Tuesday, 3 December 2013

“If the purpose of writing is to record, how can other objects be textual?”

When I was a child, my parents - being around the age that I am now, and just as inclined toward a similarly neglectful attitude to record keeping – kept all of our family photographs in a large, thick-sided cardboard box. This, in effect, was our family archive, or at least was as close to a family archive as we are still to get. Within it were kept every single photograph that my parents had ever taken since they had been together. As a child this provided no end of fascination to me about the lineage of my own family. From a very young age I did not feel that I belonged in this world and the box of photographs, which was almost as high as me, this archive, was all the proof that I needed of this…

Both of my parents are Scottish but my paternal Grandmother is Italian so, when they first married my parents decamped to Rome where my elder brother was born. There the three of them spent what I can only picture as an edenic few years before they decided to return to grey old Blighty and have me. I have never forgiven them for this. The point of this is that by the time that I was barely eight years old I was already filled with a sense of nostalgia caused by the photographs in the box for periods of time and place that I had either not taken part in or not been cognizant of. Strangely, one of the things that I enjoyed the most was delving into this huge box in the hope of having my mother explain their connection to who I was and how I got to be there. In this delving, my relationship to, and an empathy with, my mother was formed. As Lorraine O’Donnell has stated: “Showing photographs involves storytelling, another narrative act in which the family makes its own history and image.”[1]

This connection between orality and maternity was clearly something that I drew a great deal of comfort and specific personal power from. The connection to a sense of history through photography has remained one of the only constants in my life and as the seemingly tangential threads come together in this form I am reminded of the power of photography as much more than simply that of an image platform. The photograph – as I shall refer to its many convoluted histories – can be at once a Mnemonic device, an anthropological artefact, and a document as well as a picture.

In this essay I will be discussing three largely forgotten forms which photography has taken – the Daguerreotype, the mourning, or post-mortem portrait, and the family album – to describe how a photograph can be a record of the passing of time. This essay is primarily about the many ways in which a photograph can be considered textual, but first and foremost it is also an object which preserves a period of time – and the people within it - forever.

I intend to give a short overview, given the time allowed, of the ways in which a photograph can exist in the world as a socially salient and material object, which, much like the concept of archives, has a life-cycle of its own and carries “meanings [that] are social as well as personal.”[2] Elizabeth Edwards suggests that photographs “demand tactile engagement” and that their materiality is central to the strength of power they have over memory, saying that we need photographs that “can be handled, framed, cut, crumpled, caressed, pinned on a wall, put under a pillow, or wept over”[3]

From the late nineteen seventies and eighties, an increasing amount of scholarly attention has been paid to the ways in which photography has infiltrated the world as a social and cultural device. Informed initially by the ‘material turn’ beginning in anthropology, the subject of photography as social, cultural and mnemonic device is now considered almost commonplace within the socio-anthropological framework. Indeed, within the world of archive and museum studies it is now impossible not to engage with the materiality of an object within ones research.

In the late 1970s and for most of the 1980s, a debate raged within the world of archives (at least in North America) an records management, which centered on the best way to archive non-textual documents within a record-keeping tradition. At this point Canada was a good way ahead in its thinking around the idea of the ‘total archives’ project’ which considered the rather hefty task of documenting all forms of records that made up the whole of history, not just those left behind by its elite.

Terry Cook stated, at the time, that the goal of total archives was “documenting all aspects of human endeavor at every level of society irrespective of medium.”[4] In theory this was all well and good for Canada but it was still rather behind in the actuality of implementing these theories when it came to its record keeping policies. Luciana Duranti identified the need for a series of diplomatic terminology for image-based documents and other media but gave few suggestions for how this could be done[5].

Within a series of articles published in the Journal Archivaria, a number of professionals, most of whom were employed within the Public Archives of Canada, debated as to the best practice for the storage of non-traditional documents as, up to this point, while many ostensibly agreed on the idea of total archives, the issue fell down upon the ways in which these ‘new documents’ would be stored. At this point the Public Archives of Canada departmentalised other forms of media. Were they to be considered as traditional documents and stored alongside them or within separated divisions according to medium?

