August 7, 2014 by auntkatefirmin
Here’s a story about the dangers of believing what’s written on a photo! Perhaps this could be called false pretenses. Regardless, this may be my favorite family photo. As a bonus, it’s actually sepia-tone!
Based on the note on the back of this photograph, I was content for some years to believe that somewhere in the world there was an Uncle Henry with a daughter Dorothy who was an actress, but I had very little in the way of ideas as to where they entered the family. After a little research it was clear that there was at least a generational mix-up if Dorothy and Henry were part of Aunt Kate’s Firmin family. I discovered that George Firmin did have a brother Henry. Uncle Henry (the uncle of Kate, Constance Trotter, and the letter-writing English cousins) had only one son, also a Henry. Young Henry did have a daughter Dorothy, and I cheerfully contacted a distant cousin related to Dorothy Firmin (an actress who had emigrated to Australia) to ask her if she recognized the woman in the photo. She kindly confirmed that Dorothy the actress was indeed the granddaughter of Henry Firmin and Emma Mews and replied that she had numerous photos of Dorothy, but the person in the photo did not appear to be anyone she recognized. At the time I was less certain than I am now that Dorothy’s grandfather Henry was George’s brother, but that’s a post for another day.
As for Dorothy, I was puzzled but only for a short time. After a moment of closer observation, I realized the obvious. While in theory the photo could have been Dorothy Firmin (1888-1972) in fancy dress as a Victorian of the late 19th century, the actual physical object was most likely older than Dorothy. That in turn lead me to look into how to date the card as an artifact.
It was helpful to carefully describe everything that can be seen about the card. Starting with the front, the card is marked “T Bennett & Son Worcester & Malvern” and therefore cannot be older than 1868 since the Malvern branch did not open until that year. However, the size, paper, and other aspects of the card provide more specific dating evidence.
The card is 11 cm by 16.8 cm, a size known as a cabinet card; the popular cartes de visite are smaller. The sepia-tone photograph, on thin paper that I assume is an albumen print, is mounted on a heavy-weight, shiny, cream colored card with rounded corners that appear to be original; there is no border around the photo and both sides of the card are printed in a brown ink. I’ll get to the subject and her clothing in a minute, but the painted backdrop and the props are very unexceptional.
On the back one of the cousins has charmingly written “Doroathy Firmin | On the Stage. | Uncle Henry’s daughter. | Not got a photograph of him.” The ink from her fountain pen is blue but the other colors are pretty close. Across the top is a remnant of the original tissue paper intended to be wrapped to the front to protect the photographic print. It’s a pity that it’s gone, the tissue was often very decorative and can be another confirmation of the date of the card.
The card is an even cream color across the back but the very slight curve of the card has made the edges appear darker in the scan. The printed information about the photographer is a delightful construction consisting of at least nine type faces. At the bottom is “_ Marion, Imp, Paris _”; Marion being one of a number of suppliers of stock cards for photography businesses and the form of the name with the dashes being helpful in possibly dating the cardstock used. The color and styling of the card back and the arrangement of the printed advertisement are dateable as well as fashions changed frequently.
The portrait number 41329 hand-written on the back is almost as good as a date printed on the card at the time of the sitting – if we had the photographer’s records we could tell nearly the exact date of the print. The addresses on the card of 8 Broad Street, Worcester, and Gazebo House, Church Street, Malvern are also excellent clues but I haven’t needed to follow up with directory listings because there are scans of cartes de visite from Bennett’s establishment that lead me to the guess that this portrait number was issued between 1886 (see example #3 under T Bennett & Son) and 1887. It’s true the scans are of a different size but I’m willing to assume the order numbers are not related to the print size.
I could never have come this close without the wealth of images online. Especially helpful were Victorian and Edwardian Photographs at the Roger Vaughan Photograph Collection and the section on dating old photographs at Photographers of Great Britain & Ireland 1840-1940. Without all these treasures, I would have had to rely on the library and fashion plates for a more approximate date.
