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Edward Freeman, the venerable history professor in Oxford, had his picture taken in 1888 and proudly he informed Edith Thompson how, for the first time, his picture was to be sold by the photographer. This was a big day for Freeman: he had reached the milestone of being so popular that a photographer expected to make profit by putting copies of his carte-de-visite portrait up for sale. The sensational popularity of the carte-de-visite during the last decades of the nineteenth-century encapsulates the technological innovations, the intensification of consumer and celebrity cultures, and the immense overload of visual signs that shaped the European popular imagination. The latest techniques in photography and printing rendered the carte-de-visite cheap to reproduce. Printed on small cards that often incorporated a facsimile signature of the sitter, the carte-de-visite was also durable. All this made them fashionable collectables among the middle-classes who strove to establish a connection between themselves and their favorite celebrities by possessing their pictures. The marketing capacity of the carte-de-visite photographs was broadly recognized. tennysonArtists, scientists, and politicians sought the opportunity to promote, commodify, and manipulate their public image through portraiture. Much care was taken to achieve the desired “look” that reproduced an idealized image of a “poet,” “scientist,” or an “explorer.” Margaret Oliphant complained how Tennyson assumed in photographs an appearance that “was too emphatically that of a poet… the fine frenzy, the careless picturesqueness, were almost too much.” Tennyson simply “looked the part [of a poet] too well.” Despite the many benefits the carte-de-visite had for marketing and self-fashioning purposes, there were several risks involved in their use that could undermine the promotional value.

Photographers were keen to seek an agreement with their notable customers about making duplicates of their portrait photographs and selling them for profit in their shops. Such a request was of course made only when the sitter was considered famous enough to attract buyers. This explains why Freeman could barely conceal his delight when a respectable photographer had in 1888 proposed this opportunity to him: it confirmed that he had established himself as a publicly recognized historian. For many others who did not share similar honor, the lack of a commodified portrait was a reminder of the opposite. However, once a commercial carte-de-visite was produced, the sitter’s popularity was tested anew. How prominently the carte-de-visite was displayed at the photographer’s shop and how well did it sell caused stress to many sitters as Gerard Curtis has suggested.

The fact that once the carte-de-visite had become commercial merchandise it was beyond its sitter’s control underlined the commodification of celebrities. Some were anxious that they could not influence the way photographers, shopkeepers, and customers handled the portraits. They also feared that sometimes the pictures were treated in such a fashion that a sitter’s reputation could be harmed. A major concern was, as Henry Sampson argued in 1874, that a portrait of someone of respect got “mixed up in the questionable company” in a shop window. Using portraits of actresses as an example he observed how the shop windows were filled with photographs of women whose “chief attraction consists…in their lavish display of limbs and ‘neck’” rather than in their talent in acting. These women had their pictures taken “in the most extraordinary attitudes,” and because of all this, Sampson concluded that the respectable actresses “whose portraits should grace the photographers’ show-case” were hesitant to allow their pictures to appear in such a crowd. Sampson perhaps exaggerated the “respectful” actresses’ reluctance to allow their photographs to be sold at these same shops, but his conclusion about the contamination of a bad reputation was not unfounded. As many celebrity studies have suggested, establishing an association with someone famous has been a popular method for enhancing reputation. Sampson, however, introduced a case where the impact of an association was negative. Having a portrait randomly land in an unwanted company held a risk for a contaminating a reputation.

Freeman did not envisage the fate of his portrait any further on the marketplace in his letter to Thompson. He was simply overjoyed by this token of success. Nonetheless, the notion of a false association injuring a reputation was not strange to him even though he did not extend the risk to the commodification of his portrait. He emphasized constantly the importance reputation had for a historian’s credibility and marketability. He was, therefore, cautious that his name was not associated with those who he did not consider worthy of being called a historian.

 

Sources

Edward A. Freeman to Edith Thompson, 20 May 1888. U DX9/160. Letters from Edward Augustus Freeman to Edith Thompson, Hull History Centre.

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Blathwayt Raymond, “How Celebrities Have Been Photographed”, The Windsor Magazine, II (1895): 639-648.

Sampson Henry, A History of Advertising from the Earliest Times (London: Chatto and Windus, 1874).

The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs M. O. W. Oliphant. Ed. Mrs Harry Coghill (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and sons, 1899, 3rd edn. revised).

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Curtis Gerard, Visual Words: Art and the Material Book in Victorian England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

Giloi Eva, “”So Writes the Hand that Swings the Sword”: Autograph Hunting and Royal Charisma in the German Empire, 1861-1888”, Constructing Charisma: Celebrity, Fame, and Power in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Eds. Edward Berenson & Eva Giloi (New York & Oxford: Bergham Books, 2010): 41-51.

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