Life was hard during Victorian times. The choking smog of the Industrial Revolution, the harsh living conditions and the frequent epidemics in a world before antibiotics meant that death played a big part in society. Most families, even from the upper classes, lost children to one disease or another.
The Victorians, however, found ways to cope, even though they were ways that would be considered macabre by modern standards. Death masks of the deceased were created in wax. It was also normal for people to cut a lock of hair, particularly from a dead child, and have it made into a piece of jewellery – something we would find creepy today.
It was the invention of photography in the first half of the 19th century that gave the Victorians the perfect means of immortalising their loved ones. At first, portrait photographs were a luxury that few could afford, but as techniques developed and costs decreased, family photographs became accessible to more people. We take family photographs for granted today, but for a grieving Victorian parent, the realistic image of a dead child had huge emotional value. And so the genre of Victorian death photography was born.
The dead were often photographed in their coffins, perhaps surrounded by flowers, books or some favourite objects. But, as the photographs were so amazingly lifelike, many families preferred portraits where the deceased seemed to be alive. Sometimes the bodies were arranged as though the person had simply fallen asleep in a chair.
Alternatively, they were put into more dynamic poses and held up with strings, supported by specially made structures, or held in the arms of living relatives. This cannot have been a pleasant job for the photographer. Travel was much slower in those days and the memorial photograph was almost always taken after rigor mortis, or even decay, had set in. It may seem like a terribly traumatic experience for young children to pose alongside their dead siblings, especially if the body was already decaying, but death was such a normal part of life for the Victorians that this was a way of finding condolence in their grief.
Later, photographic techniques advanced sufficiently to allow Photoshop-like touches. Rosy cheeks or open eyes were sometimes painted onto the negative to make the deceased look more lifelike. Because of the long exposure time necessary, the dead family member was often the clearest figure in the portrait, because he or she remained perfectly still.
CAPTURING THE SPIRIT
Unsurprisingly, interest in spiritualism and clairvoyance was also growing at the time, and the Victorian fascination with seances led to an interest in photographing ghosts and spirits. The American photographer, Willian H. Mumler, is usually credited with being the first ‘spirit photographer’, after he accidentally produced a double exposure photo that seemed to show a transparent ghost floating behind a living person. He soon had a thriving business in ‘photographing’ the spirits of the dead. Fred A. Hudson introduced spirit photography to Britain in 1872. He worked with the medium Georgiana Houghton, ‘photographing spirits’ at her seances. Although the spirit photographers were later proved to be charlatans, for a time they were supported by many famous people, including the writer Arthur Conan Doyle.
UNDERSTANDING THE PAST
Many of these haunting images of the Victorian dead remain with us, and they are intensely disturbing. Yet considering the hardships endured at the time, it is not surprising that Victorians had something of an obsession with death. Cathartic rituals such as these helped them deal with their grief and hold on to the memory of the loved ones they had lost.
Look Mum, No Head!
In spite of their obsession with death, no one can accuse the Victorians of lacking a sense of humour. This is evident in another of their photographic hobbies: headless photographs. This highly popular trend was developed by Oscar Rejlander, a Swedish-born painter and miniaturist who moved to Britain in the 1830s. Rejlander turned to photography in the 1850s, his miniaturist skills coming in handy when he began to play with editing techniques. In particular, he created absurd images by removing the head from a subject and placing it in another part of the picture. This was done without digital techniques or a computer, of course, and involved cutting and pasting parts of different negatives and combining them into one final picture. It might sound easy, but it took immense skill and craftsmanship to make the people look as if they had really been decapitated.
Other photographers soon started using the same technique and the Victorians, with their dark sense of humour, commissioned portraits of themselves holding their own or other people’s heads, and even commissioned loveable images of their children.