We Called to See You - Visual Aspects of Victorian and Edwardian Cartes-de-visite Portrait Photographs

This exhibition ran from 17 September 2017 to 16 September 2019. It was a collaboration between the museum and a major private collection.

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Carte-de-visite of man wearing pince-nez

Victorian carte de visite photographs were a novel way of sharing a photographic studio portrait... and many surviving examples feature spectacles, providing us with an interesting social record of the eyewear of the time and the manner in which the sitters cultivated their self-image.

Exhibits from the College's own collection were supported by selected loans from the Ron Cosens Collection, in association with the website www.cartedevisite.co.uk

The exhibition was in three parts. There was a display case in Reception, a display case on the 1st Floor and a number of individual cartes-de-visite or cabinet cards interspersed amongst the permanent displays so as to provide a fresh take on familiar objects. In the Reception display case we acknowledged Victorian values by featuring portraits of women and children first. The men had all retired upstairs, where the exhibition continued.

As featured on the British Photographic History blog.

What were cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards?

Victorian cartes-de-visite, first patented in 1854, were a novel way of sharing a photographic studio portrait... and many surviving examples feature spectacles, providing us with an interesting social record of the eyewear of the time and the manner in which the sitters cultivated their self-image. They were the first photographs to be published en masse and, hence, form a particularly useful early record of real people wearing glasses. They continued in popularity until the First World War.

CDV of an earlier painting
Some of the earliest CDVs were of people who had not lived in the age of popular photography at all! The technique was used to reproduce paintings of the deceased, meaning that those portraits gained a wider audience for the first time. This picture by Fullaway of Stroud was taken of a painting of Ann Bliss. It was annotated to record that Ann died in February 1865 aged 87. The painting apparently showed her in her 80th year, so was painted in either 1856 or 1857. The photograph could have been taken at any time after then, possibly as a memorial.

Cartes-de-visite (CDVs) shared an approximate size with printed or handwritten calling cards and that’s how they got their name – based on a visual similarity rather than a commonality of purpose. They were mostly NOT visiting cards, but rather a way of sharing a portrait image with friends and relatives. Whereas before, distant relatives might know you only from your signature or handwriting, now they could retain a snapshot-in-time of your physical appearance.

Cabinet cards are larger than CDVs and were introduced once the necessary improvement in camera lenses had occurred. They will mostly date from before 1910. They are more useful to collectors wanting to study the smaller details such as spectacles. They also provided more space for the studio to advertise in the margins.

CDVs were profitable because of their potential for mass reproduction. They could be reproduced from the original plates even several years later. Many mounts included wording to the effect that 'Copies can be had' and some would include a reference number to facilitate that. Bigger sizes were available through the use of solar enlargers, but it was the portability of the original size that proved popular.

They really took off in England after 1860 when the Royal Family was pictured, prompting a collecting craze focused on famus people. The reason for the demise of cartes-de-visite is partly bound up in the use of a glass negative to produce them. This meant that processing the images was slow and that CDVs could therefore never be an 'instant' product.

An affordable technology

Surviving price lists and studio advertising material give us an indication of what it may have cost to obtain a set of CDV prints. Typical prices were two shillings for half a dozen prints. A studio sitting and a supply of twelve prints with mounts might cost between four and ten shillings. The huge sales potential of CDVs caused even top studios to offer them. CDVs transcended class, being available from both 'Society' photographers and the more humble local studios. Entrepreneurial studios could also arrange for the photographs to be incorporated in other objects, such as fans, fire screens or wallets.

Handing out a photograph when visiting occured in some limited circles and is thought to have originated as an American custom, as mentioned in an 1855 issue of The Practical Mechanics Journal. In France it would appear that Louis Dodero of Marseilles had also suggested the feasibility of carte-sized portraits and commented on their possible uses.

Almost simultaneously the CDV was granted a French patent (no. 21502) in November 1854, the successful applicant being André Adolphe Eugène Disderi (1819-1889). He was a keen experimenter in photographic imaging techniques and in the 1860s and 1870s he would turn his hand to stereographs. The French patent was for a process whereby the photographer could expose up to ten images for simultaneous printing. The wording makes clear that the intended aim was thereby to lower the unit price.

