Sarah Hook is a DPhil student at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her research explores the shared world in which portraits and texts were read to consider why Victorian writers and their critics so often turned to the language and space of portraiture to reflect upon their literary art. Sarah’s thesis is an interdisciplinary study of reading the portrait gallery. Taking its starting point with the opening of the National Portrait Gallery’s doors in 1856, the thesis examines the unique culture of portraiture that arose in the mid- to late-nineteenth century to reveal that the portrait served as a particularly evocative object for the Victorian literary imagination. Sarah’s doctoral study is kindly supported by a scholarship provided in conjunction with The Wolfson Foundation. Alongside her research, Sarah works as Books Editor for the online journal Victorian Network.
The Victorians saw more portraits than any generation before them. With the invention of photography mid-century and with technological advances in low-cost printing methods, the medium in which faces could be recorded was revolutionised, the classes of society that could afford to be immortalised expanded, and the spaces in which portraits were seen proliferated. The Victorians were fascinated by faces and they looked upon photographic likenesses of themselves, loved ones, and celebrities with anxiety, delight, and amusement. The 1860s saw the rise of the carte de visite, a nine-by-six-centimetre photograph mounted upon card. Photography studio shop windows subsequently multiplied the number of portrait galleries, pulling exhibition space from the public institution onto the street, before portrait galleries entered the home in the form of photograph albums. As a result, Andrew Wynter declared in 1870, cartes came to represent ‘the democracy of portraiture’.[i] Against this backdrop of circulating cartes, being passed from hand to hand, a particular collection of celebrity card portraits could be found in an unusual place in the closing decades of the century: inside cigarette packets.
Seen with his recognisable moustache and identified as the man who ‘wrote “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, “Jude the Obscure”, and other famous novels’, Thomas Hardy can be seen on one such card portrait that circulated inside cigarette packets.[ii] In 1894 Hardy was photographed by Francis Henry Hart for Elliott and Fry, who distributed the portraits of many literary figures in the late nineteenth century. As well as being sold in shop windows, Hardy’s portrait was used by the leading tobacco company Ogden on a cigarette card and distributed between the years 1895 and 1907. While the choice of Hardy as subject marks his celebrity status, the card is not primarily an advertisement for Hardy’s novels but for Ogden’s Guinea Gold Cigarettes. Furthermore, the card’s initial function was a distinctly practical one: to stiffen the delicate cigarette packaging and to protect the product inside. Ogden’s use of the photographic process transformed the trading card into an item of portraiture, but, since the image is primarily superfluous, to what extent does the card function as a portrait and what does this mean for the carte?
The problematic nature of portrait photograph encounters in the nineteenth century can be observed keeping Bill Brown’s enquiry into ‘the thingness of objects’ in mind, considering what happens when objects ‘stop working for us’.[iii] With its shifting significance as both image and object, what was the card portrait’s typical function in the nineteenth century and when did it stop ‘working’? The photographs in Ogden’s collection are distinguished by their secondary life and function beyond the portrait’s primary role as a likeness.
Hardy features on card number eighty three, part of a series comprising up to twenty thousand.[iv] He was one of many novelists, artists, actors, and royalty to appear in Ogden’s parade of illustrious figures in the 1890s and early twentieth century. Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, and G. F. Watts all appeared on cards; so too did Thomas Carlyle, Leo Tolstoy, Sarah Bernhardt, and Queen Alexandra. The cards grew so popular as collectors’ items that it was almost inconceivable in these decades for a Victorian to open a packet of cigarettes and not find one inside; ‘maybe they looked at it and tossed it away, perhaps it was given to one of the band of small boys who used cards for a variety of ingenious playground games, but often it was kept, treasured and mounted in one of the special albums’.[v]
The heightened ‘objectness’ of the cigarette card exposes the photographic carte as another item of ephemera. It is telling that the format of the carte was determined not by the size of the photographic likeness, but by the mount upon which it was pasted for support. The mounts were manufactured to a standard size; the photograph would be trimmed to fit the card rather than the other way around. The carte could be purchased not only from photographic studios, but also from print shops, stationers, booksellers, and novelty emporia – sold not only amongst a crowd of other faces, but also amid crowds of other common objects. A piece of ‘Fine-Art Gossip’ in The Athenæum in 1863 comprised a studio advertisement strikingly offering ‘your likeness and a cigar for sixpence’.[vi] Through the format and function of the carte, the portrait was democratised in a second sense as an object, to the point that it was removed so far from the institution of the gallery that it appeared in cigarette packets. The material context of the cigarette packet stretches the carte’s identity and the function of portraiture to their very limits. What is typical of the nineteenth-century card portrait proves difficult to pin down.
