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Cartomania

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‘We go to Jeffrey’s and all are photographed….’ reads Emily Tennyson’s diary entry for 3rd July 1862.

Jeffrey’s was a photography studio in Great Russell Street near the British Museum in London. Tennyson, Emily and their sons Hallam and Lionel were photographed by William Jeffrey several times in the early 1860’s. However, it is unlikely that Alfred enjoyed the process. Emily records in her diary that Alfred was a reluctant sitter for artists and sculptors. Jeffrey’s portraits appear awkward. Alfred and Emily still wear their outdoor coats in the studio.

During the 1860’s small photographs (10 x 6 cm) mounted on card became very popular. Owing to their small size, eight images fitted onto one negative plate, making the photographs cheap to produce. This was the first time the majority of people could have a portrait taken inexpensively and circulate their image amongst friends and family. The photographs were the same size as a visiting card, which people exchanged and displayed in their homes for other visitors to peruse and see who was acquainted with whom.

Known as carte-de-visites, the photographic cards were exchanged, sent as gifts, framed and compiled into albums. They were produced and collected with such enthusiasm that the term ‘Cartomania’ was coined to describe their popularity. Hundreds of commercial photography studios competed for business.

The photography studios typically comprised waiting rooms, with galleries of photographs on display, from where customers moved to the dressing rooms and the studio. This was filled with painted backdrops and props such as curtains, balustrades, pillars, tables and chairs. In one example at the TRC, four members of the Brodie family stand confidently in a small rowing boat in front of a painted landscape, surrounded by what appears to be real, but shallow, water.

Headrests were used to support the neck if the ‘patient’ was too impatient. Achieving a focused image relied on the ‘patient’ staying motionless for half a minute, fixing their gaze on one point in the room. This meant that smiling was not really an option, as it resulted in more of a grimace that a cheery expression. A grumpy appearance and uncomfortable stance were often achieved.

To achieve an accurate, and sympathetic, portrait, the photographer’s art relied on the manipulation of light and shadow. Studios were light by roof lights and large north facing windows, accompanied by all many of screens to filter and direct the light onto the face. Light reflecting on the face could flatten features or, worse still, highlight features, to produce a most unflatteringly accurate image of the sitter.

Tennyson was a reluctant sitter for portrait photography. However, his popularity meant portrait artists were keen to capture his likeness. He was photographed by some of the most famous practitioners. Painters, sculptors and photographers alike all wanted to capture a true likeness of the poet to share with the nation.

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Last updated: 11 December 2014

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