The four-lens camera was perfected in London by C. Jabey Hughes in 1860 and it was this that proved to be the practical invention that permitted the patented idea to be implemented on a large commercial scale. CDVs took over from cased portrait photographs in the 1860s and 1870s and are recognisable for their near standard (small) size and limited variations of form, often on commercially-supplied mounts that can be quite decorative items in their own right. The photographers bought in printed stocks of card and leather or plastic albums that were mostly French-manufactured, a prominent maker being Marion & Co of Paris.

CDVs can vary in size by up to a few millimetres but books on collecting them state that they are usually around 2.25 inches (57mm) wide x 3.5 inches (89mm) high. In practice, up to eight such images could be fitted onto a single photographic plate. The mounts are usually 2.5 inches (64mm) wide x 4 inches (102mm) high and could be personalised by the studio. This has meant that most historical research into CDVs has centred upon tracing the histories of the studios - there were already nearly 300 photographers in London by end of 1860s - with only limited consideration of the sitters, mainly confined to family history research on known individuals.

F. R. Window (of the London firm Window & Bridge), suggested the potential for a cabinet-sized carte in The Photographic News (18 May 1866), but the concept had to await development of the required camera lenses. Their greater size meant a higher price, but also a larger mount and thus more space on which to advertise. Such advertising was not necessarily confined to the reverse but could also appear in the narrow strip beneath the photographic print. The photographic images on cabinet cards are generally 4 inches (102mm) wide x 5.5 inches (140mm) high and the mounts are typically 4.25 inches (108mm) wide x 6.5 inches (165mm) high. Whilst less convenient to collect, cabinet cards do permit an easier inspection of small details such as spectacles, pince-nez and monocles. It is rare to find a cabinet card later than 1910 although other, some quite similar, forms of photographic portrait were rapidly entering the market.

CDV mentioning name of an optician
William Heath was Optician to the Royal Eye Hospital and photographer by appointment to the late HRH Duke of Edinburgh (Prince Alfred). The partnership between William Heath and Joseph Gould Bullingham (1849-1910) of 24 George Street, Plymouth, was officially dissolved on 31 December 1889. Bullingham subsequently operated in London until at least 1897, while Heath carried on the business in Plymouth under his own name, as he had before joining up with Bullingham in the late 1870s.

The Photographers

A few makers' names recur on a regular basis and will be familiar to many collectors. Prominent CDV studios included, for example, Elliott & Fry, established in Baker Street in 1863, or A & G Taylor (London and branches). Some studios were notable for particular categories of portrait, specialising for example in theatrical portraits. Collectors should not be confused by the occurrence of the French name 'Lafayette'. This photographer began taking portraits circa 1865 and had studios in Dublin, Glasgow and Manchester.

Names of London photographers between 1841 and 1908 have been gathered by the former Christie's specialist, Michael Pritchard. There is a copy of his book in our College Library.

In the UK a few of the photographers were also opticians. This was a common combination in an era when you could also visit many opticians to buy a camera, or some others to have your film developed. Even the profession's journal, founded in 1891, was originally called The Optician and Photographic Trades Journal.

Many early ophthalmic opticians and photographers were adherents of freemasonry. The mounts of CDVs produced for the Oxford Studio (Augustus Scott), 4 Oxford Street, London, bore a prominent Masonic set square and compass, usually on the back and sometimes, as here, on the front as well.

A very interesting survey by Steven Wachlin of Dutch commercial photographers before 1900 records their former and subsequent jobs, for example Roelof Petrus Adels (1810-1875) was an Amsterdam painter who by the mid-1860s worked mainly instead as a photographer. Their ranks also include shopkeepers, pedlars, pharmacists, a watchmaker, a brushmaker, a hat merchant, a labourer, a tobacconist and a civil servant. One later went on to become a tax collector; another became a lodging house keeper. Several of the later practitioners survived until the late 1970s and a few even into the early 1990s, making this period of photographic history seem much closer to our own time.