Terry Cook, who became a sort of de facto leader for those in favor of total integration, complained that the context of an original document was lost once it was placed within the Public Archives of Canada. Forms of media in the sense of “records resulting from modern mass communication techniques”[6] were considered to be of extra importance to the Cook side of the debate, but when it homed in on photography it was considered only ’documentary photographs’ to be of importance as they were considered “unproblematically realistic and transparent carriers of “the past””[7]. Documentary photographs arere ‘evidential’ in nature and could therefore be considered as documents of a sort, but what about other forms of photography such as snapshots and the family albums that often hold them? O’Donnell asks how a records form might reflect its meaning, going on to infer that the social aspect of a photograph inform its meaning. So, where does that leave such photographs as those found in a family album? They might not be considered as documentary evidence, but they still constitute a document; of a life lived, of many lives lived.

In the total archives debate argument, many agreed that photographs possessed evidential over informational value, either as documents belonging in provenance-based fonds or as artistic expressions of their creator. As Elizabeth Edwards and others have pointed out, a photograph, at various periods in the past, has acted as a form of cultural capital that is transferred from person to person like a banknote in a form of social exchange. Duranti, whose articles discuss the interrelationship of physical form and intellectual content, refers to records as tangible physical evidence of a finite activity such as a will or charter[8]. To conclude, Brien Brothman stated in his article some ten years later that the argument largely centered around an ideological fixation on the linguistic form of records, stating that for many historians and archivists “texts have a primary rather than a collateral position in the discipline of history.”[9]

Around the same time, outside of intellectual scholarly reflection, Michael Lesy was making similar pronouncements in his book Time Frames, in which he simply interviewed the owners behind family albums about the lives that they had lived, here the evidentiary and the linguistic were on display within the book. At a time when modes of culture and thought remained heavily departmentalized, Lesy combined ideas based on the history of photography, sociology, and Jungian psychoanalysis to form a multi-disciplinary reading of snapshot photography:

“... I’d claim that the use of photographs as data was of the most remarkable importance for the humanities and social sciences... that it was a thing made to achieve an end like a letter, or to be an end to itself like a poem; that, in either case, it was tangled within a whole culture that was itself pinned within a social structure...”

Prior to this Lesy had published his PHD thesis as the book Wisconsin Death Trip which bore as its images prints made from nineteenth-century glass plate negatives depicting the inhabitants around the area of Black River Falls, Wiconsin between 1865 and the turn of the century. Lesy originally conducted the research that became the book in the mid-seventies when he discovered over five thousand collodian glass plate negatives attributed to one photographer, a Mr. Charles Van Schaik, having literally cracked under their own weight in the attic above the former studio. The heavy glass plates bore the effects of their usage and, on a metaphysical level, one could argue that they bore the psychical as well as the physical imprint of the times in which they were made; the weight and marks of those people existing in one of the coldest, barren parts of the United States in the nineteenth century.

“Many historians have become convinced that there was a major crisis in American life [during this time], some have gone so far as to call it a “psychic crisis” and have attempted to explain its existence or, even more commonly, to use the presumed existence of such a crisis as an explanation, for a wide series of developments in American domestic and international political life”[10]

Prior to the introduction of Wet Plate Colodion by Frederick Scott Archer, the earliest form of photography to reach an international audience was the Dagguerrotype, made famous in France by Louis Jaque Mande Daguerre and his co-inventor Nicephore Niepce and imported to The United States where it was taken up principally along New York, Broadway with a fervour so fierce it earned itself the name: ‘Daguerreotypomanie’. Taking after the silhouette portrait and the physionotrace fashionable in France and England since the late 1700s, it was partly a social necessity that the Daguerreotype came housed within its own casing to keep the delicate surface from damage – behind glass, held in place by pinchbeck foil and enclosed in a gutta-percha hinged case with suede or felt lining. This created a sense of preciousness in the Daguerreotype as both an image and as a physical object. The resultant image, when made well, is astonishingly life-like, due to a combination of the necessarily shiny surface and the razor-sharp focal range of the lenses.

