In the Studio: Setting the Scene

Studio Photography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is datable by a number of visual clues – fashion and dress being the most obvious.  But just as today, fashions in settings, backdrops and poses are recognisable and can help to date an image.  Artificial background scenes, containing architectural detail such as balustrades, walls and plinths, or scenes reminiscent of painted portraits were popular in the 1890’s and these prevailed into the Edwardian period.  In a notebook kept by the teenage Knights-Whittome entitled ‘The Secrets of Photography’ we see a sketch for a background idea.  Whether this is an original idea, or something he had copied from a book or other studio we do not know.

background sketch030

By the 1900’s sketchy, neutral, natural looking backgrounds were becoming increasingly more common.  These were usually hand painted with indistinct details so as not to detract from the sitter.  Undoubtedly, it would have cost more to have your image photographed against a such painted backdrop and in consequence we do see a large number of simple portraits taken simply against a plain white background.  In these images we see just how the photographer would have pulled a plain white screen over in front of his more permanent backdrop.

We were lucky enough to discover printed photographs recording some painted exterior scenes among items deposited with us by the Knights-Whittome family.  Some of these are clearly recognisable in the plates that we have scanned to date. We also have posed images of Knights-Whittome, paint tin and brush in hand, engaged in the act of painting his backdrops.  To what extent these were contrived we do not know. Certainly the images were posed, but whether he was talented enough to create these painted images himself, or whether they were bought in or commissioned, we simply do not know.

Certain back drops appear again and again, but may be photographed at different magnifications to offer different detail and sense of place/atmosphere.

Backdrop no. 2 provides a setting for standing and seated male, female and child portraits:

The steps of background no. 8 appear in numerous portraits.

Background no. 7′s decorative arch provides an element of interest to the seated portrait.

In addition to seeing familiar backdrops in the images we frequently recognise the same chair, the same bench, the same toy in image over image.  We do not know whether Knights-Whittome offered a costume or dress hire service to his clients, but have also recognised the same draped shawl and flower pin on a number of his female sitters.  It seems likely that he maintained a good stock of studio props.

Recognising these patterns is fun but by no means uncommon.  Photographers all over the country would have adopted the same practices, and still do today.  What we do not yet know, and could prove illuminating is whether certain of these props pertain to either the Epsom or Sutton studios.  Uncovering a pattern here could prove very helpful indeed when researching the sitters pictured in the plates.


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