A Victorian Portrait

By: Asa Briggs


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Victorian Life and Values as Seen through the Work of Studio Photographers

A Victorian Portrait vividly depicts the social life of a nation from royalty down to the humblest artisan and labourer. It gives us a direct insight into the society of our great grandparents, allowing us to reassess the Victorians’ views on love, progress, self-help, work, leisure, empire, art, pride and salvation.













    • RRP: £25.00
    • ISBN: 978-0-304-31837-7
    • Format: 305  x 227  mm
    • Pictures: 175 sepia and b/w, 75 colour
    • Binding: Hardback
    • Extent: 220 pages
    • Rights: All available
    • Edition: 1st

    Victorian Life and Values as Seen through the Work of Studio Photographers

    The second half of the 19th century was a period of quite unprecedented change, an age of new technology and new ideas, during which the Victorians sought an identity and an image. Technology came up with the perfect answer: photography. Suddenly ordinary people had the opportunity to obtain a visual image of themselves, of family and friends, royalty and politicians, poets, actors and sportsmen at very low cost. The new hobby of collecting portraits soon became an obsession, spreading across North America, Europe and out to the trading posts of the Empire. This has left us with an exceptional legacy – one that has often been overlooked as an important historical source. For here we see the Victorians, both as they wished to be seen and as they really were. A Victorian Portrait draws on a previously unpublished archive of more than 10,000 portraits as well as a broad range of other visual material. New colour photography displays the beautifully decorated albums in which the Victorians collected their portraits, the card mounts edged and inscribed in gold and the photographic equipment of the studios.


    Chapter 1: Portrait and Portraits

    Chapter 2: Progress

    Chapter 3: Self-Help

    Chapter 4: Work

    Chapter 5: Leisure

    Chapter 6: Love

    Chapter 7: Pride

    Chapter 8: Empire

    Chapter 9: Salvation

    Chapter 10: Inspiration


    Collecting Victorian Photographs

    Picture Credits


    Asa Briggs was born at Keighley, Yorkshire, in 1921 and took his first degree in History and Economics. In the course of a distinguished career, he has been Professor of Modern History at Leeds University (1955-61) and Professor of History at the University of Sussex, where he was Vice-Chancellor from 1967 to 1976.

    His main field of interest is the social and cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries, on which he has written many books, including The Age of Improvement, Victorian People, Victorian Cities, Victorian Things, A Social History of England and a four-volume history of broadcasting.

    Lord Briggs was made a life peer in 1976 and became Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, later that same year. Since 1978 he has also been Chancellor of the Open University. He is married with four children



    A Victorian group portrait[/caption]The most brilliant of all essays on Victorian England is called Portrait of an Age. Its author, G. M. Young, writing during the early 1930s and trying to explain what the Victorians were really like, had a strong visual sense. ‘Every one of us’, he claimed, ‘lives in a landscape of his own.’

    Young described how things changed – or did not change – in the years between Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 and her funeral in 1901, catching the light and the shade. Yet he had nothing to say about photography, the great nineteenth-century invention which changed ways both of viewing and of recording the world. Photography was a triumph of science, but could be conceived of and practised both as an art and as a trade.


    As photography developed there was an increasing interest, expressed also in museums of anthropology, in ‘native ways’. In cartes-de-visite and stereographs the ‘natives’ themselves were sometimes treated as exotic specimens, not least when they were produced, as some were, not in London but in Auckland, Melbourne or Durban. There were many ‘natives’, however, particularly American Indians, who clearly appealed sympathetically to their photographers. There was a strong sense, too, among some photographers that they were recording dress and ways of life that were under threat and that would soon disappear. In Britain anthropologists like the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum, which moved to Oxford in 1883, regarded photographs as so important an adjunct to a museum, that he tried ‘to buy all I can’. Only photographs now remain of the aboriginal inhabitants of Tasmania.