The uniqueness and the image quality of the Daguerreotype gave it an almost holy aura that was intensely personal, moving the press to dub it the ‘mirror with a memory’. The Daguerreotype invited holding, caressing and speaking to, had a physical presence in the world and were unique, so they had a direct indexical relationship with the sitter. As Geoffrey Batchen put it, “as a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.”[11] Roland Barthe makes much of photography’s relationship to its sitter in his book Camera Lucida. Getting closer to the metaphysical aspects of photography’s power as a ‘certificate of presence’, Barthe states:

“The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here…a sot of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze”[12]

This uniqueness of the object and its direct indexicality, created an increased emotional tie to the image at a time when death-rates, particularly in infants were high.  In the United States particularly this created a market for what is now referred to as mourning photography[13]. The commissioning of a mourning portrait could aid in the grief process so that the image of the deceased would help the family members to move on. These early portraits conveyed both a literal and a metaphoric impression that the deceased was still within the family. A contemporary commercial practitioner wrote in his memoir:

“Sometimes, and at the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward.”[14]

Bazin, in his essay ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, states that once we made representations of the dead so that the image would “help us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death.”[15] In this respect, nineteenth century Americans sought to embalm the dead through photography, maintaining the anthropocentric, utilitarian purpose set forth by their ancestors.

In modern psychoanalytical terms normal grief is typified by an ability to move on from the loss of a loved one and develop a new life for oneself outside of that shared with the deceased. Freud believed that “mourning has a quite specific task to perform: its function is to detach the survivors memories and hopes from the dead”[16] Whereas acute grief is described as an inability to disconnect oneself from the dead ‘Love-Object’. Sometimes a fixation on a fetish object can occur and the mourning photograph could serve as such in enabling a ‘turning away from reality’ toward a ‘hallucinatory wish-psychosis’[17] where the photograph becomes a fetishised replacement for the missing ‘Love-Object’.

The importance of touch as a part of the grief process in Victorian mourning photography is not to be underestimated and the need and ability for the mourner to hold and to touch these photographs is central to their ability to console and this clearly helped in their becoming a part of late-Nineteenth Century consumer life. “External symbols represented the physical memory of the deceased, which was especially important in the ‘searching’ period of grief, following the shock of death’[18]

This “conduit of memory”[19] is evident in certain Daguerreotypes, which show a family in mourning, holding another Daguerreotype of a deceased family member, showing that photography’s physicality stood as a totem of memory to many families. As Geoffrey Batchen writes, when we look at a photograph of a family looking at a photograph, it is to “acknowledge their sustenance of memory: someone may be gone but is certainly not forgotten.” The living want, in other words, “to be remembered as remembering”[20]

This last  point can also be applied just as effectively to family albums, which serve for the modern family a similar job to the nineteenth century mourning photograph. The tactility of the album invites us to sit quietly with a book. The contemplation of the images produces emotions in us but the tactility of turning the pages of a family album or scrapbook invites us to engage with them physically. The action of turning the pages reveals new images and invites us to explain each new image as it comes. “We touch and are touched”[21]

One album in my personal collection is a Victorian collection of snapshots taken around the 1890s through the turn of the century. It is a small book with a purple felt cover and the word ‘memories’ embossed into it. Inside are around 4-6 albumen print photographs per page – all feature the same child from a baby, held in her mother and fathers arms, then images of her as a young girl and eventually a young woman where -  assuming she is married or goes to university, the book finishes. One of the most striking aspects of this album is its commitment to a simple linearity – one person, one life. Most family albums and scrapbooks generally tend to be chaotic affairs, with images placed seemingly at random and over vastly different years. What strikes me about this album is the progressive logic of the images. Finally, one can imagine that upon the girl’s embarking upon her own life, this album would have provided a great deal of comfort for her parent’s whose source of joy and love she must have been for them to produce an album so intense and yet so complete.


