Cabinet Card tales

Cabinet Card tales

I don’t collect Victorian cabinet cards. Indeed, I own only one. And I didn’t buy it—as I do most photos in my collection—for the image on the front. I bought it because of the Studio stamp on the back. I found it in a box at a vintage fair. When I turned it over I spotted the address of W Wright’s studio: 188, 189, 190 Bethnal Green Road and the date, 1888. Number ‘188-190’ Bethnal Green Road is close to where I live, indeed I walk past its location every day. I say ‘its location’ because 188, 189 and 190 Bethnal Green Road no longer exist.

Many of the Victorian buildings along this busy East End thoroughfare have survived…most in various states of disrepair. But the 50 yard stretch within which our 1880s photographic studio was located contains post-war social housing estates on both sides of the road, doubtless this section of street was obliterated—like much of the East End—during the Second World War. We can get a good idea of what the studio may have looked like though. Just a few yards to the left of the studio’s location, the original Victorian buildings still stand, many are currently undergoing restoration. The images below show the location of the studio today (dead space in a social housing development) and a nearby building with Victorian-era shop-front likely similar to the studio as it once was (forgive my Sepia toning).

While I was disappointed that the building that housed the actual studio no longer existed, I was intrigued by the fact that a photographer was able to make a good enough living in this part of London to occupy a span of three shop-fronts. Remember, this is the very early days of the medium, when many people would never have had their photo taken. For those that did, it was probably a once in a lifetime experience. And it would have been relatively expensive.

I did some further research and, as luck would have it, social pioneer Charles Booth was mapping this part of London just one year after the date on the back of this cabinet card. His ‘poor’ maps of 1889 classified the streets of London according to poverty and prosperity and provide an insight into the location of W Wright’s studio.

The map shows that the photographic studio (marked with a white square in the map image) was located along the main road, most of which was classified as red or pink, meaning Middle Class/Well to do or Comfortable. But within a few yards of the studio was a section of road marked blue (meaning ‘Very Poor, Casual Chronic Want’) with a further section blocked in black (the lowest classification: ‘Lowest class. Vicious, semi-criminal’).

To the rear of the studio, is the Jesus Hospital Estate, a Victorian housing development of terraces, the centre of which was the magnificent gothic Columbia Road market building, strikingly similar in design to St Pancras Station. The market building was demolished in 1957, but the Columbia Road remains a popular market to this day. This area ranged from middle class to less well off. Most of the estate still stands.

So if the location of our studio encompassed the whole social range from Semi-Criminal to Middle Class and Comfortable, what can we learn from the photograph itself? The woman in the photograph looks to be in her 30s. She is dressed in neat, but not particularly opulent, clothing. She wears a wedding ring but is perhaps in mourning. She has deep, dark bags under her eyes, perhaps another indication of a recent loss. Although her face remains wrinkle-free, her hands suggest a life of labour. She wears a watch around her neck. Was she perhaps a nurse?

Was this woman herself on the cusp of ‘respectability’? Was this photograph taken to commemorate a death? At the time many people had their one and only photograph taken shortly after they died…sometimes posed as a corpse, dressed in their finest beside smiling family members. Or was this perhaps taken under more joyful circumstances, perhaps as a keepsake for a lover?

We will, of course, never know. I can find no reference to the fate of W Wright’s photographic studio or any indication of how long it was in operation. But the fact that I even wonder, is a great illustration of the power of photography. And of why I display a 120 year old photograph of a woman I do not know, taken in a studio that no longer exists and which, it seems, no one remembers.