One of the bonuses of working on a digitisation project such as the Europeana Libraries Project is the opportunity it provides to reacquaint yourself with some of the library’s collections. As part of my first job here at the Library, on the desk of the old Department of Pictures and Maps, the John Thomas photographic collection was one that I returned to again and again, as a matter of personal interest as well as in relation to my day-to-day work. Twenty years later I find myself again working with this collection as we prepare them for access through the Europeana and European Library websites.
Primarily a commercial photographer, a mainstay of Thomas’s work was the portrait photograph. While looking through some of Thomas’s family portraits recently, I was struck by how even these formal photographs offer an insight into the social mores and aspirations of the late Victorian period. Two photographs in particular, one of the Jones Family (no relation, as far as I know!) and one of a large family group in Chwilog, brought this home to me.
The family photograph was clearly an important event for both families and was an opportunity to express the family’s respectability. For the Jones family this is reflected in their formal dress. But what I find of most interest here is the contrast between the clothes worn by the Jones family and their surroundings – the photograph seems to have been taken in a backstreet or yard. The sheet hung behind them provides the illusion of a more salubrious setting; Thomas would crop his photographs so that the final image would seem to have been taken elsewhere, in this case in a drawing room or library.
For the Chwilog family group, with grandparents, parents and children all in their Sunday best, the photo is also a way of displaying their respectability. However, what I find of most interest here is the inclusion of the horse with the family group. The family it seems has taken the opportunity to record for posterity what was of value to them, from the bonds between family members to the well-kept front garden and a prized possession, the horse.