Cartes de Visite
This long but fascinating article “Contemporary Press - Cartes de visite” by Andrew Wynter appeared in two parts in The British Journal of Photography, March 12 1869 p125 and 25th March 1869 p 148
Now that every bookseller’s window is converted into a portrait gallery, and the public demands some knowledge of the personnel as well as of the deeds and speeches of men of eminence and notoriety, the carte de visite has become such a great institution that it is worthy of some special notice. These handy little records of old familiar faces stand in the same relation to the grand portraits that grace the National Gallery and the drawing room that small change does to gold or paper money. They are the democracy of portraiture. As the sun shines alike upon peer and peasant, so when he wields the brush he is equally impartial, and you may now purchase in Seven Dials as good a picture as regards mere likeness as can be procured in the more aristocratic quarters of the town. When we reflect upon the horrible effigies the last generation the middle and the upper portions of the working classes were satisfied with – upon the miserable silhouettes snipped in black paper on board the penny steamers – upon the “likenesses in this style four shillings,” the value of the photographic portrait comes forcibly before us. But the very fidelity with which this new art copies what is set before it renders it all the more necessary that the operation should be both skilful and artistic.
It does not always follow that persons in the highest station command the best portraits. It is notoriously otherwise, in fact, with regard to the highest lady in the land. There has scarcely been a good portrait recently taken of Her Majesty. This seems perfectly unaccountable; but we understand that the same etiquette which would not allow the chaffing dish to be removed which burned the Spanish King except by the proper official, will not permit of the artist posing his august sitter. The best attitude, the most agreeable light, the most pleasing expression which he may select, or call forth from the ordinary sitter, is denied to him by the Court rules of the lady whose carte de visite is the most universally in demand. When Prince Albert was alive all etiquette was banished; he himself with his artistic instincts posed his Royal Consort, and the photographer found the most delicate part of his work done for him. At present the Queen merely takes her seat, and intimates through her Secretary that she wishes to be taken in a certain attitude, and the artist has nothing to do but to comply with the order. It must be evident that photographs taken under such circumstances cannot be very satisfactory. Even such as may turn out well never reach the public, inasmuch as Her Majesty purchases for her own use all the best negatives, prints from them being taken by her own photographer. There is one photograph of the Queen, crowned and with the royal robes, the history of which seemed a mystery, but the explanation of it is this: - A well-known photographer took a likeness of the Queen of Spain similarly attired, which she forwarded to Her Majesty, desiring a similar return carte. This is the only Regal instance, we believe, of an exchange which has become so common in society.
Nevertheless the ignorance that is occasionally displayed by people of the better class with respect to the manner of taking the photograph would scarcely be believed. On one occasion two ladies entered the sitting room of a studio, and placing themselves before a mirror, after some time wished to know if the portraits were not finished, evidently thinking the looking-glass was the operating agent. In another case we heard that a young lady intimated her desire that her hair should be made a little longer; and it has been desired that even jewellery should be omitted in a portrait, the sitter making no attempt to remove it herself. One old gentleman in the country even sent up the colour of his hair to the colouring artist of the Stereoscopic Company, and called four days after to enquire if the portrait was done? Young lady sitters during the present fashion of dressing the hair are not photographed to advantage, the chignon affording a very unsubstantial foundation for the head-rest.
The rage for the carte de visite which has lasted so long, seems at the present moment to be on the decline, or rather we should say other sizes are now becoming saleable, which formerly was not the case. The reason of the popularity of the carte de visite is obvious. The small size of the picture employs only the centre of the lens - its truest part - hence the clearness and the sharp definition it gives to the features; but what is gained in these particulars is lost in modelling and half tones, which give all the delicacy of expression to the face which we see in cabinet photography and the vignette heads. These latter are generally cut out of large existing photographs and are not taken for the occasion. The beauty of some of them, especially of the leading actresses, is pretty sure, we think, to bring the new size into fashion.
