The history of portrait photography through our collections
Our national photography collections span some 250 places across England, Northern Ireland and Wales. There are about 550,000 items dating from 1840 to present day, including many compelling images of people. Catherine Troiano, photography collections curator, takes a look at the history of portrait photography through our collections.
Since its beginnings in the 1830s, photography has been closely connected to the people and places we care for. Our photographic collections are a unique resource, spanning many different genres and revealing how life and work at these places has changed over the years.
Early portrait photography
Portrait photography has been popular since the mid-19th century. The arrival of the first photographic process, the daguerreotype, in 1839 meant that portrait photographs were cheaper and quicker to produce than painted portraits. These unique photographs rivalled, and eventually replaced, portrait miniatures. Many portrait miniaturists became daguerreotype photographers.
As photographic technologies developed, and photography became increasingly embedded into daily social life, the popularity of portraiture increased. ‘Cartes-de-visite’, or calling cards, were the first mass produced kind of photograph. They often featured portrait images made in a studio, and were commissioned, collected and traded in their thousands during the height of their popularity in the 1860s-80s.
As lighting and photographic processes became more sophisticated, studio photography continued to evolve. In the 20th century, staged studio portraits became a mark of social status.
Australian-born Henry Walter Barnett was a prominent portrait photographer around the turn of the 20th century. He became known for photographing London’s high society, with studios at Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge.
Photographs of people at our places
Photography became increasingly accessible as equipment became less expensive, more readily available and easier to use it. Many people took to taking photographs which gave way to a popular mass of candid imagery.
These photographs, along with the formal portraits in our collections, help to tell the stories of our places and the people who worked in them over the last 175 years. Images of staff, including gardeners, groomsmen, cooks, nannies and maids, show how many people were needed to keep houses in good working order.
We can put names to the faces of many depicted in photographs in our collections, giving a uniquely personal insight into the history of the places we care for.
This portrait of 1905 is thought to be of William Cole, who began as stable boy and rose to become head groom at Lanhydrock, Cornwall.
Staff at Kingston Lacy
Someone has annotated this image to give the names of those who worked at Kingston Lacy, Dorset, c.1910. They’ve even included the name of their pets, 'Monkey' (the cat) and 'Jim' (the dog).
This image, in the collection at Dyrham in Gloucestershire, depicts Annie Gerry, who worked as a lady’s maid. She’s shown here in 1905, holding a tortoise.
Marwood and Hester Coad
Marwood worked in the gardens and then as footman and butler at Lanhydrock, Cornwall. His wife Hester was nursemaid in the 1880s and 1890s. They are pictured here in the 1920s.
Staff at Dyrham
Wallace Rumney apprentice carpenter, John Salmon carpenter, Johnny Barber butler and Moses Ball stableman are pictured here in 1910. They all worked at Dyrham, Gloucestershire.
Today, volunteers are integral to what we do. But volunteering has a longer history that is woven into the fabric of our places. During the First and Second World Wars, a number of places were temporarily requisitioned for wartime purposes. Many people volunteered to the war effort, taking on roles as nurses, ambulance drivers, mapmakers, and evacuee carers.
Caring for our photographic collections
Caring for our photography collections is an ongoing task. We are working hard to research, catalogue and make accessible large parts of our photography collections that remain relatively unknown. Photographs, particularly historic photographs, are sensitive objects. Conservation work is important to ensuring long-term preservation, keeping our photography collections safe for years to come.