Ask Morgana 025
When I’m faced by an anonymous portrait from Victorian and Edwardian times, I find myself sometimes imagining a story behind it. I suppose that is my author’s mind at work. Just as often, if not more often, I wonder what the real story is, behind both the photographer and the sitter. In the early years of photography so many women of African heritage must have been born into slavery, or have been the daughters of someone born a slave, or the grand-daughters. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire by and Act of Parliament of 1833. Abraham Lincoln’s famous proclamation was thirty years later, and slavery as a fact persisted beyond that. Even after its abolition, a century had to pass before civil rights began to wash away its taint, and even to this day it can sometimes seem as though living in different skins means living on different planets. Yet here we have these startling, beautiful portraits. Who were these women? Were they members of a slowly-emerging black middle-class who would have patronized a photographer’s studio, or had the photographer, whoever he may have been, hired them as models, created a fiction from clothes that was as false as the painted landscape behind each of them? For whom was each photograph made – for the photographer’s private collection, for family, for a beau, for a belle, for the sitter herself? I don’t believe we will ever know for certain. Maybe some socio-historian will make a thesis from reading the notes of long-dead photographers and gain some kind of insight…
Picture 1, above, copies the art of the miniature painter. It is sentimental, the kind of picture a lover might carry around in a locket. Picture 2 is a striking three-quarter-length study. The subject is stunning, dressed in riding habit and topper, and carrying a crop. Her back is straight, her gaze is imperious and directed straight at the viewer. The imagery is of the turning of the stereotypical tables – she is a Mistress, pure and simple, and I recognise her sisterhood at once. The photographer has posed her against a painted backdrop, but also against a great fur, draped over a chair. The result is utterly perfect. Before you ask – yes, I have known more than one sister Mistress whose heritage is African.
The subject of picture 3 is more relaxed. Her gaze is over the right shoulder of the photographer and the viewer, as though her mind is elsewhere. There are hints of neo-classical and rococo in the painting setting. Her drop earrings are exquisite.
The tilt of the subject’s head in picture 4 gives her an air of innocence, ingenuousness. She is posed with a parasol, like the daughter of a landed family pausing in mid-stroll, with the family estate behind her. The pose of the sitter for picture 5 is as informal and relaxed as her dress is ornate. Her gaze is direct, but there is no challenge, merely a sense of being at ease. Here the tilt of her head seems to be a product of that relaxation and ease, and the symmetry of her beautiful face is emphasised, not broken, by a stray curl.
Subject 6 has been perched on a high stool. Her dress is one of those that describes rather than hides the lines of her body. She holds herself erect, her left hand on her left hip, and in her expression is a hint of impatience, defiance, or resentment.
The subjects of picture 7 are exceptional. This is a fairly well-known and often-reproduced photo on the internet. A relationship of affection, an emotional attachment, a great degree of love is more than hinted at. It is clearly displayed. There is gentleness, mutuality, contentment, and happiness here. There is adoration and the adored. The subjects’ beauty is soft and unforced.
One wonders whether the white dress was chosen for picture 8 in order to provide a deliberate contrast with the sitter’s face and hands, and the highlights on the ornate furniture to echo those on her skin. The face that looks out is serene.
Picture 9 is yet another that appears often on the internet, both in monochrome and in tint. There is speculation that it is not, in fact, a period photograph, but rather one staged in more modern times.
Inevitably I will be asked if I would have devoted such a lot of time to commenting on these pictures if the subjects did not have obvious African heritage. I can’t answer objectively, but I guess that the answer is no, I would not. The reason is, I feel, that race has long been a difficult issue, both for the children of the transplanted and of the transplanters. It has coloured (no pun intended) attitudes, perceptions, and sensibilities, it has complicated narratives and discourse along the way, and this involvement is not yet at an end. Does beauty transcend all this? Inevitably it remains in the eye of the beholder, and in mine these women are beautiful. That’s still the main reason they are here.