From having a physical presence in the world, to being a direct referent of the sitter – the photograph and the collection are documents, recordings and objects in one.
Photographs speak to us, they offer us comfort through memories as we hold them in our hands and we speak to them in return. Lesy relates the mnemonic power of the snapshot to the petit madeleine of Proust’s Rememberence of Things Past in that on the surface they might seem as “banal as a teabiscuit”, but it is in their ability to conjure memories and a nostalgia for the past that their strength lies[22]. In this sense, Snapshots carry with them the weight and cultural power of Communion wafers, Sabbath candles or Eleusinian sheaves, in that they stand for something more powerful than their materiality, yet we don’t think of them as having the same rhetorical power[23]. These images have the ability to make us stop in our tracks as we recall a scene from our past. The various forms that photographs take, as discussed here - the Daguerreotype, the mourning photograph and the photographic album - all reveal what Alfred Gell refers to as “a congealed residue of performance and agency in object form” where we, as actors, hold the object, caress it and speak to it[24]. We engage with others and with our own past through the object. In this sense the photograph has agency as an object and its social use is informed by this agency. The visual experience of the possessor is informed in the way the photograph is used as an (social) object. Its social use is as important as any scroll or charter and should be thought of as equally important to our notion of society in the modern age. They are records of the things that have happened to us and the people we are connected to. In this respect a photograph is as important as a written document, as it displays more information than mere text. Michael Baxendall makes a similar argument for 15th century Italian paintings as social documents, stating that “approached in the proper way... the pictures become documents as valid as any charter or parish roll.”[25] A photograph is an object first, and secondly it is a carrier of information that gives us, based on our cultural understandings, information. Thirdly, and most particularly, it is a mnemonic device, and a time-machine.

“Taken together these approaches allow us to see the family photograph as a product of a specific kind of technology lodged in a certain ideological system and as a form of visual expression mediated through ideological rules of representation…..The meaning of a record is determined by the social and historical aspects of its form. Archivists must accept that the history of each physical form is central to understanding the meaning of records, including private records and records not based on words.”[26]


Alpers, Svetlana, ‘The Museum as a Way of Seeing’, in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds. Washington: Smithsonion Institution Press, 1991, pp.25-41

Batchen, Geoffrey, “Snapshots”, Photographies 1: 2, 121-142

Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993

Bazin, Andre, ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), pp.4-9

Boon, James, A. “Why Museums Make Me Sad”, in Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, eds. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, Washington: Smithsonion Institution Press, 1991, 255-277

Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children’, Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 14:2, 2009

Brothman, Brien, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice.”, Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991): 78-100

Cook, Terry and Gordon Dodds; eds, Imagining Archives: Essays and Reflections by Hugh A, Taylor, Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2003

Duranti, Luciana, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science”, Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989), pp.7-27

Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart; eds, Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004

Freud, Sigmund, ‘On Murder, Mourning and Melancholia’, London: Penguin Books, 2005

Jay, Bill, ‘Momento Mori: Photographs of dead babies – the “positive” aspects of a tragic subject’, http://www.billjayonphotography.com/writings.html

Kaplan, Louis, ‘The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer’, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008

Lesy Michael, ‘Time Frames’, New York: Pantheon Books, 1980

Lesy, Michael, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, New York: University of New Mexico Press, Random House Inc.,1973

Metz, Christian, ‘Photography and Fetish’, October, Vol. 34 (Autumn, 1985), pp.81-90

Nora, Pierre, “Les Lieux de Memoire”, Representations 26 (Spring 1989), 7-24

O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994): 105-118

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984

[1] O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994): 105-118
[2] Holland quoted in O’Donnell, p.112
[3] Edwards, Elizabeth, Cited in Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’ p.17
[4] “Archivists document the history of all society, and not just its elite; archivists should acquire all different forms of archival material; they should control the entire life cycle of records; and they should create archival networks” - Terry Cook, quoted in O’Donnell, p.106
[5] Duranti, Luciana, “Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science”, Archivaria 28 (Summer 1989)
[6] O’Donnell, p.107
[7] Ibid, p.107
[8] Duranti, “Diplomatics”
[9] Brothman, Brien, “Orders of Value: Probing the Theoretical Terms of Archival Practice.”, Archivaria 32 (Summer 1991), p.79
[10] Warren I. Susman in his introduction to Michael Lesy’s ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’. Emphasis mine.
[11] Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart; eds, Photographs, Objects, Histories…, p.40
[12] Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993, p.80, my emphasis.
[13] It is also referred to variously as post-mortem portraiture and memorial photography but here I use the term mourning photography.
[14] Cited in Jay, Bill, ‘Momento Mori: Photographs of…’ p. 5
[15] Bazin, Andre, ‘The Ontology of The Photographic Image’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1960), p.4
[16] Freud, Sigmund, ‘Totem and Taboo’ in ‘On Murder Mourning and Melancholia’, p. 65
[17] Ibid, p. 212
[18] Jalland, Pat, Cited in Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’, p. 8
[19] Ibid, p.15
[20] Batchen, Geoffrey, Cited in Flint, Kate, ‘Photographic Memory’, p. 3
[21] Bown, Nicola, ‘Empty Hands and Precious Pictures…’, p. 20
[22] Lesy Michael, ‘Time Frames’, New York, Pantheon Books, 1980, p, 12
[23] Ibid
[24] Gell, Alfred, quoted in EE sound of history, p.31
[25] Baxendall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, p.152. My emphasis.
[26] O’Donnell, Lorraine, “Towards Total Archives: The Form and Meaning of Photographic Records”, Archivaria 38 (Fall 1994), p.113

