Phil Gyford


Sunday 23 November 2003

PreviousIndexNext Statement of a Photographic Man

I recently did some web work at a company based around photo libraries, which reminded me that I never got round to posting the second of two great excerpts from Henry Mayhew’s chronicle of mid-19th century life, London Labour and the London Poor (Amazon UK, US, or the full text online).

This is part of an interview with a guy who had a small photography shop, doing portraits of people for 6d. or a shilling a time. After outlining how he got into this new technology, he goes on to describe some of the scams they pull, the best of which follows…

When we are not busy, we always fill up the time taking specimens for the window. Anybody who’ll sit we take him; or we do one another, and the young woman in the shop who colours [photographs with paint]. Specimens are very useful things to us, for this reason — if anybody comes in a hurry, and won’t give us time to do the picture, then, as we can’t affford to let her go, we sit her and goes through all the business, and I says to Jim, “Get one from the window,” and he takes the first specimen that comes to hand. Then we fold it up in paper, and don’t allow her to see it until she pays for it, and tell her not to expose it to the air for three days, and that if then she doesn’t approve of it and will call again we will take her another. Of course they in general comes back. We have made some queer mistakes doing this. One day a young lady came in, and wouldn’t wait, so Jim takes a specimen from the window, and, as luck would have it, it was the portrait of a widow in her cap. She insisted on opening, and then she said, “This isn’t me; it’s got a widow’s cap, and I was never married in all my life!” Jim answers, “Oh, miss! why it’s a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness” — and so it was, and no lies, but it wasn’t of her — Jim talked to her, and says he, “Why this ain’t a cap, it’s the shadow of the hair” — for she had ringlets — and she positively took it away believing that such was the case; and even promised to send us customers, which she did.

There was another lady that came in a hurry, and would stop if we were not more than a minute; so Jim ups with a specimen, without looking at it, and it was the picture of a woman and her child. We went through the business of focussing the camera, and then gave her the portrait and took the 6d. When she saw it she cries out, “Bless me! there’s a child: I haven’t ne’er a child!” Jim looked at her, and then at the picture, as if comparing, and says he, “It is certainly a wonderful likeness, miss, and one of the best we ever took. It’s the way you sat; and what has occasioned it was a child passing through the yard.” She said she supposed it must be so, and took the portrait away highly delighted.

Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9d. instead of 6d. The fact is, people don’t know their own faces. Half of ‘em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.

[Link to full text updated, 12 November 2016.]


I've read so many victorian authors. I thought I knew something about that time - or indeed the times before. But I've learnt so much just reading this one post. So much, in fact, that I'll have to digest it first.

Posted by Martina on 18 January 2005, 6:55 pm | Link

I would never have imagined this -- how utterly strange! Thank you for writing about it.

I wonder how many people today look at the treasured pictures of long-dead relatives and are actually looking at the "window portraits" of strangers.

Posted by Jennifer on 18 January 2005, 9:59 pm | Link

Nice to see that kidnap photography hasn't changed much over the years.

Posted by Rob on 20 January 2005, 8:15 am | Link

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