Jayne is a trained dress historian and portrait (photographs and artworks) specialist. A former archivist at the National Portrait Gallery, she has been a freelance picture consultant, writer and lecturer for over 25 years.

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Photograph submitted by John Hersey

Q: The photograph below has come to light recently but, unfortunately, the person depicted is possibly one of two ancestors, with no firm identification. Apologies for the poor copy: the original is in the hands of a relative. We believe it to be an ambrotype. The image is on a thin piece of glass enclosed in a case with a velvet background. Any help with pinpointing the date of the photo would be appreciated.

Jayne's response...

Judging from this scan, this professional studio portrait does appear to be an early type of photograph called an ambrotype - or collodion positive, to use its original name. The wet collodion photographic process, formulated in 1851, used a thin film of collodion poured onto glass, as a base for the image, and this glass plate negative was generally used for making one or more prints. However it was soon discovered that the glass negative could itself become the finished photo, if it was viewed against a black background.

So, by 1851/52, glass ambrotype photographs were being created from the negative, blackened on one side using black shellac (varnish) or a velvet backing. The resulting fragile glass photographs were usually set into a brass surround called a mat, protected under another, thin layer of glass and either framed with a hook for hanging on a wall or presented in a neat folding case, like your ambrotype. Most hinged cases contained just one photograph on the right, the opposite side, or lid, being cushioned with a velvet pad, just as you describe.

In Britain, ambrotypes set in the photographer's studio, like your example (as distinct from those taken outside, mainly by outdoor and travelling photographers) enjoyed only a brief period of popularity. Initial license and patent restrictions concerning use of the process by commercial photographers were not lifted until the end of 1854, so few ambrotypes date from before 1855; then, after just a few years, during the early 1860s they were rendered outmoded by the next photographic format to emerge, the neat, convenient card-mounted carte de visite print. Photographic evidence suggests that most British studio ambrotypes date from within about 8 or 9 years – c.1855-63.

Early Victorian male fashion

It is quite rare for ambrotypes to be labelled, so we don't usually know whereabouts they were taken, by whom, when, or whom they represent. Assuming that yours is British, 1855 is the earliest likely year, and the plain style of the arched surround or mat suggests a year no later than 1859/1860, for by then more decorative mats were becoming fashionable. Looking at the image, your ancestor is seated in the close-up, three-quarter length pose characteristic of this era, facing forward with arm supported on an adjacent table. He is well-dressed and his appearance certainly accords with a mid-century date.

During the 1840s and 1850s a close-fitting frock coat typically tailored in dark cloth was the main male garment, the fashionable slender cut also echoed in the narrow trousers. The waistcoat could be fashioned from a contrasting fabric and its neckline was styled in a deep V-shape, as here. Beneath was worn a starched white shirt and usually a broad black cravat or necktie.

Hair was generally parted and worn rather longish on top, a projecting kink or curl above the ears, as noticed here, a common feature and said to result from the customary wearing of a tall top hat. Above all, this young man's bushy beard should date this image to at least the 1850s, when beards came into vogue. Facially he looks to be aged in his twenties – no older than thirty. Hopefully this age estimate and the c.1855-60 date range will enable you to establish which of your two possible candidates this man is most likely to be.