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Very Short history of the Tintype.

The item I present is known by its vernacular name; Tintype, however it was originally named the Ferrotype (Ferro as in Iron) by Hamilton Smith in 1856 using Frederick Scott Archer's 1852 Wet-Colodion process. The Tintype was produced on Japanned Sheet Iron (not tin) and is similar to the Ambrotype in that both appear as negatives until they are given a black backing - in the case of the Ambrotype it was usually black felt or card, while the Tintype was merely painted black.
The Tintype was one of the first truly democratic forms of photography in that before the advent of what we now think of as Amateur photography by the George Eastman Co. in 1889 there was a huge social gap in who could and would be photographed. The Dageurreotype - the first form of photography, which took off in America  - was an item that for years only the wealthy could afford. By the time that technology trickled down the masses, the Tintype and Ambrotype were relatively inexpensive items, which one could obtain at typical sites and arena's of working class leisure such as county fairs and the seaside. This example is expressed further in the sheer number of 'occupational' tintypes that we see from the period; Tintypes of people posing with their tools of industry, such as iron-workers, postmen and women and especially those employed in the army. The popularity of the Tintype coincided with the start of the American Civil war in 1861 and beat the Dagerreotype and Ambrotype in popularity due to its sheer robustness as a huge number of the items could be sent in the mail. Unless someone purposely did so, the Tintype was very hard to bend and could not shatter like the glass of the Ambrotype or Dageurreotype. Also unlike the others the image itself was usually preserved underneath a layer of varnish, sealing the image to the item, creating a unified object. 
An interesting aside and counterpoint to the above observation is that due to its robust nature, the Tintype became the first form of photographic portraiture that could be defaced with a knife or a pen without destroying the overall pictures, beginning a long and interesting history of images violently distorted by jealous ex-lovers. A whole PHD thesis awaits in the wings there.

The item here is probably from around the 1880s and is displayed within two foil stamped surrounds known as pinchbeck frames and behind glass. This style was inherited from the Dageurreotype which was usually held behind glass, between pinchbeck and all encased within a cloth or fur-lined Gutta-Percha case (Gutta-Percha being the first kind of industrially-molded plastic as far back as the 1840s), however as the Tintype and Ambrotype’s decreased in value and worth, all pretense of appearing in the upwardly mobile guise of a Daguerreotype was slowly done away with – first with the Gutta-percha case then with the pinchbeck foil. As value decreased many Tintype’s were being produced simply in card enclosures, which were usually printed with images of sailboats to donate their use-value as a memento of a fun day out. By the late 1920s and 30s the Tintype had long ago been superseded by George Eastman’s Kodak brand of camera’s as well as many pretenders to that particular crown and the tintype was left high and dry, pedaled out by elderly, itinerant beach and boardwalk photographers as a cheap bit of fun. These lasted – particularly in Scotland – until the early 1950s until they themselves were finally done away with the kind of ‘Happy Snaps’ beach photographers and ‘Walkies’ photographers who dared to broach town centers for their trade.

This Item is small enough that it can be cupped in one hand and many Tintypes, Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes of this period were often produced in this size, which is known as sixth plate and measures around 2.25 x 3.5 inches. The material importance as it is linked to emotion during this period has been explored at length by Geoffrey Batchen, Nancy Martha West and Elizabeth Edwards among others.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Edinburgh's Pioneer Photographers.

