WRITERS PRIZE: 28 / NOV / 2023
THE CARTE DE VISITE WIDOW
by Annette Richardson
On July 5th 1861, a young woman visited the fashionable London studio of French photographer Camille Silvy to have her portrait taken (Fig.1). Silvy was meticulous in keeping records of clients but on this occasion he initially made a mistake as to his sitter’s identity: recording her instead as the sister who accompanied her, then having to score through his flowing script and write the correct name. What is significant about this incident is not Silvy’s mistake – he had many sittings in a day – but how he identified the woman from her image.
The woman was Lady Henrietta Augusta Lloyd-Mostyn, known as Augusta Mostyn. At the time she was 31, her sister Lady Caroline Nevill, just a year older (Fig 2.). By 1861, Augusta had been married, had children and, crucially, been widowed two months previously. Her husband, Thomas Edward Mostyn Lloyd-Mostyn, Liberal MP for Flintshire, died of consumption on May 8th. To correct his error, Silvy had to appraise the two women’s portraits, just a year apart in age, from the same social milieu. What enabled him to so readily see his mistake was how strikingly different was a portrait of a woman of the era in deep mourning – a widow.
Two defining trends of the 1860s – the popularisation of studio photography through the mass-produced carte de visite and the emergence of a rigid, regimented, attitude to death – unite in Mostyn’s image. Both mourning and photographic portraiture become commercial opportunities, where the sitter’s identity is subservient to the visual conventions of the carte de visite and which, together with mourning dress, abide by rules, formulaic, formal and repetitious. It’s a potent representation of its time, demonstrating how quickly photography was adopted to communicate in a way entirely legible to its intended audience.
Silvy was a highly regarded commercial studio photographer who worked in aristocratic circles. His studio was an early adopter of the carte de visite format, which typically divides a single glass plate into six images – subsequently printed to the size of a calling card, as the name suggests. Cartes de visite operated through mass production: providing a large volume of prints from a single sitting, using generic backdrops, poses and props. In the 1860s sales soared as customers commissioned and collected cartes, exchanging them with friends and even purchasing prints of celebrities and royalty to stick in their personal albums. In London alone there were 200 photographic studios.
Aristocratic Victorian women such as Augusta Mostyn were expected to observe mourning etiquette strictly. Queen Victoria herself – who was widowed later that year – famously remained in mourning until her death in 1901. As widowhood was perceived as a woman’s most severe loss, only plain black fabrics were worn for the first year of ‘deep’ mourning, progressing through the arcane subtleties of ‘ordinary’ and then ‘half’ mourning for a further 18 months. For a year, the widow was expected to withdraw from public life, only receiving close family and friends at home: attending exhibitions, concerts and balls would have appeared scandalous to Victorian society. Therefore, although Augusta Mostyn’s portrait was taken in a commercial studio, early in her widowhood, it was only her carefully curated image, not her person in circulation. We learn little of the individual, in actuality a talented amateur photographer more used to taking the image than being its subject.
While mourning meant a retirement, Mostyn’s portrait is a more public statement. In her weeds, she could be identified immediately even in the small-scale cartes de visites format, as deep mourning possesses fewer half-tones, absorbing light, and altering the visual balance of the conventional portrait. This frozen moment of melancholy represents a ‘holding space’ to signify Mostyn’s status until such time as she rejoins society, or perhaps another articulation: a ‘performative grief’ to satisfy expectations of how a widow should behave, particularly one in the public eye, such as Augusta Mostyn, the MP’s wife. In a sense, the photograph keeps her socially connected with her circle through the virtual environment of their carte de visite albums.
But this photograph of Mostyn is paradoxical; it’s arguably not an image of her, but of the recently departed husband. A portrait specifically of widowhood, is ultimately about an absence.
Images: (Top) Lady Augusta Mostyn, Photographer: Camille Silvy, 5 July 1861, Albumen print. (Bottom) Lady Caroline Nevill, Photographer: Camille Silvy, 5 July 1861, Albumen print © National Portrait Gallery.
The Carte de Visite Widowwas shortlisted for the Source prize for new writing about photography in 2023.