The Messrs Marion, in Soho-Square, alone possess the cartes of many hundred thousand persons. This house does not photograph, but merely purchases of those who do. The possession of negatives of famous persons is a fortune to a man. Mr Mayall, of Regent Street, who has photographed nearly all of the Royal Family, has been paid by the house of Marion alone upwards of £35,000 for cartes de visite of its various members. The Stereoscopic Company, which photographs as well as purchases negatives of any celebrity that may be inquired after, possesses a portrait gallery which includes every known person of any distinction. It is scarcely necessary to say that any matter which brings an individual into public notice at once raises the value of his carte de visite. Tom Sayers’s battle with Heenan sold fifty thousand of his cartes de visite. The gallant bearing of the Queen of Naples placed her photograph in every album in the kingdom. Many a man, through some accidental circumstance, wakes up and finds himself famous, and in two or three days his carte de visite is staring at him from every window in town. If any illustrious person is reported ill, there is an immediate inquiry after negatives, and as the pigeon holes of Printing-house-square are always kept well supplied with biographical sketches of statesmen about to depart this life, so the photographic printer anticipates their death by keeping a large supply of cartes de visite in hand. We scarcely know whether a statesman would be pleased or shocked at such an anticipation of his decease. It may not be pleasant for any man to know that others are eagerly making a market out of such an event; but then, on the other hand, it must be highly flattering to know that when he has gone hence and taken with him the original, he has left so many copies behind. Whether it was that Lord Palmerston had, during his lifetime, discounted his popularity, or because of any reaction which has occurred with respect to his memory, we know not; but it certainly is an undoubted fact that his carte de visite is no longer called for, while those of many of his contemporaries, now deceased, are still in very fair demand. Thus, Cobden is still largely sold in the market, possibly because he represented a principle which is dear to the hearts of his countrymen. Next after Royalty, the photographs of statesmen, we are told, sell the best; but even the most eminent of these are local in their sale. The politics of our leading men may even be guessed by the district in which their cartes de visite sell. Thus Bright sells largely throughout the North, whilst in the West he is never inquired after.
Next to statesmen, the largest demand is for actresses, especially operatic singers. When Jenny Lind was on the boards her carte de visite sold very largely, but nothing like that of Adelina Patti, which has quite astonished the photographers themselves. The Messrs Marion alone have sold, within the last three years, fifty thousand copies of the portrait of this popular singer. In France also, there is a very large demand for actresses and singers, but for no other persons of eminence. Our neighbours seem to care nothing for their statesmen, great men of letters, artists or great religious teachers. Their homage, as indicated in this particular instance, is often of a sensual nature, and many of the photographic pictures which disgrace the windows of the sellers of photographs are published either in Paris or in Brussels.
The sale of clergymen of the Church of England is also very large, especially of those whose names have been brought prominently before the public, such as Keble, Pusey, Neale, Mackonochie, and, of course, the leading Bishops. We have spoken of a photograph of Dr Pusey, but this is not strictly accurate: he never would have his carte de visite taken, although pressed to do so, and, on one occasion was offered a bribe of a hundred pounds for a charity with which he was connected. The carte we see of him in the windows is from a sketch taken surreptitiously whilst preaching. There is a carte de visite of the Bishop of Oxford holding up his fingers after the ancient method of giving the blessing, which caused some scandal at the time, and which is now withdrawn from sale; but a colonial Bishop, Dunedin, now boldly stands forth in the same attitude. His see being so far distant, little notice is taken of this portrait. As a rule, portraits of dissenting clergymen are not at all in demand. Of course we except Mr Spurgeon from this rule. It is difficult to account for this fact, unless we are to suppose that the dissenting element in the population, as a class, care less for art than church people and those who move in society. It cannot be that they are less attached to their Pastors, or they prize them less highly than church people in a spiritual sense.