In an unsettling episode in Hardy’s 1895 novel Jude the Obscure, Jude enters a ‘dingy broker’s shop’ and, ‘amid a heterogeneous collection of saucepans, a clotheshorse, rolling pin, brass candlestick, swing looking-glass, and other things at the back of the shop, evidently just bought from a sale’, perceives ‘a framed photograph, which turned out to be his own portrait’.[vii] Despite its precious provenance as a gift for his wife on their wedding day, Jude purchases his portrait for the price of the frame at one shilling. The broker, unaware that the original of the portrait is standing in front of him, determines that ‘“the frame is a very useful one, if you take out the likeness”’. Perhaps the likeness bears a poor resemblance to Jude. The faults of the photographic art aside, although not a bargain for someone on a stonemason’s salary, a shilling is a reasonable price for a portrait. It is also a small price to pay to remove oneself from the public market place.
Perceived as no longer having emotional significance, the portrait is worth nothing while the frame can be recycled to house a different face. Indeed, for the reader, as for the broker, Jude’s photograph means nothing as an image. Hardy omits all description of the face the photograph visually depicts, preventing the reader from undertaking the typical practice of interpreting Jude’s character from his likeness. The photograph that is framed in ‘bird’s eye maple’ and inscribed with the dedication ‘“Jude to Arabella”’ as a sign of its former significance is reduced to its very materiality, to become valueless compared to the frame and seemingly no more important than a second-hand clotheshorse. In Jude’s eyes however, the photograph is worth nothing, but signifies everything. He burns the photograph and frame together.
Portrait photographs are frequently exchanged, hidden, found, and sent in the post in Hardy’s novels. The photograph is never more an everyday object in Hardy’s novels than when it is in Tabitha Lark’s possession in Two on a Tower (1882). In a seemingly insignificant moment, Hardy presents another catalogue of objects, this one found in Tabitha’s pocket. During a sermon, Tabitha pulls out a handkerchief intending to ‘flap’ the organ blower awake from his slumber; but ‘with the handkerchief tumbled out a whole family of unexpected articles: a silver thimble; item, a photograph; item, a little purse; item, a scent-bottle; item, some loose halfpence; item, nine green gooseberries; item, a key’.[viii] Tabitha is a minor player in the novel’s romance plot, but Hardy permits the reader to see the intimate contents of her pocket and thereby invites us to participate in ‘the smiles of the neighbours’ in church. When Swithin helps gather the items from the floor, the occasion has the potential to become the flirtatious ‘little adventure’ between future lovers imagined by one of the observers.[ix] Yet the monotonous repetition of ‘item’ restrains the romantically eclectic family of objects as a strikingly mundane inventory. The photograph that could tell a love story similar to that involving Jude goes unnoticed as the second object in a common collection.
In her study of the meaning of things in the Victorian novel, Elaine Freedgood notes how the genre ‘describes, catalogues, quantifies, and in general showers us with things: post chaises, handkerchiefs, moonstones, wills, riding crops, ships’ instruments of all kinds, dresses of muslin, merino, and silk, coffee, claret, cutlets – cavalcades of objects threaten to crowd the narrative right off the page’.[x] The portrait photograph is another crucial example. While it is overlooked within Tabitha’s family of items, the nineteenth-century card portrait has a lot to tell. It was a distinctly Victorian object whose social history was based upon its identity precisely as one in a mass. Hardy’s photograph, like that of his hero Jude, became a form of portable property for sale. Like the photograph that tumbles from Tabitha’s pocket, Hardy might have tumbled from the pockets of many Victorians. Both precious and common, Hardy on the cigarette card can now be found in the National Portrait Gallery archive, protected in a plastic sleeve, and on eBay selling for ninety nine pence.
[i] Andrew Wynter, ‘Cartes de Visite’, in Curiosities of Toil and Other Papers, 2 vols (London: Chapman and Hall, 1870), ii, 112-34 (p. 112).
[ii] The National Portrait Gallery, London, holds a significant collection of Ogden’s Guinea Gold cigarette cards, published c. 1894-1907. A digitised catalogue of the collection can be found online: http://www.npg.org.uk/ [accessed 23 March 2016].
[iii] Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Enquiry, 28.1 (Autumn 2001), pp. 1-22 (p. 4).
[iv] For a catalogue of all the cigarette cards distributed by Ogden’s, including the Guinea Gold series, see The Cigarette Card Issues of Ogden’s Ltd. (Boston, Lincolnshire: Cartophilic Society of Great Britain Ltd., 2005).
[v] Gordon Howsden, Collecting Cigarette and Trade Cards (London: New Cavendish Books, 1995), p. 7.
[vi] [Unsigned], ‘Fine-Art Gossip’, The Athenæum (10 June 1863), pp. 787-88 (p. 788).
[vii] Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure, ed. Patricia Ingham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 67.
[viii] Hardy, Two on a Tower: A Romance, ed. Sally Shuttleworth (London: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 146. I quote the novel’s first volume publication (October 1882), since the repetition of ‘item’ was curiously omitted in the revised editions with Osgood in 1895 and Macmillan in 1912. Two on a Tower was first published serially in the American magazine Atlantic Monthly, May to December 1882.
[ix] Hardy, Two on a Tower, p. 156.
[x] Elaine Freedgood, The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel (London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 1.