Viscount Goschen

All classes on show

A few of of our CDVs are of important figures from history. This one is of The Right Hon G. J. Goschen MP and was taken by The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company, 1873-74.

George, 1st Viscount Goschen (1831–1907) was a statesman of whom it is said he was best remembered for being forgotten by Lord Randolph Churchill! He was initially a Liberal, then a Liberal Unionist before joining the Conservative Party by the time of the 1895 General Election. In 1888, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he introduced the Goschen formula to allocate funding for Scotland and Ireland.

This photo can be dated from the colour printed on the mount, which changed from green to red in 1873.

Images of disability

It seems that all sorts of people were attracted to the cheap new medium and there are many portraits of women and children, the middle classes and the lesser sort, even of people with disabilities and disfigurements.

Henry Fawcett MP

Indeed it is suggested that some of the pictures of disabled people were used for charity purposes, sometimes being distributed alongside a plea for financial contributions. This would be an early instance of sympathy-based campaigning and there would appear to be some examples of blind persons being photographed for that very purpose.

The image shown here is a detail from a CDV in the Ron Cosens Collection. It shows Henry Fawcett MP, photographed at the studio of Barraud & Jerrard, London c.1873-80.

Blinded in a shooting accident at the age of 25, Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) became a Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge and was elected to Parliament for Brighton in 1865 and Hackney in1874. He married the future women’s suffrage campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett and introduced the postal order.

You can go and see his memorial statue in Embankment Gardens.

Reliable evidence?

As time went on it became increasingly possible to see much more close-up detail of the sitter. Lenses got faster and artificial light was introduced to many studios that had previously been lit by daylight. One studio promoted its electric light as 'not the least trying to the weakest sight' and quite apart from this claim to warm the heart of any eyecare practitioner,  these developments prompted a general switch from full-body portraits to three-quarters body portraits (circa1870). CDVs are far more likely to show just the head and shoulders if they were taken in or after the 1890s.

close-up photograph of pince-nez

For collectors wanting to study the spectacles, these later photographs may therefore be more rewarding. It should be noted, however, that the eyes of sitters were often turned down to reduce blurring from ocular movements that were unavoidable due to the long exposure times. The pose may not therefore be very natural or typical of the person being depicted. Likewise, early sitters were advised not to dress in overly contrasting tones, so that the exposure processes could cope. This may mean that they did not attend the studio in their usual attire. Examples showing babies wearing spectacles also suggest that some items of eyewear were made available as photographic props and so it cannot always be assumed that a sitter is wearing his or her own glasses.


If you are thinking of collecting CDVs you won't be the first. CDVs represent one of the original collectibles and there was an identifiable hobby for collecting them as far back as the 1860s. Queen Victoria collected 110 albums of photos of royalty and in the USA it was seen as a great hoot to put a portrait of Abraham Lincoln next to your relatives! There was something rather democratic about being able to publish one's own image for distribution (if on a smaller scale) alongside those of the great and the good. CDVs were so cheap that it made no sense to encase them expensively. Instead of being stored in individual cases, some were housed in a leather wallet or a folding frame, but by far the greater number of CDVs ended up being stored in family albums. So popular did this practice become that there were even new patents taken out for the design of albums, including ones that could stay flat when opened. An album for twelve cards cost a shilling, but there were also albums that could cost up to six guineas and store a hundred cards, two or more to a page. Modern collectors can pick up antique CDVs for £3 or £4 generally and 'store' reproductions of them in digital albums for free.

Sir John Hare in another pair of spectacles Sir John Hare in one pair of spectacles

Cabinet photographs of the actor Sir John Hare playing the character Benjamin Goldfinch in the West end hit play A Pair of Spectacles, were very popular and feature a benevolent Goldfinch wearing his own spectacles, or an ill-tempered incarnation once he has mistakenly put on his brother's spectacles.

These cigarette cards issued by Ogden's Tobacco Co. Ltd in 1902 were based on cartes-de-visite of Sir John and show how the CDV portrait format could enjoy an afterlife as another form of collectible item.

Learn more at www.cartedevisite.co.uk