Thursday, August 12, 2010


Cartes de Visites
Otago Daily Times , Issue 135, 22 April 1862, Page 5 reprinted from "Once a Week"

We wonder how many people there are in London who have actually seen the National Portrait Gallery! It seems a principle of Government to seek publicity as little as possible, even in cases where they cater for the public only. We question, indeed, if one man in a thousand knows where the effigies of England's departed great are deposited; and even those who seek the whereabouts of the gallery are as likely as not to be disappointed in obtaining admission, for, acting on the old governmental exclusive principle, and the determination to keep people out of their own exhibitions as much as possible, the gallery is permitted to be open only three days in the week. For the thousands annually spent in purchasing portraits, and for the noble gifts made by individuals for the public advantage, the result is that scarcely a dozen persons in the day wend their way to the private house in Great George street, Westminster, where the portrait gallery is established: indeed, we have often been in the room for a couple of hours, without hearing the echo of any footsteps but our own. We have not dwelt upon the general deserted condition of this gallery gratuitously, but for the purpose of contrasting it with the hundred portrait galleries of great and noted Englishmen to be found in our shop windows. Wherever in our fashionable streets we see a crowd congregated before a shop window, there for certain a like number of notabilities are staring back at the crowd, in the shape of cartes de visite. Certainly our street portrait galleries are a great success: no solemn flights of stairs lead to pompous rooms, in which pompous attendants preside with a severe air over pompous portraits; no committee of selection decide on the propriety of hanging certain portraits. Here, on the contrary, social equality is carried to its utmost limit, and Tom Sayers is to be found cheek by jowl with Lord Derby, or Mrs Fry is hung as a pendant to Agnes Willoughby. The only principle governing the selection of the carte de visite portraits is their commercial value, and that depends upon the notability of the person represented.

The commercial value of the human face was never tested, to such an extent as it is at the present moment in these handy photographs. No man, or woman either, knows but that some accident may elevate them to the position of the hero of the hour and, send, up the value of their countenances to a degree they never dreamed of. For instance, after the great fight with Heenan, Sayers was beset with photographers, anxious for the honor of paying for a sitting; but his reply was, "It's no good, gentleman, I've been and sold my mug to Mr, Newbold," that sporting publisher having; seen betimes the advantage of securing the copyright of his phiz. Thus a new source of income has been opened to first-rate photographers, besides the profit arising from taking portraits. A wholesale trade has sprung up with amazing rapidity, and to obtain a good sitter and his permission to sell, his carte de visite, is in itself an annuity to a man. For instance, all our public men are what is termed in the trade, "sure cards," -there is a constant demand for them; a much greater one, indeed, than can be supplied. It must be remembered, that every picture has to be printed from the original negative, and the success of the printing process depends upon the weather; in foggy, dark days, no impressions can be taken from the negative. It is true that negatives can be taken from positives, or from cartes de visit already in existence; but the result is a deterioration of the portrait a plan never resorted to by first class photographers such as Silvi, or Lock, or Mayall, although dishonest persons are to be found who will commit piracy in this manner for money. The public are little aware of the enormous sale of the cartes de visit of celebrated persons. An order will be given by a wholesale house for 10,000, of one individual - thus £400 will be put into, the lucky photographer's pocket who happens to possess the negative. As might have been expected, the chief demand is for the members of the Royal Family. Her Majesty's portraits, which Mr. Mayall alone has taken, sell by the 100,000. No greater tribute to the memory of his late Royal Highness the Prince Consort could have been paid than the fact that within one week from his decease no less than 70,000 of his cartes de visite were ordered from the house of Marion. & .Co., of Regent-street. This house is by far the largest dealer in cartes de visite in the country; indeed, they do as much as all the other houses put together. The wholesale, department of this establishment, devoted to these portraits, is, in itself a sight. To this centre flow all the photographs in the country that "will run." Packed in the drawers and on the shelves are the representatives of thousands of Englishwomen and Englishmen awaiting to be shuffled out to all the leading shops in the country. What a collection of British faces! If a box or two of them were to be sealed up and buried deep in the ground, to be dug up two or three centuries hence, what a prize, they would be to the fortunate finder! Hitherto we have only known our ancestors through the pencils of certain great artists, and the sitters themselves have all belonged to the highest class. Hence we are apt to attribute certain leading, expressions of countenance to our progenitors which are rather owing to the mannerism of the painters than to the sitters. Thus all Reynolds' beauties possess a certain look in common; if we believed his brush without any reserve, we should fancy that the English race of the latter part of the last century were the noblest looking beings that ever trod the earth. No portrait of man or woman ever came from his easel with a mean look. The same may be said of those of Gainsborough and Hoppner, and the result is that all our knowledge of the faces of the last century is purely conventional. But it is far different with the carte de viste (sic). Here we have the very lines that Nature has engraven on our faces, and it can be said of them that no two are alike. The price, again, enables all the better middling classes to have their portraits; and, by the system of exchange, forty of their friends (happy delusion) for two guineas!

