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Picturing the family
Picturing the family

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5.7.2 Post-mortems

Activity 22

How do Images 73 and 74 differ from the usual studio portraits of children? Make a note of the more obvious differences.

A photograph of a child
Image 73 Photographer/Painter: William Ash, Newington Causeway. Subject: Unknown child, 1880s.
A photograph of a child
Image 74 Photographer/Painter: Adams & Stilliard, Southampton. Subject: Unknown child, 1875.

Answer

The children have their eyes closed. They appear to be posed in some sort of arrangement of blankets or covers. The backgrounds and accessories (or what you can see of them) don't conform to the usual pattern.

A tiny minority of people in Victorian Britain commissioned post-mortem portraits. Post-mortem portraits were usually taken in the family home. In all aspects of the posthumous portrait, such as the positioning of the body, the arrangement of draperies and lighting of the face, the aim was to soften the hard realities of death and suggest instead the tranquillity of sleep.

The purpose of the post-mortem photograph was to act as a palliative. Just as they sought to idealize in portraits taken from life, so Victorian photographers consciously attempted to ameliorate the uncompromising reality of death by suggesting a kinder, gentler, more familiar state of being. Such a picture was justified on the grounds that it would help dispel sorrow and bring solace and comfort in its place.

A photograph of a child
Image 75: Photographer/Painter: W. Smith, Cross Roads. Subject: Maud Mary Binns, 1888. Post-mortem portrait.

Image 75 is the post-mortem portrait of Mary Maud Binns, presumably photographed in bed in the family home. Although the inscription on the verso gives the date of death as 2 August 1888, her death certificate records that she died of pneumonia on 21 September 1888. (Remember the importance of checking apparently reliable sources.) Maud's father was a grocer and the family lived at Cross Roads, Bingley, near Keighley in Yorkshire. The photographer, W. Smith, was local and therefore readily available. His work suggests that he was not a high-class operator.