What has become of what we once termed pistolgram portraits? An instantaneous method of securing a likeness is no doubt a great desideratum, but we question whether, with our present means of posing the sitter, anything like a natural expression would be thereby secured. The act of posing a sitter is by no means calculated to secure a natural expression. Indeed, most people enter a photographer’s studio with the same flutter they do the operating room of the dentist, certainly with scarcely less nervous trepidation. In both cases the “patient”- we use the word advisedly- has to screw his courage up to the sticking point. The sight of the tooth drawing instrument may give a slight shock to the nerves, but we question if the effect is as visible on the countenance as that produced by the photographic manipulator pushing back the head until it is brought up by the head rest – that terrible instrument, which sets all the lines of the face into spasmodic contractions, effaces, like the touch of death, all expression, and reduces the flexible human countenance to the condition of a mask. If the sitter recovers this touch of cold iron, the photographer’s warning voice to “remain quite still” while he removes the cap of the lens and exposes you to the searching eye of the camera, generally settles the business, and renders the first negative a failure. With such instruments of torture, used as they are generally without discretion, the pistolgram would only have the effect of giving the expression at the very worst, just as the first shock has paralysed or contorted the expression. Photography, where living muscle is concerned, cannot be performed successfully at excess speed. The best and most artistic operators are well aware of this; they allow the sitter to become accustomed to the sight of the instrument, just as a good groom in breaking in a horse makes him look quickly at every object likely to make him “shy”. Again: all good photographers are aware that what is termed a good taking day, such as is favourable for printing from the negative, is by no means favourable for producing the highest specimens of his art. The full blaze of the sun, however shaded from the camera room, never yields those tender half tones which give all the charm to a really fine likeness.
Although the sitter may be in a room whose Northerly aspect may wholly exclude the direct rays of the sun, yet his penetrating influence affects the whole firmament, and the effect is that the silver of the plate is affected so quickly in the higher lights that no time is permitted for the drawing of the delicate half tone, without which a photographic portrait is worthless. Hence a slightly cloudy day yields by far the best picture. Of course we do not mean a foggy day, especially a yellow foggy atmosphere, such as we get in November; on such occasions the photographer cannot work, the whole face of nature being reduced to the tone of the room where he manipulates his negatives, in which yellow fog is simulated by yellow blinds. In the majority of cases the very clear definition of the picture gives a hardness which is not agreeable, and which the human eye never shows us. The iris is continually in motion, becoming larger or smaller to accommodate itself to the amount of light or to the distance at which objects are viewed. A certain softness is the result, which ordinary photographs do not give. We may illustrate what we say with reference to the hard outlines of some photographs by the effect they have when viewed in the stereoscope compared with the natural objects they represent. Stereoscopic pictures always look like hard clay models: they lack all the softening effects of the atmosphere. Stereoscopic views are particularly unpleasant, to our mind, for this very reason – atmospheric perspective is wanting in them; and although the different objects seem to be round, yet those parts situated on different planes seem as though they were but flat surfaces placed one before the other, just as the fly side screens at a theatre seem distinct from the back screen. The late M. Claudet, who was a really scientific manipulator, perceived this error in ordinary photography and patented a method of giving softness to his portraits, which rendered them like fine mezzotints. This he did by means of a moveable lens in his camera. A very slight movement broke up the almost metallic sharpness of this outline (which we repeat we never see in nature), and gave most agreeable portraits. The colour, again, of the photograph has a great deal to do with its pleasant appearance. A cold grey portrait, which some photographers seem to admire, is not nearly so agreeable as those of deep chocolate colour, so full of warmth in their shadows. Mr Ernest Edwards, who has given us such a fine portrait gallery of our medical men, has appreciated this fact; so did Silvy, who a few years ago most certainly stood at the head of all our photographic artists as a taker of cartes de visite, but has now retired from the profession.
Continued - 25th March p 148
A carte de visite, hand coloured with watercolour by Pipere, 27 Chandos Street, and 10 Hemming Row, London, Charing Cross School of Photography, late 1860s.
