Picturing the Victorians Search of iMuseum

Picturing the Victorians

Posted on 10.11.2015

The Victorians were not only the inventors of photography but the first to experience it.  Over 70 years they used it to define themselves and their world, the first in a long line of generations to do so.  The Manx National Heritage Library & Archives Photographic Archive contains some of the earliest known photographs of the Isle of Man as taken in the 1850s, along with thousands of glass plate studio portraits of named sitters many of which are available to view on iMuseum.  Here are just a few of my favourites that reveal something of the magic of Victorian photography.

In 1849 Sir David Brewster experimented with the stereoscopic inspection of photographs.  After publishing his findings in 1856, organisations such as the London Stereoscopic Company sprang up everywhere making the stereograph a cheap, photographic craze.  The stereograph works like this.  When looked at in a special viewer, two almost identical small photographs combine to form a single three-dimensional image.  The scene here is probably the 1860 arrival of Governor Francis Pigott whose carriage was driven up Prospect Hill to Castle Mona.


© Manx National Heritage (PG/7888/88)

French photographer Antoine Claudet (who later became “Photographer-in-ordinary” to Queen Victoria) is said to have been the first to use a painted backdrop in his London establishment in 1842.  The backdrop is perhaps the most important prop we find in all Victorian photographic studios.  This is a quirky, seaside photograph of the Harrison Family taken around 1888 in Spence Lees Studio, Regent Street, Douglas.  This studio had the unfortunate fate of being destroyed by fire in 1889, the fire assisted perhaps by the photographic chemicals stored on site.


© Manx National Heritage (PG/1669/12)

The head clamp as it was fondly called was used to keep the sitter’s head still for the time the camera needed to take the exposure and to capture a crisp likeness.  Use of the head clamp is visible in a great many Victorian photographs, when you know what you’re looking for.  A classic give-away is the horizontal curtain.  Curtains don’t tend to fall horizontally, in fact they only do when they’re there to disguise a head clamp.  Most often you can also see the base of the head clamp peeping out from underneath the swaggered curtain.


© Manx National Heritage (PG/8655/4161)

Two late-Victorian photographers really stand-out on the Isle of Man.  George Bellett Cowen (1865-1948) applied artistry when taking photographs, like this one of Crennell, ‘The Old Manx Cooper’.


© Manx National Heritage (PG/12438)

But if we want to see real Victorians then I’d argue we need to turn to the work of Cowen’s contemporary and my favourite Manx photographer, John Miller Nicholson (1840-1913).  Joseph Douglas, Nicholson’s biographer, writes about North Quay where Nicholson took many of his photographs, ‘The Red Pier…was in Nicholson’s youthful days the promenade and the chief attraction of the town.  It was there that folk met to gossip with their friends and interchange the news that dribbled in from the outside world.’


© Manx National Heritage (PG/5247/74)

Jude Dicken (Manx National Heritage Collections Information Officer)

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