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Picturing the family
Picturing the family

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4.8 Backgrounds and accessories


By now you have sufficient familiarity with early portraits to know that photographers regularly used painted backdrops and accessories to create a sort of stage set within the studio. These backgrounds came into widespread use with the introduction of the carte de visite in c.1860. Until the Second World War, 2 scenarios remained popular: the interior setting with windows, curtains, table and chair; and the parkland setting with trees, balustrade, rustic bench or stile. This choice of backdrop provides the most visible evidence of photography's debt to portrait painting.

Activity 15

Study this (I think) lovely picture of Hiram and Lily Broadhurst with their sons George and Arthur, taken in 1911. It provides a good example of a painted interior backdrop which includes wainscoting, French windows and floor-length curtaining. We know that Hiram Broadhurst worked in the tram sheds in Denton near Manchester when this portrait was taken.

What purpose does the backdrop serve in the portrait? For example, do the painted backdrops have any connection with the theory of idealization?

A photograph of Hiram and Lily Broadhurst with their sons, George and Arthur
Image 32: Photographer/Painter: Anon. Subject: Hiram and Lily Broadhurst with their sons, George and Arthur, 1911.


The backdrop confers anonymity by divorcing people from their actual settings and circumstances.

At the same time the backdrops hint at wealth and elegant lifestyles. For instance, wainscoting and French windows conjure up ideas of traditional, gracious rectories in the home counties; appointments which did not feature in the terraced houses of the industrial city. Indeed Hiram and Lily Broadhurst would have counted themselves very fortunate to rent a house with a bay window and an inside toilet!

So we can conclude that backdrops were indeed intended to play a part in the idealization process.