Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Anatomy of a Vintage Photograph

So I picked up this photo at lunchtime today from a junk shop for just 70 pence. And the reason I was drawn to it, apart from the fact that I simply love photos of old interiors, is that at first glance it seemed to show really clearly how cabinet photos were used in display.

But one of the wonders of the digital age is the ability to scan things at high resolution and see into the details of the photo. With the naked eye I noticed that there was a photo on the wall behind the photographer reflected in the mirror. On closer inspection it becomes clear that this is a sporting team and, because I've seen a lot of them, I can tell you it's the kind of sporting team photo that you got from rather posh schools with hand-written calligraphy and heraldry on the mount.

This then, suddenly makes sense of the fact that the cabinet photos along the mantle are clearly not a family, they are all young men of about the same age, some of them wearing what can only be an academic mortar boards and many of them, once you are able to look closely, are signed. I had hoped to date the photo from the ceramics because the jug on the mantle is Royal Doulton Dutch Harlem which was produced in the 1880s and certainly there isn't much in the room that doesn't look like it could have been from that period, but then the scan revealed the writing on the trophy cup. Although most of the writing is unclear I am sure it is dated 1914. I also wondered if another of the words on the cup might be Harrow so, returning to the photo in the mirror, and remembering that it is reversed, it's clear that the crest is indeed for Harrow school. It was then I remembered that I have before come across the tradition of the men in a big public school house signing their photos and, though I can't rule out it happens elsewhere, that was at Harrow too.

So, what do we have? My best guess is a housemaster's study where the house trophies are kept. Who is DM? I don't know, presumably the initials of a house master at the school but that's where my research is going to close.

...still, not a bad bit of entertainment for 75p!


MichaelH said...

An intriguing bit of detective work ... The room looks a bit more spartan than I'd expect a housemaster's study to be – it's more like a boy's, and the initials in the chair – presumably a way to label it as a private possession – look more like a boy's handiwork. Another possibility is that it's an undergraduate's room at Oxford or Cambridge – a thought prompted by the fact that the photos on the mantelpiece include several young men in smoking caps.

Self-effacing ghost said...

Absorbing stuff!

I agree with MichaelH that the room is more likely to be a boy's than a master's. I suspect though that the furniture belongs to the school, not the boy, and that DM was merely a bygone pupil who carved his initials into the chair. The old public schools had a remarkable tendency to cherish all the letters so deeply incised by vandals into every available bit of woodwork (and sometimes stonework).

Where I think you may both be mistaken is about the hats in the photos. Those definitely aren't mortar boards - no square horizontal board on top - and while I see the resemblance to smoking caps, I think what we may actually be looking at is tasselled headgear awarded for sporting prowess. The present-day Harrow School Football Fez (shown in this photo) looks rather similar.

I too remember reading about a public school custom of boys exchanging photographic portraits (I think it came up in the memoirs of Anthony Blunt's equally gay brother Wilfrid, who taught at Haileybury and Eton) and I seem to recall it was something done specifically by the leavers. If that was so at Harrow too, then maybe what we have here is the study of a senior boy towards the end of his last term, with his friends' faces lined up on the mantelpiece.

Ray Henry said...

Great detective work. Love the post and the image.

Ray Henry said...

Found the following quote on velvet cap and tassels awarded for sporting prowess:

"To encourage the budding athlete there was an excellent custom of classifying not only the players who attained the first team; but beyond them there were "the Forty" who wore velvet caps with tassels, "the Sixty" who wore velvet caps with silver braid, "the Eighty," and even "the Hundred"—all of whom were posted from time to time, and so stimulated their members to try for the next grade."

The quote is from a book by Wilfred Thomason Grenfell, who attended "Marlborough "College," as we say in England for a large University preparatory school, is situated in Wiltshire..."


Callum said...

So glad you are all having such fun with this one. I think I would point out that this is only an image of one small corner of a room, difficult to make judgements about whether something is 'bare' or not. Also, many masters would have been younger men, unmarried, not known for their use of antimacassars and frou-frou... In the end, of course, we shall never know but the fun is being drawn into a different time for a little while.

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