It is a very common thing to hear a person say “They never succeed with my photograph”. We admit that the portraits of our friends are capital, but our own are “not a bit like”. And there is something more than mere egotism in this remark. How few are the positions of one’s face with which one is familiar! We never see our side faces; it is very difficult to catch a glimpse in the mirror even of a three-quarter pose of the countenance; hence many photographic portraits of ourselves are wholly unknown to us. Although the mere outline of a face may be given as well by an indifferent lens as by one of the best, yet a likeness, in the highest sense of the word, can only be obtained by the most artistic photographers with the best appliances. These advantages can only be commanded by the photographic firms that are largely employed by the public, and have been trained by large practice. It is vain to look for anything like an artistic performance from men who have left some trade or handicraft for the more profitable camera. It is by such hands that the many hideous likenesses to be found in most carte de visite albums are produced.
In France they have a keen appreciation of the difference between a good and a bad photograph. They produce some of the very best and some of the worst. At the last fete of St Cloud, near Paris, there was a photographic van placed in a conspicuous position to make a trade of taking cartes de visite during the progress of the Festival. On the outside of the van was a printed bill containing the following announcement: - Photographic Ambulante, Fete de St Cloud. Cartes de visite, La douz 3 francs, Air de Famille 5 francs, resemblance garantie 8 francs. Thus the skill of the operator was nicely adjusted to the wants of the sitter. When mere quantity was required, three francs a dozen only was demanded, but a family likeness must be paid for liberally; and for a guaranteed resemblance the highest charge of al was demanded.
Three or four years ago, among the novelties photographers are ever seeking after, what was called the diamond cameo photograph was bought out. The plan consisted in taking four different views of the face of the sitter on one carte. The photographer employed a small camera and a small lens. A simple arrangement within the camera enabled him to expose a section only of the plate at once, which, having received its impression from one portion of the sitters head, was shifted so as to receive another, and so on until the four were taken. Before being exposed in the printing-frame, the negative was covered with a mask of perfectly opaque paper with oval openings, to show neatly and clearly the four pictures to be represented. The object of making the negative was to protect the intervening space on the slip of the sensitised paper from the action of the light so that it might appear perfectly white, while the sharp ovals representing the heads were more or less dark, making a stark contrast. The plan did not however succeed, for the reason that the sitter did not recognise his own face in some of the positions in which he could not see it in the glass; hence the fashion speedily died away.
But to return to the carte de visite mania. In these days of advertising, when so many people are clever at keeping their names well before the public, it is not to be supposed that the photograph is overlooked. When we scrutinise the scores of faces that gaze upon us from the booksellers’ windows, we cannot help remarking that some heads are repeated with pertinacity that is by no means commensurate with their real character. Upon enquiry, such individuals will be found to make capital out of this forced notoriety. Actresses, in particular, imagine their fame depends upon the profusion with which their cartes de visite appear in public. In cases where the sitter is very celebrated and is sure to sell well, it is becoming the custom to demand a royalty for the use of the negative. We believe that Tom Sayers was the first to set this fashion, just after his famous fight with Heenan. Not only did this worthy sell his “mug”, as he termed it, to one of the sporting publishers, but he engaged to give them the exclusive copyright in it, to the exclusion of all others. But actresses and pugilists are not alone in this desire to be constantly before the public. The pedestrian may recognise the face of more than one clergyman who takes this means of keeping alive his popularity, and we more than suspect some physicians of taking the same course of increasing their practice. It is a refined method of advertising, which cannot well be brought home to the individual; moreover it has this advantage over the newspaper puff, that its cost is defrayed directly at the public expense.
An advertising carte de visite for The Ghost, presented by Mr A Silvester at the Canterbury Hall every evening. The photographers are Messrs Alfred Silvester (1831-1886)and Richard Thomas, 118 New Bond Street (6 doors from Brook St). Alfred Thomas was a ghost illusionist as well as a photographer, and was in the London Music Halls in 1866 according to The Era, October 21, 1866.