I am absolutely loving this video series from Edinburgh Libraries on some of their most notable photographers. The first video was the typical Art School canonical appraisal of Hill & Adamson - kind of a given I guess - but since then they have really delved into the ways in which the history of photography links in with nineteenth century social history, such as in this episode which focuses on the lives and work of David Doull who ran a portrait studio in the city and whose whole collection of glass plate negatives still survive! The other person they focus on is George Morham whose beautiful album of family snapshots proves that in the nineteenth century the term 'amateur' had a very different connotation that it does today.

Its really good to see archives and museums engaging with the past in this way and seems so simple and obvious its a wonder why more do not do the same.

Enjoy the above video and make sure to check out the others. Below are links to some of the images on the Capital Collections and Our Town Stories websites which, like the above videos, are refreshing in their ease of use and audience interaction - the site allowes the viewer to zoom in close to the images and has a lot of information and stories about the people depicted.

Victorian Studio Portraits by David Doull:

George Morham's photographs tell the story of his daughter Florence's childhood growing up in the Grange area of Edinburgh:

Many of them also record his brother Robert's achievements as City Architect during the late 19th Century:

Watch other films in this series:

Edinburgh's Pioneer Photographers Part 1

Edinburgh's Pioneer Photographers Part 2



Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nancy Rexroth - Iowa 1970

 A Woman's Bed · Logan, Ohio · 1970 

from the preface to Nancy Rexroth's Iowa

Group Portrait · Albany, Ohio · 1974

Waving House · Vanceburg, Kentucky · 1975

Friday, 20 September 2013

Connecting the Dots Part 2: The Invention of Childhood.

In order to discuss Victorian attitudes toward the notion of innocence during the nineteenth century first we must look at the inception of the notion of innocence as a concept in western ideology. Before the 17th century there was little understanding as we have today of a childhood that should be cherished as a golden age of innocence[1]. Children were generally thought of as little people until they were old enough to enter the workforce. Childhood initially, was seen in purely economic terms. The coming of the 17th century saw a new parental anxiety familiar to that of our current culture. Reformation and the teachings of John Calvin brought about the concept of a child born in original sin, thought correctible only through rigid discipline, hard work and corporal punishment.

Catholicism of the sixteenth century held that a child was relieved of the burden of original sin once it had been baptized, whereas in Protestantism the Nuremberg Catechism preached that even in the womb, children had “Evyll Lustes and Appetites”[2]. Teaching through catechisms was the main way in which the powers of church and state sought to wean people away from Catholicism and towards Protestantism. Protestants and Puritans agonized endlessly over their children’s inherent sinfulness, so concerned were they about child mortality that they taught their children catechisms – lessons in religion, the knowledge of which was believed to ensure the child’s soul entry into heaven – which they were then required to reiterate to their parents in gruelling question and answer sessions sometimes lasting hours. Catechism texts were so important during this time that out of more than 260 books written for children during the 17th century, almost all were religious save for two books of riddles, a few on sport and a few more on polite behaviour[3]. The repetition of Catechisms literally taught the child to become an adult from an early age and to behave as their adults did.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Dutch had become one of the dominant world powers through aggressive trade tactics and slaving. At home they were family focused and portraits of the time, commissioned around the occasion of the birth of a child, would feature the whole family gathered around the central hearth of a large family home, the literal and symbolic heart of the Dutch home. Despite these strong symbols of family unity, often the children are depicted as miniature men and women, literally shrunken versions of their parents. In the family portrait ‘Ladies Celebrating the Birth of a Child, and Gentlemen Looking on from Behind a Screen, In an Interior’ by Hieronymous Janssens (1624-1693), the newborn baby is depicted like a doll, held aloft by a wet-nurse, while the young children are shown wearing the same clothing and acting in the same manner as their adult counterparts and not as children, suggesting that they were still thought of as miniature adults and not as innocent children. Paintings such as 'A Family in an Interior' by Jan Olis (c.1610-76) were used as symbols of wealth and reputation and through these the reputation and future of the family were seen as more important than the individual needs of the children.

