoming important picture clues that now help us to date and understand our old family photographs.

Admiring the view

Painted scenery or backcloths were especially important when the subject was portrayed as a doll-like, fulllength figure in a spacious studio set. In the 1860s, when cartes de visite brought photography to a mass market, a genteel drawing room interior was usual, complete with authentic-looking painted skirting boards or decorative panelling. In the background there might be a trompe l’oeil effect open window or graceful archway affording a glimpse of an enticing landscape or gardens beyond – all optical illusions.

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