Let us imagine, then, a box of such pictures discovered of the time of the Commonwealth, for instance, or a few years later. What would, we give to have such pictures of old Pepys, his wife, and Mistress Nip? Yet treasures such as these we shall be able to hand down to our posterity, for there is little doubt that photographs of the present day will remain perfect, if carefully preserved, for generations. Silvi alone has the negatives of sitters in number equal to the inhabitants of a large country town, and our great thoroughfares are filled with photographers; there are not less than thirty-five in Regent-street alone, and every suburban road swarms with them; can we doubt, therefore, that photographic portraits have been taken by the million? Out of these the great wholesale houses, such as Marion and Co., have the pick. Every day brings up scores of offers of portraits, which are accepted or not, according to circumstances. In many cases the sale is wholly local, in others nearly wholly metropolitan. , Some have a perpetual sale; others, again, run like wildfire for a day, and then fall a dead letter. Some special circumstance or action scatters these portraits wholesale; for instance, the pluck displayed by the Queen of Naples resulted in a sale of, 20,000 of her portraits, and Miss Jolly was only a month ago the rage in Ireland. The sudden death of a great man, as we have before said, is immediately made known to the wholesale carte de visite houses by an influx of orders by telegraph. There was a report the other day that Lord Palmerston was dead, and his carte de visite was immediately in enormous request; and Lord Herbert to this day sells as well as any living celebrity.

Literary men have a constant sale; Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope, are bought for every album. Scientific men, again, sell well but theatrical or operatic celebrities have a run for a short time, owing to some, successful performance and then are not sought for more. The series of Mademoiselle Patti, has, however, already circulated to the extent of 20,000 copies. It is a curious fact that the cartes de visite have for the present entirely superseded all other sized photographic portraits. This is rather singular, inasmuch as we did not adopt it until it had been popular in Paris for three years. Possibly, however, the rage has its foundation in two causes. In the first place, a carte de visite portrait is really a more agreeable-looking likeness than larger ones: it is taken with the middle of the lens, where it is truest, hence it is never out in drawing; and then, again, it rather hides than exaggerates any little roughness of the face, which is so apparent in large-sized portraits. Secondly, when a man, can get forty portraits for a couple of guineas, his vanity, is flattered by being able to distribuee his surplus copies among his friends. It enables every one to possess a picture gallery of those he cares about, as well as those he does not, for we are convinced some people collect them from the mere vanity of showing, or pretending, they have a large acquaintance. There is still another advantage: cartes de visite are taken two at two at a time, stereorcopically, that is, a little out of the same line, hence: solid portraits can be produced by the aid of the stereoscope. When we remember the old style of portrait we were obliged to be contented with, the horrible limning a lover got of his mis mistress for five guineas; the old monthly nurses they made of our mothers; and the resplendent maiden aunts, with gold chains, ' watches, and frightful turbans; and the race of fathers we keep by us in old drawers, gentlemen built up stiffly, and all alike in blue coats and brass buttons, with huge towels round their necks by way of cravats; when we remember the art at the command of the middle classes not forty years since, we are deeply thankful for the kindness of Sol in taking up the pencil and giving us a glimpse of nature once more. But even the great Apollo himself has his mannerism, and it is easy enough to detect a Silvi, a Lock, a Mayall, a Herbert Watkins, a Maull and Polyblank, or a Claudet carte de visite by the manner in which it is posed, or the arrangement of the light upon it. It is a great mistake to suppose that the art of portrait-taking has degenerated into, a mere mechanical trade; the difference, between a good photographic portrait and a bad one is nearly as great as between a good minature and a bad one. How difficult it is to pose a sitter well, and how this difficulty is increased where the artist has to work with the sun! Of old, in the course of three or four sittings, the natural attitude and best expression of the sitter was pretty sure to come out, but now the difficulty is greatly increased; when a picture has to be taken, we say, in half a minute, what natural aptitude the photographic artist ought, to possess, to seize the best attitude and position at once. To produce a good photograph, it requires a thoroughly artistic hand, and that hand must work, also, with the best tools; consequently the lenses, now in use for first-rate work are exceedingly valuable, and the stock of cameras required by the producers of our best cartes de visite costs a little fortune.

Then there is, in addition, all the accessories to make up backgrounds — properties, in fact, — some of them of the stale routine style; for instance, the pillar and the curtain does duty as of old, and many a good honest cockney is made to stand in marble halls, who was never in a nobler mansion than a suburban villa in his life. But there are not wanting details in better taste. The French have composed their cartes de visite in this respect with great skill and art. The most elaborate carved wood-work, the rarest statuettes, the most carefully painted distances, figure in these backgrounds, and are shifted and combined in endless variety, so as to give every portrait some distinctive character of its own. All these things cost a great deal of money, and the tendency is to throw the best business into the hands of a few skilled capitalists; and in London half-a-dozen men entirely command the patronage of the fashionable part of the community.