For the direct and avowed purposes of trade the carte de visite has not been so extensively used as may have been expected. Large numbers are printed for the purpose of showing delicate designs in glass and in gold and silversmith’s work by the Stereoscopic Company – a most legitimate exercise of its use; and it would be well if, as far as advertising purposes were concerned, these useful sun pictures stopped here, but we were lately favoured with an ingenious application of its powers as a begging medium. A card with the portraits of six children reached our hands, with a printed flyleaf to the interesting family picture to the following effect:- “Children to Save. Advertisement sent to a few taken from the London Court Directory. The father of these British-born Protestant children is an elderly gentleman, ruined by competition in business, and past beginning life again; and the mother is in a very precarious state of health. To seek for adopters is against the parental instinct and besides it may ultimately come to that, as by the time their schooling is over, in ten or fifteen years, they would most likely be orphans, and their willing adopters would be welcome to it (sic). At present the father, in his alarm for the fate of these creatures, seeks for some that would pay, not to the father, but to good boarding schools, for their clothing, keeping and tuition; and after school time, see that they should not want. Willing benefactors are therefore requested to state what they would feel inclined to do for each child they may point out by one of the numbers given at the foot, to Alphabet, till called for, at the Post Office, No 1 Liverpool Street, Moorfields EC, enclosing card or addressed envelope, to insure correct address if a reply should be wished for.” The children are all duly numbered at the foot of the carte de visite and the whole affair affords a most ingenious application of the art of the purposes of this new sort of pattern post, setting forth specimens of juvenile raw material. Whether this audacious male cuckoo succeeded in dropping his six little responsibilities into any domestic or scholastic nest, we do not know, but the attempt shows that the begging fraternity know the value of photography.
The whole tribe of rogues who feed upon the credulity of mankind have also found out its powers of filling their pockets. The following advertisement touches a very tender chord, and we have no doubt is greatly successful:-
But photography lends its aid as easily to the rogue taker as to the rogue. The public may not be aware that there is a photographic album at Scotland Yard, in which may be seen the carte of every ticket-of-leave man in the country. The charitable regulation which allows a convict his liberty before his sentence has expired, is burdened with the condition that he must report himself personally once a month to the police authorities wherever he may happen to reside. Before leaving the prison, his photograph is taken by the prison authorities for the purposes of identification. It is, of course, for him to resist; if he does, he is not allowed his liberty. One carte de visite is kept in the police album at Scotland Yard, another at the station-house of the division of the metropolis in which he may seek to reside, and a third is forwarded to any country district he may wish to remove to. When the carte de visite and the prisoner arrive at Scotland Yard, a Sergeant of each division of the force is called in to inspect both portrait and sitter, in order the better to identify him by the aid of the little carte, in case he should fail to put in an appearance. It is scarcely possible to conceive a carte taken under less agreeable circumstances. The ticket-of-leave man’s album is, indeed, a strange psychological study. The individual who opens it is prepared to find a villainous portrait gallery of low foreheads; but his anticipations are by no means verified. Very many heads are those of the ordinary population, no better and no worse. Now and then the odd shaped head, the curious formation of the eye, the full animal jaw, prove that we are gazing upon men predestined by nature to commit acts of criminal violence, or to perpetrate petty thefts. Sometimes a strikingly handsome countenance appears full of intelligence – be sure that man is a forger, or a delinquent in some of the higher branches of fraud. We asked the superintendent who kindly showed us the book, if any of the police would be justified in taking any man into custody on the strength of the carte de visite alone. The reply was guarded - “Not on the carte alone, but certainly after previous identification of the individual”. Appended to each carte de visite there is a most graphically-written description of each prisoner, especially of any particular marks he may happen to have about his person. These are powerful aids in identifying any runaway, for there is scarcely a living person that does not possess some mark about the body, not easily obliterated, that would lead to his identification. This is especially the case with the criminal population, and with the class from which convicts generally come. With a strange perversity they are in the habit of pricking in with gunpowder all sorts of marks – suns, stars, anchors, &c – on the fleshy parts, brands, in fact, which can never afterwards be removed. In this respect they seem to lack altogether the cunning of the lower animals, many of which, as the sportsman well knows, have the tact to hide in “cover” so assimilated to that of their own body that they are overlooked. The scars, again, which men living by violence are sure to carry about them, in many cases make the police officer as certain of his man as the grazier is of sheep.
