Lost in New ZealandJune 19th, 2018
Since 2015, the National Preservation Office Te Tari Tohu Taonga has held regular Conservation Clinics following the Family History monthly talks held at the Library. It is an opportunity for members of the public to seek advice from a professional conservator on a treasured family item.
I look forward to these sessions and hearing the interesting family stories that connect the current family custodians with their tupuna. To be privy to another family’s stories is a privilege.
Last year Kathryn McGavin attended the Conservation Clinic seeking advice on a small delicately coloured image of her great-great grandmother, Eliza Mary Ellis. Adhered to the back of the image is a label with a handwritten inscription ‘Miss E Ellis of Bradninch, Devon Lost in New Zealand’.
This image, along with other papers, had been rediscovered after nearly 150 years in boxes in Christchurch, in the garden shed of Kathryn’s great-aunt, by Kathryn’s cousin Thelma Page.
Great-great-grand-daughters of Eliza Mary Ellis, Kathryn McGavin (left) and Thelma Page (right).
Miss Eliza Mary Ellis was born 1838 in Bradninch, Devon, England. In 1861 she was working as a cook in Nursling, Hampshire, for Colonel John and Jane Swinbourne. By 1866 Eliza Mary was married to John, who conveniently had the surname Ellis, and they had a daughter Eleanor. Two years later Eliza Mary widowed and living in Lyttelton, New Zealand, married Master Mariner Thomas Sylvester Downes. Eliza Mary was his third wife.
During his 30 years at sea Thomas is known to have transported women convicts to Australia and men from Australia to the Otago goldfields. He died in 1869. Eliza Mary died in 1872 of TB, aged 34 years. Her death at 34 years was early even by nineteenth century New Zealand standards where Pākehā women had a life expectancy approaching 50 years.
Ellis family members: Eleanor Haydon (Eliza Mary’s daughter), Thomas, Winifred Grace, Grace Ellis (Eliza Mary’s mother), Richard Haydon, Amy (Kathryn McGavin’s grandmother).
Not only are these dates important for Kathryn’s genealogical story, they provide important clues in helping identify the photographic process.
As conservators we need to understand the material composition and techniques of an object's manufacture in order to make decisions about the best way to conserve it. As a specialist paper conservator I needed specialist advice from colleague Ruth Oliver, Alexander Turnbull Library Conservator, Photographs.
The Library conservators are responsible for the conservation and preservation of the Turnbull’s collections. The work was taken to the Library Conservation Lab to be examined.
Are you my [Tin]type?
The image looked for all-the-world like a tintype because of its delicate hand-colouring, its size and black lacquer-like support. It is varnished, typical of tintypes, to protect the collodion layer. Tintype is a photographic process executed, not on tin but a very thin sheet of iron. They are also known as ferrotypes and were most common in the mid-to late-19th century, although they were still made until around the Second World War.
Eliza Mary Ellis
However as soon as Ruth held the item she realised it didn’t weigh enough to be a tintype. Further examination under the microscope revealed no metal corrosion and when a weak magnet was held near the back of the item no ‘pull’ could be felt. Even more tellingly, paper fibres were poking through breaks in what should have been the iron plate. The photographic image was on paper, not on metal or glass which were the typical supports at that time. It was obvious that we were looking at a very unusual item.
L: Conservator, Ruth Oliver examines the photograph. R: Detail showing paper fibres visible along the tear through the photograph.
Unknown Photographer. Portrait of an unidentified woman, Ref: PA10-043. Tintype is a silver-based image suspended in collodion (an early plastic) supported on a very thin sheet of iron with a coating of black lacquer like this Turnbull collection item. The images show the corrosion of the iron.
Unknown photographer. Portrait of a seated woman. Ref: PA10-006. Other photographic processes of this period are often referred to as cased photographs referring to the way in which they were housed, in cases, like this one. If Eliza Mary had been in a case or other housing these were now lost.
Intrigued, Ruth and I set about exploring clues the photograph held. We also relied on information Kathryn was able to give us about Eliza Mary and her life to build a picture, as it were, in an attempt to date the image and identify the photographic process. Each piece of evidence was used to check and double-check our assumptions and to validate or refute the information we gathered.
