The history of portrait photography through our collections

Catherine Troiano, Photography Curator Catherine Troiano Photography Curator
A collection of photographs at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

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.

Daguerreotype portrait of an unknown woman


Daguerreotypes are unique, direct-positive images made in-camera onto a silvered copper plate. They were considered special objects, often kept in leather cases. The case on this image at Dunham Massey shows the photographer to be a Mr Kilburn of Regent Street.

Camille Silvy, full-length carte-de-visite studio portrait of an unknown man, 1860-70


Camille Silvy was a French photographer who had a studio at 38 Porchester Terrace, London. Studio portraits often featured props and backdrops to suggest personal characteristics of the sitter, as can be seen here. This portrait from about 1860 is held in the collections at the Fox Talbot Museum of Photography.

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.

Henry Walter Barnett, portrait of Gertrude Violet Webster-Wedderburn, around 1905. Polesden Lacey, Surrey
Henry Walter Barnett, portrait of Gertrude Violet Webster-Wedderburn, about 1905.
Henry Walter Barnett, portrait of Gertrude Violet Webster-Wedderburn, around 1905. Polesden Lacey, Surrey


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.

Group portrait of staff at Erddig, 1912. Erddig, Wrexham

House staff

The Yorke family at Erddig made photographs of their staff from as early as 1852. Their staff also made their own photographs and compiled photographic albums of their lives that are held in Erddig’s photography collection. This picture shows Erddig’s staff gathered on the west front steps in 1912. The image is annotated with information about each of the sitters.

Gardener working in a walled kitchen garden, about 1910. Fox Talbot Museum, Wiltshire


Looking after gardens is a key part of our work today. This image shows a gardener working in a walled kitchen garden at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire in about 1910.

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.

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.

Daphne Bankes wearing a gas mask and standing by an ambulance, 1940. Kingston Lacy Estate, Dorset

Second World War volunteers

Daphne Bankes, sister of Henry Bankes, the last owner of Kingston Lacy in Dorset, volunteered as an ambulance driver during the Second World War. During the war, Kingston Lacy was used as an American hospital. Here, Daphne is pictured wearing her gas mask and standing by an ambulance.

Evacuees at Lanhydrock Hall, about 1940. Lanhydrock, Cornwall.

Second World War evacuees

During the Second World War, millions of civilians – especially children – were evacuated from major cities to the countryside. Many evacuees spent time at places we now care for. This image shows evacuees at Lanhydrock in Cornwall in the early 1940s.

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.

Fascinating items from the Chambré Hardman collection

Revealing the E. Chambré Hardman photographic collection  

To learn more about a current cataloguing and conservation photography project, read about the work we’re doing for Hardmans Unpacked. This two-year project aims to make the 150,000 objects in the Hardman photographic collection more accessible to everyone. They belonged to portrait photographers Edward and Margaret Chambré Hardman, who lived and worked at 59 Rodney Street in Liverpool, which we now look after.