BAVS 2017: Looking at the Victorian Face

Katie Carpenter is a doctoral candidate and visiting teacher in the history department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her doctoral thesis, ‘Science, Housework and Gender in the British Kitchen, 1870 to 1914’, explores how Victorian and Edwardian housewives have experienced, understood and appropriated science and technology in their everyday lives. She’s on Twitter @ktrcarpenter.

The popular image of the Victorian face is one with a stern, rigid expression. As we know, this is a result of the long exposure time required of early photography; sitters would have to hold still with as little movement as possible. At this year’s BAVS Conference, Victorians Unbound: Connections and Intersection, I was confronted with many interesting images of the Victorian face that stimulated discussion on how they are viewed, and ways of looking.


Queen Victoria and her daughter Princess Beatrice, both featuring typically severe expressions. 

Naturally, the panel in which I viewed the most images of the Victorian face was D2: Connections and Intersections: The Victorian Photograph Album Unbound. In her paper ‘On being Victorian: What the photographic portrait reveals’, Dr Margaret Denny established that free from its album, a photograph can lose some of its original meaning. She also put forward the interesting thesis that as surviving photographs move from family to outsiders they experience a re-birth, and are seen again with fresh eyes. This got me thinking about the manner in which we, in the twenty-first century, view the nineteenth-century face. As we view Victorian faces in photographs, paintings and illustrations, they are reborn and reimagined in our eyes.

The inclusion of pets in photography can influence how we see the Victorians. This was a theme explored in two papers at panel D2, ‘Pets in Victorian Family Photograph Album’, presented by Dr Rebecca Preston and written with Dr Jane Hamlett and Dr Lesley Hoskins, and ‘Unleashed: Victorian studio portraits with sitters and dogs’ by Dr Shelagh Mary Ward. Dr Ward made the interesting point that the severe, motionless expression of the Victorian portrait is somewhat softened by the appearance of a furry friend, often displayed on a stand or table in the photograph. Her exact words were, ‘small dogs take the edge off grumpy resting face in Victorian portraits’! Faces of the animals, however, were often only fuzzy blurs of fur, as they couldn’t stay still for the exposure time. The presence of animals in Victorian portraiture gives us some clue to the personality of the subject which is otherwise scarcely detectable from the ‘Victorian’, severe expression of the sitter’s face.


John Alexander (chief clerk to Bow Street Police Court), with his second wife Mary Elizabeth seated with their dog in a garden, 1875. Husband and wife model a softer expression, whilst the setting, alongside the inclusion of the dog and the racquet in Alexander’s hand, suggest this image is intended to be a less formal family portrait. 

The Victorian face does not, of course, only reach us through the medium of photography. I was reminded of this fact when listening to Brandiann Molby’s paper, ‘Dickens, Phiz, and the reader: illustration, narration and interpretation in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House’. In this fascinating paper, Molby demonstrated the role of physiognomy in how characters from Bleak House were represented in the accompanying illustrations by H. K. Browne. The novel’s characters were represented in such a way that their physical features expressed their personality and social class, based on the pseudo-science of physiognomy. Molby argued that these illustrations served as a third narrative perspective in Bleak House, and were interpreted by the reader alongside the omniscient narrator and the character Esther Summerson. In this example, the faces of the depicted characters, and their pseudo-scientifically informed physical features, were read by the Victorians alongside the text. The representation of the face was thus potentially important for the experience of reading the novel.


Illustration from Bleak House by Charles Dickens, drawn by HK Brown, 1852.

The haunting image of the Victorian face continues to be reused and reimagined today. Pawel Stankiewicz’s paper, ‘”My people have something to tell you”: multimodality in Anthony Rhys’s paintings’ drew my attention to a neo-Victorian artist that I was previously unfamiliar with. Anthony Rhys uses a combination of image and text to voice the oppressed. On his website he explains:

‘My people have something to tell you. They are the outcast, institutionalised, poor, hapless and sometimes cruel residents of the farms, towns and valleys of Wales. Places blackened by smoke, sin, hypocrisy and despair. For one fleeting moment their true feelings are captured.’ (

I was struck by the effect of the raw expressions of emotion depicted on the subject’s faces, which seemed not to fit with the same Victorian clothing that we see in photographs, accompanied by their typically severe expressions. The Victorians were, of course, three-dimensional humans that experienced intense emotion and pain. These paintings were a reminder that the Victorian faces that look back at us from old photographs are only a shadow of the people that lived, whose faces and personalities were no doubt full of life and expression.




2 responses to “BAVS 2017: Looking at the Victorian Face

  1. Pingback: Unravelling the Victorian Body | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates·

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