Deciphering the Envelopes

We are now into our third month of working with a great team of volunteers and have clocked up a grand total of close to 700 plates catalogued and/or scanned.  It’s been slow progress getting started but we’re hoping to pick up pace as we go. Having accrued a decent amount of scans, we’re beginning to understand Knights-Whittome’s working patterns and practices a little more, although they are not without their issues. While his numbering system is clearly sequential and has some logic, it can often be inconsistent, especially with regard to double exposures and duplicate plates  – and the less said about some of the handwriting on the original envelopes the better – although to be fair to the man himself, there are various hands at work and many envelopes have been written with ink which has bled into the paper, making them almost impossible to decipher. This is a shame as sadly, while we do have a very few letters, early diaries/notebooks and accounts, there are no ledgers to offer us further information about the numbering of plates or the sitters, so these envelopes are our only real source of information and will form the basis of any research which we are able to do.

As well as a unique number, each envelope contains information about the surname or location of the subject, a date, plus additional information relating to orders placed by the clients. Interpretation of the names on the envelopes is a very subjective process and allows for a huge amount of error, so we are aware that we may hit some stumbling blocks in trying to locate these people on local census records – although we have had some success so far and will blog about these in later posts. Alongside the commonplace Allens, Coopers, Clarks and Coles we have also found a huge number of incongruous names which have raised a few eyebrows in the Archive….Farwig, Cateiff, Entinapp, Fiddyment & Fenelhoult…? Some of these are undoubtedly mis-spelt or misinterpreted but we have found that some are indeed correct – as you can imagine this can be both a boon or a huge fly in the ointment in terms of researching the sitters!  As a safety measure, all original envelopes are being scanned so we have a permanent, accessible record of this vital material.

Disappointingly the numbering has not yet revealed to us a clear divide between plates made in Epsom and those in Sutton.  We can see painted backdrops and familiar props and items of costume cropping up over and again in his studio portraiture and are hoping that these may, in time, be a clue to distinguishing between the different studios – if indeed we have plates from both. In the meanwhile, the job of deciphering these vital documents is proving a daily but intriguing challenge!

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