An Unforgiving Art
Not to Be Sold: Privacy at Notman’s Studio or Controlling One’s Image in the 19th Century (Part 4 of 6).
We cannot know for certain what motivated all the concerns about images made at Notman’s studio. Social constructs around privacy, gender, commerce, class, and bodily autonomy seem to have guided a number of the restrictions. However, it is reasonable to conclude that Victorians were as driven by the occasional bout of vanity as the rest of us and that this feeling would shape efforts to limit the circulation of both unflattering and flattering images.
FATAL TO WOMEN
In the late 1850s, the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning called photography “fatal to women” because it produced likenesses that were needlessly rigid, making subjects look irritated and ugly. The stakes of visual representation have always been high for women, but photography intensified and broadened expectations to perform femininity in a socially acceptable way.
|You missed the beginning of this series?
Here is the first article Welcome to the Studio
Before photography, the options for portraits were more forgiving. Silhouettes were inexpensive outlines of one’s profile filled in with black ink and conveyed little in the way of details. Painted portraits were accessible to a significantly smaller section of the population and tended to be generously rendered to flatter the sitter.
Barrett Browning’s warning seems prescient for Mrs. Terrett who sat for Notman in 1884. As a young widow with five children, Henrietta Terrett emigrated from Ireland to make a life for her family in Montreal. Despite her accomplishments, the elderly woman captured by Notman looks completely forlorn.
Restriction: Not to be sold to anyone without Mrs. H. Dawson’s permission
Mrs. Terrett might have been a contented soul simply displeased that her daughter, Mrs. Dawson, had commissioned the portrait, but we do know that her daughter carefully restricted circulation of the image. Perhaps driven by vanity on her mother’s behalf, the daughter ordered the studio not to sell the matriarch’s portrait to anyone without Mrs. Dawson’s permission. This directive would seem to include not selling the image to Terrett’s other children, since families were the most likely to purchase copies for their own albums and domestic decoration.
The series Not to Be Sold: Privacy at Notman’s Studio is supported in part by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.