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27 Feb 2019

Everyday photographs reveal history at the Tenement House: Part 2

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen, Curator Edinburgh & East
A black and white photo of three women. The woman on the left holds an umbrella, and the woman on the right is reading.
Photograph of three unknown women, possibly 1890s (J Beckett, Glasgow and Arran, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)
Today, childhood is documented with hundreds of photographs, videos and other memorabilia. From your very first photograph as a baby, nearly every step of growing up is recorded through photos.

But this was not always the case. The National Trust for Scotland Tenement House collection of photographs gives us a unique opportunity to peek into the early days of photography through photographs of Miss Agnes Toward as a girl in the late 19th century.

School

A black and white photo of 25 school children and a teacher. The front two rows are sitting and the back two rows are standing.
Photograph of pupils at Garnethill Public School (Miss Toward is sixth from left, 2nd row from top), c1895 (unknown photographer, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

This photograph of Miss Toward’s primary school class and teacher at Garnethill Public School looks incredibly similar to the school photographs we see today. It was probably taken around 1895 and Miss Toward is in the second row, sixth from the left. It would have been a very exciting trip for the children to visit a photographic studio.

A black and white photo of 44 school children and two teachers variously sitting and standing in 5 rows.
Photograph of pupils at Garnethill Public School, c1895 (unknown photographer, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

These school photographs use the same techniques as cartes de visite and cabinet cards (see Part 1 for more information about these photography mediums). The popularity of cartes de visite drove the price down, meaning photographs could be used to commemorate day-to-day events, like going to school.

Childhood

A dark black and white photo of a girl in front of a white lace curtain looking out of a window and wearing a white pinafore.
Photograph of Miss Agnes Toward as a girl, c1892 (unknown photographer, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

This is one of few informal photographs of Miss Toward as a child, likely taken around 1892. We don’t know who the photographer was, but it appears to be at home in a casual setting and could have been taken by an amateur photographer and friend of the family.

Many of the photographs in Miss Toward’s collection, especially those compiled into an album early on by her mother, are by professional commercial photographers. As Miss Toward grew older, technology improved and photographic processes became easier. Many amateurs and hobbyists took up photography as a pastime and a new form of expression.

A black and white photo of a girl in white in front of a white lace curtain, standing in front of the seat of a chair.
Photograph of Miss Agnes Toward as a girl, c1888–90 (unknown photographer, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

Miss Toward is slightly younger in this photograph, probably taken around 1888–90 by the same amateur photographer. We can see the same curtain has been used as a backdrop in both portraits. Miss Toward and her mother never owned a camera, so it’s likely this photograph was taken by a friend who dabbled with different photographic processes.

Adolescence

By the 1890s, photographs were regularly printed in newspapers and periodicals by a half-tone process and camera equipment was smaller and easier to handle. The popularity of the carte de visite and cabinet card would continue well into the 20th century, but the prominence of photography in everyday life meant that more people were eager to try their hand at the technology.

A circular black and white photo of a young woman sitting on a bench in a park wearing a white top and dark skirt.
Photograph of Miss Agnes Toward as an adolescent, 1899 (unknown photographer, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

Miss Toward is around 15 years old in this photograph taken in 1899. By this time, photography was becoming fairly common and it was easier than ever to take photographs outdoors in casual settings.

A circular black and white photo of the same young woman wearing the same white top and dark skirt standing in the same park.
Photograph of Miss Agnes Toward as an adolescent, 1899 (unknown photographer, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

This photograph was taken at the same time as the previous one, and is one of several images taken in the same series in various spots in a park. After being printed by an amateur photographer, they were cut by hand into different shapes to fit into card frames. They demonstrate how easy it had become by the first years of the 20th century to take casual photographs.

A black and white photo of a young woman wearing a hat sitting outside. She has a white dog on her lap and a dog at her feet.
Photograph of an unknown young woman with two dogs, 1890s (G Smart, Stirling, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

This photograph from the 1890s, of an unknown girl and her dogs, has been taken outdoors surrounded by greenery, much like Miss Toward’s teenage portraits. Although this photo was probably taken by a hobbyist, the popularity of the carte de visite format held strong. Someone, perhaps Miss Toward or the girl in the photograph, pasted the paper image onto a piece of card from an older carte de visite, possibly to emulate it, although they accidentally pasted it on upside down!

A black and white photo of three women. The woman on the left holds an umbrella, and the woman on the right is reading.
Photograph of three unknown women, possibly 1890s (J Beckett, Glasgow and Arran, © National Trust for Scotland, Tenement House)

Similarly, this photograph of three women was taken outdoors on a sunny day and was later pasted onto an old carte de visite. No longer would photography be an obscure technology taken up only by commercial businessmen, scientists or enigmatic artists. Amateur photographers were more widespread and active than ever before and could experiment with different processes and styles.

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–19, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic archive of mid-20th-century Hebridean life, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.

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