With the date so well established and all the parts of the card appearing to be in harmony in terms of the suggested date, I’ll turn to the woman pictured.
The costume in the photo appears to be for some type of fancy dress occasion and is decorated with coins and playing cards; in addition, the woman holds something that looks like a tiny rake in her right hand, has coins on her shoes, a coin necklace, and a headpiece that is a work of art! Since the costume is not everyday wear, it is less useful for dating the photo; still, nothing about it contradicts the date of 1886-87 suggested by the card itself or suggests that this is a reprint or reproduction of an earlier photo. The slim bustle of the outfit corresponds well with those dates. The skirt is rather short for an adult of the Victorian era, and the woman’s hair is worn down which I also think is on the risqué side but that’s part of the persona. My best guess is that the woman is dressed as an attendant at some sort of gambling establishment – although why this would be suitable for fancy dress rather escapes me. Maybe she is dressed in a stage costume for a music hall turn. I’d wear this outfit if I had it! (Anyone who knows more about fancy dress balls, gambling establishment attendants, or knows the name of the little rake please comment.)
Even though the photograph is mis-labeled I would bet that this woman is a Firmin. It’s anybody’s guess as to her age but she strongly resembles other family photographs – I even have a close resemblance to her. There were only three Firmin sisters in the correct era. Aunt Emily (Mrs. Trotter, the mother of Constance) was too proper, too old, and very likely too stout, to ever wear such an outfit in 1886 at age 36 and Aunt Kate (Mrs. Baynham) as the respectable chemist’s wife is also an unlikely candidate even though she would have been slim enough and only about 30. As Amy wrote, Harriet was the “Bohemian” in the family. Unless she’s not a Firmin, it’s got to be Harriet.
I’d like to think this photo is Aunt Harriet on a happy day around 1886, roughly 24 years old, dressed up for a costume party, but I haven’t got a single photograph of her for comparison. If she was not yet a widow she would have been accompanied by her husband Francis Blackley and they would have been doing quite well to attend what must have been an extravagant event – was Francis camera-shy? If she was widowed and doing turns in a music hall, she kept enough of a reputation to be employed as a schoolteacher in 1891. I can’t be sure she appeared professionally as I haven’t found a record of any performances by Harriet – at least under a name I recognize. Harriet’s daughter Felicia was on the stage so I won’t rule out the possibility that Harriet herself took a turn in the limelight (perhaps even literally depending on how modern the theatre was). In fact, in the course of writing this post I’ve just about convinced myself that Harriet tried out a career on-stage, if only briefly.
I think we can assume that when the photo was labeled the photo (probably at the time a letter was written) the cousin knew that Dorothy Firmin was on the stage and made an assumption from there. Simply put, the Aunt Harriet she knew as a girl no longer resembled the woman in the photo and it never occurred to her to connect the photo to Harriet. After all, it had been a long time ago in some mythical past.
While I have discovered quite about about Harriet under all the names she used, I’ve deferred writing a full post for her because there were many sad aspects to her life, and while she is long gone I struggle with sharing details that she clearly hid from the family as being too personal or perhaps even subjecting her to the pity of her relatives. While some points in her life are very fully documented, there are also years with no clues at all. Still it’s an interesting story of discovery and I’ll get there some day.
With all the missing years, I haven’t a clue why Harriet would have been in Worcester or Malvern to have her photo taken as opposed to somewhere closer to London unless she was performing in small venues in some type of music hall circuit.
Fortunately, it’s possible some clues exist in the Felicia Firmin and Roy Lorraine Collection at the Victoria & Albert. Felicia was Harriet’s daughter, and performed as early as 1904. Someday I’ll travel to London and explore the collection to see if there is any hard evidence that could link the photo to Aunt Harriet.
Until then I’ll be happy with my illusions and a great photograph.