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Picturing the family
Picturing the family

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4.7 Exceptions

Activity 13

Do you think the contact between the people in Image 29 is different from that in Images 27 and 28? Can you describe the nature of the contact?

A photograph of Mary Hannah Blackwell and James Sharples
Image 29 Photographer/Painter: Anon. Subject: Mary Hannah Blackwell and James Sharples, c.1877.


In this delightful example I would argue that touch actually does convey feeling. His fingers cover hers and both hands rest on her thigh (though quilted skirt, woollen jacket and excessive quantities of undergarment intervene between flesh and flesh). His firm clasp conveys a sense of earnestness on his part and consent on hers.

The flagrant breach of conventional practice in Image 29 has occurred precisely where Victorian photographers would expect to find it – in front of the camera of the itinerant photographer. (We shall look at the work of itinerants later in the course.) These speculative operators were held in contempt by proprietors of respectable high-street establishments. They were accused, amongst other things, of paying scant regard to posing by allowing each customer to ‘have his own way entirely’ as long as ‘he pays his sixpence in advance’.

I can find no evidence of a ring on the woman's hand, which suggests that the couple was not married. No respectable woman, however, would consent to be photographed with a man to whom she was not related unless she wished to publicize the message implicit within this photograph that both parties had reached an understanding and intended to marry. Such a photograph served a similar purpose for less privileged couples as the formal engagement portrait for the more affluent. Shown to family and friends it would signal their future intentions. Viewed in this way the dialogue with the viewer, as expressed by their poses, seems highly appropriate.

Mary was a cotton-weaver, and James worked as a plate-layer on the railways. They married in 1877 which gives a good approximate date for the photograph. In 1877 Mary was aged c.22 and James 27. After marriage they lived at Hawk Green, Marple in Cheshire. They had 8 children of whom 1 died in early childhood and 2 were killed in France in the First World War.

Careful analysis of the image enables us to identify standard treatment and to pinpoint distinctive or irregular features. If we can discriminate between the usual and the unusual, we can isolate elements which may help us acquire deeper understanding of the subject. In this way photographs can be mined as sources of information rather than undermined as mere illustration.

Images 30 and 31 are portraits of Wigan pit brow lasses. In the second half of the 19th century women were employed to work above ground at collieries in the Wigan area. They attracted public attention in the 1860s as a result of government enquiries into conditions in the coal mines.

A photograph of two pit brow lasses
Image 30 Photographer/Painter: J. Cooper, Wigan. Subject: Two pit brow lasses.
A photograph of four pit brow lasses
Image 31 Photographer/Painter: J. Cooper, Wigan. Subject: Four pit brow lasses.

Images like these were produced for the commercial market, just like the earlier portrait of John Ruskin (Image 13). They were taken by local photographers and sold to visitors as novelties. The lunch baskets and tea cans add interest. These portraits of local colour were the precursors of the picture postcard and similar images depict fishermen and women, milkmaids and so on. They should not be confused with privately commissioned portraits of people in working dress.

Activity 14

Pit brow lasses were distinctive and controversial in Victorian society because they wore trousers. Some even feared that this habit could lead to a loss of femininity and moral degeneration in the wearer. A number of 20th-century critics have described these pictures as titillating and exploitative – the soft porn of the Victorian era!

Can you now identify any evidence in Images 30 and 31 that could be used to support such an interpretation?


The women are photographed with their legs apart. (Do you remember the firm instruction when posing women – ‘the feet never far apart'?) These are the poses conventionally reserved for males. So at the very least the photographer is seeking to emphasize the notion of maleness conferred by the wearing of trousers. This alone must have created a little frisson of excitement for viewers accustomed to contour-concealing, floor-length skirts, though we should bear in mind that these images were sold openly over – and not under – the counter.

In addition I think it reasonable to argue that the poses of the seated woman in Image 30 and the one kneeling in Image 31 are even more suggestive. They lead the eye (and thoughts) to regions that have no exposure elsewhere in the Victorian family album. It is interesting to note that the issue of males and females sitting with their legs wide apart remains contentious today.

I am not quite sure about the significance of the hands on the shoulders. It certainly echoes the male/female pose of the newly-married couple. On the other hand members of the same family can touch each other in the same way. So perhaps here touch denotes comradeship.

Most (though not all) of the women appear to be looking straight at the viewer. As we have already noted, gaze needs to be interpreted in relation to other elements of the image, and in this context the frontal gaze could be regarded as adding a note of challenge and provocation.