Crinolines and bonnets
Textiles Conservator, Marion Parker, confirmed that Eliza Mary’s coat, crinoline (stiffened or hooped petticoats to hold out the woman’s skirt), sleeves and even buttons were fashionable in the early to mid-1860s, whereas her bonnet and hairstyle were in vogue during the late 1850s. Her crinoline was a light colour which usually meant the wearer was well-off; poorer people would generally choose darker colours that did not show dirt so obviously.
In 1861 Eliza Mary was working as a cook. Cooks earned good salaries and were at the upper end of the scale that women could earn. However clothes were extremely expensive compared to today. Did her employer hand down the clothing to her when no longer needed by the family? Marion also commented that it was common practice to give cast-off clothes to servants with whom they had close relationships.
The reason behind the slight date mismatch between Eliza Mary’s bonnet and the remainder of her garb is unknown. Importantly though, her newer clothes supported a narrower date range of early-to mid-1860s.
Pigments – colouring
The delicate hand-colouring on Eliza Mary’s face, jewellery and crinoline is typical of images from the mid-19th century. In the days before colour photography colouring was used to highlight skin tones, aspects of wardrobe and jewellery. Eliza Mary’s brooch has been highlighted in gold, possibly shell gold - powdered gold leaf mixed with a binder like gum arabic. Historically shell gold was mixed and stored in shells hence its name.
Eliza Mary’s first husband John Ellis was said to be a jeweller. Did he make the brooch in this image?
For a conservator the back of the work can be as interesting as the front of the work. The labels adhered to the back of the work appeared to be the selvage or unprinted excess areas of a pane of stamps. The perforations appear to have been made using a rotary perforator in use from the 1850s. The brown-red colour and the red colour block could indicate the colour of the stamps – a Penny red or Chalon head perhaps?
In Victorian times students learned writing using copy books. Copperplate writing was the generic style of handwriting of the time. The loops and flourishes in the capital D and E are hallmarks of copperplate script. This might indicate the label was applied to the image in the late 19th century rather than a recent intervention.
During the 1850-1860s photographs were handmade, and practitioners were experimenting, so there were many variants of common photographic processes. We recognised that the image was a type of collodion positive because of the black lacquer, and tell-tale pour marks where the photographer had poured the excess collodion off the glass support, but we didn’t know much else.
The bluish wedge along the top edge is a visual clue denoting where the excess collodion was poured off during the preparation of the original glass plate.
Initially the international conservation community was also stumped. British conservation colleagues suggested the photographic process was a collodion transfer. The collodion image layer is stripped from its glass support and transferred to another support, in our case to a black lacquered card.
Further reading established it was a type of collodion transfer known as a Pannotype . The name Pannotype is derived from the Latin word pannus meaning cloth. This type of collodion transfer can be transferred onto various supports including fabric or leather. The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography states that “these [collodion transfer] process variants were firmly established by the late 1850s” (p. 62).
The pannotype of Eliza Mary is fragile and the paper support is vulnerable to damage from handling. The collodion layer is brittle and prone to flaking and the hand-colouring is vulnerable to fading from light.
Since attending the Conservation Clinic last year, Kathryn has ensured the pannotype’s long term preservation by having the work framed to conservation standards using archival-quality materials and framing techniques that will not damage the work.
Archival-quality framing materials were used to protect the delicate image of Eliza Mary.
Thanks to clues Eliza Mary offered up in her choice of dress and hair-style and stories her family held about her we were able to identify a rarely seen photographic process.
We are fortunate that Eliza Mary found her way to New Zealand and that we were privy to learning a little about her life. We have also been fortunate to see, up close, a photographic image that traversed land, sea, garden sheds, and time, to be rediscovered and with new stories for the family to pass down.
For more information on when the next Conservation Clinic is happening at the National Library see: https://natlib.govt.nz/events or subscribe to the Library’s regular events newsletter by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org
The National Preservation Office is part of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Outreach Services team.
Ngā mihi nui ki a Kathryn McGavin, Marion Parker, Textile Conservator and Anne Parenteau, Textile Conservator Te Papa.
This post was co-authored by Ruth Oliver, Conservator Photographs at the Alexander Turnbull Library.