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By Colin Harding on

How to date Victorian photographs

It’s often difficult to establish the details of Victorian photographic studios, but there are some helpful clues and resources that may help you identify them.

Without a doubt, the question I am most frequently asked about Victorian family photographs is: ‘Are there any studio day books or records in existence that would help me date my photographs and identify the sitters?’

Unfortunately, it is very rare for the negatives and business records of local photographic studios to have survived.

Camille Silvy, who had a studio in Bayswater, London, kept daybooks from 1859–1866—a sort of diary listing the details of his sitters together with the date on which their portrait was taken and a file print. In 1904 these daybooks were bought by the National Portrait Gallery in London, where they are now preserved. However, apart from this notable exception I am not aware of any archive which holds photographic portrait studio daybooks from the 19th or earlier 20th centuries. For this reason, family history researchers should be aware that it is extremely unlikely that the negative number written on the back of their photograph will enable them to positively identify who the sitter was.

However, all is not lost. Nearly all Victorian studio portraits include details about the name of the studio and its business address on the cards on which they are mounted. From this information it is usually possible to use local trade directories to date when the photograph was taken—sometimes, if you are lucky, to within a comparatively short time span. From this information, combined with other clues such as the estimated age of the sitter and the clothes they are wearing, you might be able to make an informed guess as to the family relationships between the sitters—who are the parents and who are the siblings.

The Historical Group of the Royal Photographic Society has published a number of directories listing photographers working in many different towns and cities in Britain during the 19th century. For more information, visit the RPS website.

For London-based photographers, the photoLondon website offers an extensive online database of about 9,000 biographical entries relating to photography in 19th century London.

Useful background information and further links are available on the Who Do You Think You Are? magazine website.


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