Monsieur Silvi appears to have made the carte de visite has special study, and has brought to his task all the resources of an artistic mind. No one knows how much depends on the photographer, until he compares a good with a bad sun portrait. That sense of beauty and instinctive art in catching the best momentary pose of the body, is a gift which cannot be picked up as a mechanical trade can be. The gift M. Silvi possesses in an eminent degree. And he not only pursues photography as an art but also as a manufacture; hence the scale and method of his proceedings. A visit of inspection to his studio in Porchester Terrace is full of interest. In walking through the different rooms, you are puzzled to know whether you are in a studio, or a house of business. His photographic rooms are full of choice works of art in endless number; for it is his aim to give as much variety as possible to the accessories in each picture, in order. to accomplish which he is continually changing even his large assortment. Sometimes when a Royal portrait has to be taken, the back-ground is carefully composed beforehand, so as to give a local habitation, as it were, to the figure. The well informed person, without a knowledge even of the originals, may make a shrewd guess at many of the personages in his book of,. Royal portraits by the nature of the accessories about them. Thus, all the surroundings of the Duc de Montpensier's daughter are Spanish, whilst his son's African sojourn is indicated by the tropical scenery. The portraits of members of our own Royal family are surrounded with fitting accessories which stamp their rank. As M. Silvi takes every negative with his own hand, the humblest as well as the most exalted sitter is sure of the best artistic effect that his establishment can produce. This we feel certain is the great secret of M. Silvi's. success, as the skill required in taking a good photograph cannot be deputed to a subordinate. But as we have said, his house is at the same time a counting-house, a laboratory, and printing establishment. One room is found to be full of clerks, keeping the books, for at the West End credit must be given; in another a score of employes are printing from the negatives. A large building has been erected for this purpose in the back garden. In a third room are all the chemicals for preparing the plates; and again in another we see a heap of crucibles glittering with silver. All the clippings of the photographs are here reduced by fire, and the silver upon them is thus recovered. One large apartment is appropriated to the baths in which the cartes de visite are immersed and a feminine clatter of tongues directs us to the room in which the portraits are finally corded and packed up. Every portrait taken is posted in a book, and numbered consecutively. This portrait index contains upwards of 7000 cartes de visite, and a reference to any one of them gives the clue to the whereabouts of the negative. Packed as these negatives are closely in boxes of fifties, they fill a pretty. large room. It is M. Silvi's custom to print fifty of each portrait, forty going to the possessor, and ten remaining in stock, as a supply for freinds (sic). Sometime individuals will, have a couple of hundred impressions, the number varying, of course, according to the extent of the circle. The tact and aptitude of M. Silvi for portrait taking may be estimated when we inform our readers that he has taken from forty to fifty a day with his own hand. The printing is of course purely mechanical, and is performed by subordinates, who have set afloat in the world 700,000 portraits from this studio alone.

In comparing the Parisian and London cartes de visite, it is important to observe the wide difference which exists between the class of portraits that sell. In Paris, actors, and singers, and dancers are in demand, to the exclusion, of all other kinds of portraits. A majority of these portraits, indeed, are aimed at sensual appetites. Statesmen, members of the Legislature, and scientific men, do not sell at all. In England, we know how different it is: we want to know our public men — our great lawyers, painters, literary men, travellers, and priests; in France, there seems to be no respect or reverence for such people — at least, people do not care to invest a couple of francs on their cartes de visite, and consequently they are not produced. The universality of the carte de visite portrait has had the effect of making the public thoroughly acquainted with all its remarkable, men. We know their personality long before we see them. Even the cartes de visite of comparatively unknown persons so completely picture their appearance, that when we meet the originals we seem to have some acquaintance with them. "I know that face, somehow," is the instinctive cogitation, and then we recall the portrait we have a day: or two past seen in the windows. As we all know, the value of the photographic portrait has long been understood by the police, and known thieves have the honor of a picture gallery of their own in Scotland Yard, to which we shall refer in some future paper; but, the paragraph (sic) is also useful for rogues as yet uncaptured and uncondemned. Thus, when Redpath absconded, it was immediately suspected that a negative of him must be lodged at some of our photographers. The inquiry was made, and one of them was found in Mr. Mayall's possession. An order was given for a supply to the detective force, and through its instrumentality the delinquent, though much disguised, was arrested on board a steamer sailing from some port in the north of Europe. Possibly Mr. Peter Morrison's photograph will be brought into requisition, in order to further the purposes of justice. The amusing and interesting facts, in relation to general photography and stereoscopic groups we shall reserve for another paper.

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