Over in England, in Anthony Van Dyck’s painting of ‘George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham and Lord Francis Villiers’ (1635) the two children, not much more than ten years old, are portrayed in the fashionable adult dress of the period. They adopt the masculine pose of the time, one leg extended forward, feet pointed outward, hands on hips. George stares out at the viewer in a confrontational manner, aware of his powerful status and the influence he has over others, while Francis looks to his older brother with subordinate admiration.

A later painting ‘Portrait of a young girl seated wearing a white dress and a bonnet, a tame bird resting on the arm of her chair, tied with a blue ribbon’, shows a young girl in a bonnet and dress of a grown woman. However, this portrait from the late 1700s suggests a softening of attitudes toward children in wealthy Dutch families. She is presented in a regal fashion, yet has a slightly bemused expression on her face, like that of a child. Although she is depicted seated on an adult sized chair, a tame bird perched on her arm; a focus on the child’s inherent innocence and an interest in her individual identity appears to be coming into play.

In the 18th century, however, under the influence of the Enlightenment, pictures of children slowly began to change. Initially, elite painters in the British Academy such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Henry Raeburn began to depict clients' children less as their future adult roles would indicate but more as a state to be enjoyed and indulged as a new appreciation of childhood, free from adult faults, social evils and sexuality became prevalent. Many of these artists seem to have been operating under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s text Emile (1762). Rousseau, who lived in England between 1765 and 1767, was sceptical of the traditional religious teachings of the time and, declaring that “childhood is unknown”[4], suggested to parents that they raise their children as gently as possible, with toys and games, in simple, loose clothing rather than the heavy, ruffled coats of the period. Before this, there was not really such a thing as children’s clothing or fashion, previously, boys were treated and dressed in the same manner as girls until they were about five or six years of age, at which point they were dressed as adults and expected to behave as such. Rousseau taught that “the first impulses of nature are always right, there is no original sin in the human heart, and the how and why of every vice can be traced”[5]

     By the 1780’s Joshua Reynolds had, as the president of the Royal Academy of Painting, earned himself enough money to spend a large amount of his time on painting whatsoever he desired, which was to paint children. Reynolds often painted beggar children from the streets of London who he would entertain with stories and games, unlike his contemporaries who would whip their young models in order to keep them still, Reynolds sought to capture the natural expressions that came from a child’s delight at being entertained rather than directing them in how a child should look. Frederic George Stephens, in his 1867 book ‘English Children as Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ stated that “Reynolds, of all artists, painted children best…The childless man knew most of childhood, depicted its appearances in the truest and happiest spirit of comedy, entered into its soul with the tenderest, heartiest sympathy, played with the playful, sighed with the sorrowful, and mastered all the craft of infancy”[6]

In the painting by Joshua Reynolds known as ‘The Age of Innocence’, there is a focus on the child as an individual outside of its relationship to the adult world. The fact that the original title ‘Portrait of a Girl’, was changed upon its purchase by the National Gallery, became synonymous with the way in which society was beginning to view its youth. The identity of the little girl has been lost but during this period, Reynolds’ also painted ‘Portrait of Penelope Boothby’, which further heightens the focus on the child and of innocence by presenting her sitting, facing the viewer, but not engaging with us. Instead a melancholy pensive air is captured, as the child appears lost in thought. It is precisely this aspect of the painting which appears to have captured the hearts of the public, coupled with the knowledge that just one year after her portrait was painted Penelope Boothby took ill and died. Like the melancholy pleasure taken in a song of two ill-met lovers, the public seemed to wallow in the tragedy of Penelope Boothby and by the portrait that, at least, captured her in her youth.

By this point, industrialization was bringing more families to the cities from the country and among poor working class families children were viewed as just another part of the workforce. Any notion of a childhood was quickly dispelled by long hours amongst dangerous and dirty machinery. However, the same was not required among the rich and growing bourgeoisie where a new sentimentalism over an idea of childhood innocence was quickly taking shape. The degree of separation between the classes at this time is reflected in Reynolds’ capturing a period of life that many saw as fleeting and useless, further symbolised by the romantic pastoralism of the two scenes. The children of the rich have the freedom to play barefoot amongst the trees while those of the poor go to work in the factories. Reynolds portrays his young sitters, their attention held by something other than the viewer, as "having no class, no gender and no thoughts – of being socially, sexually and psychically innocent”[7] For once these children have nothing to prove, no estate or lineage to uphold as Reynolds allows them, perhaps for the first time, to be children – to be absorbed by childhood.

