This month’s object is brought to you by guest blogger Abby Matthews, Project Officer of London Borough of Sutton Local Studies & Archives Centre’s The Past on Glass project!
In 2009 one of the oldest known photographs of a dog was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $8,125. The image was a daguerrotype entitled Poodle with Bow on Table, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1850’s. A daguerreotype is a direct positive image that is made in the camera on a highly polished silvered copper plate. The plate was sensitised with chemicals, exposed, and then developed over hot mercury before being fixed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then toned with gold chloride. The earliest process involves a long exposure time of anywhere between 3-15 minutes which made the format wholly impractical for even human portraiture, let alone for the photography of animals. We can’t help but agree with one blogger’s opinion that ‘the capture of such a shot must surely have required one very patient photographer or one heavily sedated dog—or both’.
Among the Knights-Whittome collection in Sutton Archives we have a number of animal portraits. The images from this collection date between 1904-1918 and are shot on gelatin dry glass plate negatives which represent a significant advance in photographic technology from the daguerrotype pictured above. Indeed, the dry plate negative was the first easily mass produced photographic format made available to the market and it revolutionised high street photography. The glass plate preceded film as a photographic medium, and though it was heavy, cumbersome and fragile, the silver gelatin process which enabled the manufacture of dry glass plates had exposure times of less than a second, which offered a vast improvement on the exposure times and control of former techniques.
This said, many of our animal portraits are blurred and indistinct and it is worth reflecting that an exposure time of less than a second is still very slow when compared to modern day shutter speeds of 1/1000 of a second and faster. Far from detract from the images we have, this blurring only lends them a certain charm, imagining as we do the challenges faced by the photographer whose job it was to capture these animals. We are also lucky enough to also have a number of very fine animal portraits – we can only imagine these creatures were exceptionally well behaved (!). Among them is this photograph, of Miss Pothecary’s dog, whose image is the focus for August’s object of the month:
This image is one for which we have little information other than the name of the owner, Miss Pothecary and the year of photography – 1911. Having discovered an additional plate of two human sitters (!) under the name of Pothecary, we set the challenge of linking the plates to one local girl, Emily Bird, who recently came to us from Nonsuch High School for Girls for a week of work experience. This is how she got along…
“Using the date information from the glass plate negative of Miss Pothecary’s dog, I used a variety of websites to discover more about the owner of the dog and her life growing up.
Firstly I searched the 1901 and 1911 census records on Ancestry for a woman with the surname Pothecary, born in the Epsom region. During this period the Epsom region covered Epsom, Ewell, Sutton and Carshalton. I came across a woman named Mildred Pothecary who was born in Wallington in about 1882. In 1911 she was single, aged 29 and living in Sutton.
Along with information about her birth date and birth place, Ancestry also provided an image of the 1911 census for her family which included a list of all the people living in the house at that particular time. I discovered that she lived with her parents named Charles Edward Pothecary and Emily Pothecary. Ancestry also showed me that Mildred died on 12 May 1943 at the age of approximately 61 in Chatham.
Following the discovery of another glass plate with the name Pothecary, picturing a man and a woman, I visited Free BMD in order to discover whether Mildred Pothecary got married. I searched for Mildred Pothecary from 1900 – 1950 in the marriage section of the website and discovered no results. I revised the query by not including the first name and came across Gertrude Emily Pothecary from the Epsom region who married Arnold Shelley. With this information I searched in the birth section of Free BMD from 1880-1885 and found Gertrude Emily Pothecary born in the March quarter of 1881 and Mildred Pothecary born in the March Quarter of 1883. Both the two woman were from the Epsom district, so there was a possible connection between the two.
I then I searched for Mildred Pothecary’s probate information on Ancestry and discovered that she left money for Gertrude Emily Shelley and her husband Arnold Shelley when she died. I now knew that Gertrude Emily was Mildred’s older sister.
Although we did not find a plate for Miss Mildred Pothecary herself, we were able to link the glass plate negative of the dog to the history of her family using just her birth place and date.”
Of the close to 5000 Past on Glass images so far digitised and uploaded to Flickr, there are only 52 images of animals or pets. This is not to say that we will not find more, undoubtedly we will, but comparatively, the trend for photographing one’s canine companions was still uncommon. The practicalities of getting an animal into the studio, not to mention the costs involved in having a professional portrait taken would have been a large consideration. The existence of the plates of these creatures in our collection represents not only a visual record of these pets but the deep strength of feeling that was held by their owners. If we see these portraits in the same light as the images of their human counterparts in the collection, taken as tokens of remembrance of loved and treasured companions, they really do hold just as much significance for the owners who commissioned them, and taken in the context of such uncertain and turbulent times, their value seems all the more understandable.
A reproduction of the print and negative will also be on display in Whitehall’s free exhibition, ‘Dog Days of Summer,’ on at Cheam Library (Church Rd, Sutton SM3 8QH), during regular library opening hours from now to the end of the month.