There are cases, however, in which identification of an absconding rogue by such marks, or even a comparison of his face with a photograph portrait, is out of the question, For instance, when Redpath some years since absconded, there were no means at hand by which the detective could identify him. It was supposed that his negative would be found in some photographic houses, and upon enquiry Mr Mayall had one. A large number of photographs were printed and distributed among the police force, and before long he was detected just as he was about to sail from (sic) some port in the North of Europe. In this case he was, we are informed, much disguised.
Only a short time since, Mr Pollaky, the private detective, made a bold stroke by the aid of a carte de visite. He was in search of a fraudulent debtor, a Mr Gray, and one evening, whilst in the Stadt Theatre, in Vienna, he recognised a gentleman elegantly dressed who most completely answered the appearance of a photographic portrait in his possession. Without loss of time he arrested him; he turned out to be the veritable man he was in search of, and he afterwards ascertained that he had taken his passage and was about to leave Vienna by the night mail for his port of departure.
A far more interesting group of carte de visite portraits are those left by friends at the police office of persons that are missing. Young ladies’ portraits in such quarters especially look out of place; but there are many such. One cannot contemplate them without a feeling of pity or commiseration. Some of them have placed shame between themselves and home; some the dark water. We fancy the carte de visite is of little avail in such cases.
Viewed commercially, no art matter of modern introduction has made such extraordinary progress as photography; and this may be especially said of that branch of it which relates to cartes de visite portraits. At the present time the sale of these amount to between sixteen and eighteen millions a year. As we have said before, the demand at present is nothing like what it was. In the years 1860-62 no less than between three and four million cartes were sold of Her Majesty. Sometimes the cartes of illustrious persons, owing to peculiar circumstances, sell at greatly enhanced prices. Thus, when the Prince Consort died, his carte was in great demand at ten shillings each. The execution of the Emperor Maximilian, and the assassination of President Lincoln, produced a sudden demand for their portraits, with which the supply could scarcely keep pace. But independently of the trade in cartes de visite, a score of other tradesmen have been either greatly stimulated or brought into life by the new art. The demand upon the precious metals, gold and silver, has been very great; enormous quantities of glass are required for the negatives; the same may be said of cards; the making of albums employs thousands of persons. Cabinet makers have additional employment in making the carved “properties,” chairs and tables, garden balustrades, cabinets, that are so plentifully used. The chemists are required to furnish large supplies; the lens makers have been rendered equally busy; and we may add, employment has been afforded to a great amount of labour, very much of which we are glad to see has fallen to young ladies. In short, the introduction of photography generally has marked as new era in the arts and the higher branches of manufacture, and, as far as we can see, is destined to a further development year by year.
Amateurs are not, as a rule, successful in portrait-taking, but we must make an exception in favour of a lady, Mrs Cameron, whose life-size portraits may be seen in a shop in Bond Street. These are taken with the large lens, and, without the appearance of art, are yet most artistic portraits. The head of Alfred Tennyson, with its flowing locks, and calm, grand expression, shows us the power of photography in large – if we may so speak. Mrs Cameron has a fine sense of light and shade, and the heads she has taken remind us of the noble pencilling of Corregio, so grandly are the masses of light and shade disposed.
It is not uncommon, we hear, for some of our best portrait painters to aid their pencil with photographic life-size sketches of their sitters, and they need not feel shame at allowing Phoebus to be a guide to their brush in the matter of likeness and in the arrangement of broad effects of light and shade. It has been objected that these life-size portraits are always disagreeable, in consequence of the roughness they give to the skin. This is quite true of photographs taken with a small lens, and afterwards magnified to the life-size; but this difficulty is entirely got over by the use of a large lens, which has scarcely any magnifying power. Mrs Cameron’s portraits are perfectly free from any roughness by reason of her adopting this process; and more life-like heads than those shown in the windows as specimens of her art we have never witnessed. These large-sized heads, when artistically coloured, are so life-like that the spectator can scarcely help thinking a living individual is looking at him.
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