By the early nineteenth century many large museums and galleries had opened their doors to the lower classes as well as to the wealthy, making the viewing of art an acceptable past-time. Paintings such as ‘The Age of Innocence’ and ‘Portrait of Penelope Boothby’ had caught the imagination of the public and as the availability of cheaper mechanized printing technologies allowed multiple reprints to be made from a single woodblock etching, prints were sold within the gallery as well as multiple ‘bootlegs’. This affordability extended into cheap offset lithography and the possibility to print large batches of goods packaging as well as full colour advertisements.

As the availability of the technology of representation trickled down the classes, so too did the notion of innocence so that all people could afford the portrait of the little girl in ‘The Age of Innocence’. 323 different copies were made and reproduced of ‘The Age of Innocence’ at the time, reflecting the fervor for the representation of childhood and innocence in art that would eventually influence wider society in the way that it viewed its young.

By the late nineteenth century, Boothby fever had truly caught the publics imagination. In 1886 Charles Dodgson, otherwise known to the world as Lewis Carroll had photographed one of his child models, Xie Kitchen, dressed as Penelope Boothby. In 1880, William Luson Thomas, the publisher of the London newspaper The Graphic, commissioned John Everett Millais to paint a portrait of his grand niece, after she had attended a fancy-dress bell as Penelope Boothby. Luson included it as the centrefold for the Christmas edition. It was an immense success, and in 1881 was reproduced as a mezzotint, selling 600,000 copies within days.

At that time, nineteenth century English culture was experiencing something of an eighteenth century ‘mania’ characterized by a renewed enthusiasm for the paintings of Reynolds and Gainsborough and in the popularity of figures such as Boothby. The notion of childhood innocence, to be cherished, saved and protected against the evils of the world became synonymous with a desire for a return to a simpler time. The success of 'Cherry Ripe’ is reflected in what people saw as a nostalgic return to “an England for which the clock had stopped before progress had exacted its emotional, psychological, and social price”[8]. The popularity of Millais’s 'Cherry Ripe', with its evocation of Reynolds, a revered master of English art history, demonstrated the necessity, felt by many Victorian painters to reach into the past in order to forge reassuring images for the present.[9]

The metaphor that the romanticised child stood for was both political and poetic. The child was everything the sophisticated adult was not. Everything the rational man of the Enlightenment was not. “The child was figured as free of adult corruptions; not yet burdened with the weight of responsibility, mortality, and sexuality”[10] Many paintings, advertisements and forms of literature during the nineteenth century played on and exploited Victorians burgeoning and ever evolving ideas of innocence and sentiment, usually combined, that had barely existed in the earlier part of the century.

However, the fervor for nostalgia and sentimentality was being exploited within an abundance of advertisements that used the notion of innocence as a metaphor for cleanliness and thus the use and sale of soap. Along with his ‘Boy with Bubbles’, Millais’ 'Cherry Ripe' were used as early advertising campaigns for Pears soap, which did much for the dissemination of an idealized form of childhood and innocence into the home that would become so over-used that it would come to be known as ‘chocolate-box sentimentalism’.

[1] Higonnet, Anne, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood, Thames and Hudson, London, 1998, p.25
[2] Quoted in Cunningham, Hugh, The Invention Of Childhood, BBC Books, London, 2006, p.66
[3] Sloane, William, Childrens Books in England and America in the Seventeenth Century, New York, 1955, p.7
[4] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile or On Education, tr. Allan Bloom, New York, Basic Books, 1979, p.33
[5] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, tr. G.D.H. Cole, London, Dent, 1993, p. 45
[6] Quoted in: Bradley, Laurel. “From Eden to Empire: John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe” Victorian Studies 34 (1991), p. 182
[7] Higonnet, Anne, Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal Childhood, Thames and Hudson, London, 1998, p.24
[8] Bradley, Laurel. “From Eden to Empire: John Everett Millais’s Cherry Ripe” Victorian Studies 34 (1991), p. 189
[9] ibid p.180
[10] Kincaid, James R, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 1998 p.15