Monday, 6 October 2008

Haunting photos of ancestors: can you read this portrait?

Something about old family portraits makes me feel quite emotional. There is often a certain luminosity about faces captured in sepia in Victorian and Edwardian studios; an innocence, a sense of yearning emotion .... it's difficult to put this poignant quality into words, but if you take a close look at the picture on the left [of a distant cousin, not related by blood] you might know what I mean. I know nothing about this man, apart from his name, but I feel that this portrait reveals so much of his inner life.

[Sydney Edward Christiane, 1905-1958.]

Why are these old portraits able to reveal so many emotions, and to stir emotions in us? Is it because the sitter had to remain perfectly still while the shutter sluggishly opened and closed? Is it because having a portrait taken was an expensive and serious business, and no occasion for cheesy grins or fingers held up in rabbit-ear formation? Or, perhaps, is it because the sitters are all long dead, and we, their descendants, knowing what happened to them in the unfolding decades of their lives, read into these faces profound emotions that were, actually, expressions of, say, boredom or frustration?

I don't know. But here's a challenge for you. Take a look a the face on the left. This picture, taken around 1910, is of an ancestor of mine, my great-great aunt.

I know a lot about her - she left a fairly extensive diary - her family, and her life. But perhaps I am reading things into the picture that just aren't there. Are you able to discern anything about her personality? What do her eyes tell you, and what does her mouth betray? Was she a bright spark? A dullard? Was she feisty or passive? Pliant or stubborn? Calm, or excitable? Open and honest, or secretive? Happy, sad, angry, contented, frustrated, depressed - or a bit of all?

Answers on a postcard. Or just leave a comment.

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Gloria said...

th, soft eyes, perhaps she was fond of the Photographer? She's a beauty - what does her diary tell you?

Gloria said...

Who doesn't want me to say this??? I know I typed it, but it didn't show! She has a very sensual mouth, soft eyes etc.

Muriel said...

Kate Atkinson's fabulous book, 'Behind the Scenes at the Museum', hinges partly on one of these old-time photos and how it came be be taken (and how the mother in the pic ran away with the photographer...!). If you're into what stories old photographs harbour, this is a must-read.

meggie said...

My heart flipped when I saw the young man. I thought it was a relation of mine, but the name did not fit.

I see a sensual face of the woman in the 2nd photo. I am sure she loved passionately. Perhaps she married mistakenly?
I am sure she was very intelligent, & her eyes are wonderful, but perhaps a little sad?

Juno said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juno said...

Thanks Mur, Meggie.

Mur - read the book, and LOVED it.

Meggie, maybe he is an ancestor of yours... it is a very small world.

You are spot on about the face. She was extremely intelligent, perhaps formidably so, but, as an Edwardian woman, was denied a proper education. Married mistakenly - no, but most of the women in her family did! Sensual and passionate, yes. She fell in love, at a distance, with a man she had not met - and would never meet. Sad eyes? Hmmm. Maybe this is just hindsight, but a great tragedy happened just after this picture was taken - but not to her.

Sorry to be cryptic, but I can't help it.