The Photograph that didn’t Talk but Sang

The Photograph that didn’t Talk but Sang

“If only photos could talk !” I have heard that sentence and seen it written on many occasions. I have made that wish myself very often. It would certainly make my work as a photo historian much easier and quite straightforward. Today’s post will therefore be about a photograph that did not talk but literally sang. I am delighted to share it with you, thanks to Rebecca’s kindness.

Illustration 1-the original image small

ILLUSTRATION 1 – The original photograph.

Look at the image above. Not the best example of stereoscopic photography, is it ? The mount is very grubby, the two halves are terribly misaligned. Yet it is an interesting portrait and experience has taught me that just like a book should not be judged by its cover a stereo card should never be judged by its grubbiness. Once digitally cleaned and re-aligned, it already makes a better impression, don’t you think so ?

Illustration 2-Digitally cleaned and realigned small

ILLUSTRATION 2 – The same image digitally cleaned and re-aligned.

I bought that picture, along with a dozen other stereoscopic portraits in a similar condition, from a Canadian dealer. Why ? I just love these “faces from the past” even when chances are I will never know who the sitters in the images are. I guess it is my way of giving them a second lease of life through Instagram posts, 3D talks or articles. When this picture arrived, I scanned it, and since there was an inscription in pencil on the back, I scanned the back too. Here it is.

Illustration 3-Back of the card small

ILLUSTRATION 3 – The back of the card, uncleaned.

As you can see, the same name appears twice. The top line was most probably written some time in the nineteenth century. The second one, with the question mark at the end, must have been added by a collector who owned that card before me and was not one hundred per cent sure he was reading the name right. Since the sitter in the image cannot be Amy Laura Hunt, who is he ? And why was this image, grubby and damaged as it is, preserved and saved from destruction ? It must have had some special significance for someone, maybe for Amy Laura Hunt herself, whoever she was. I think it is time to investigate. Don’t you agree ?

Amy Laura Hunt was born in Piccadilly Street, London, on 3 July 1868. She was the sixth child of Jane and Charles Hunt and their fourth daughter. Amy Laura was baptised on 4 October 1868 in Westminster. In July 1871 a younger sister was born, and eight years later, a brother, Charles, who died in 1880 before he reached his first year. By then her father was already dead and her mother was to follow him to the grave the following year. Amy Laura went to live with her eldest sister Blanche Alice and her sister’s husband, Herbert Lebish, a cook. She remained with them, then with her widowed sister, all her life. She worked as a hairdresser (1891 census) then as a waitress (1901 census), never married and passed away in 1909. She was barely forty-one. I do not know what she looked like or what sort of person she was. The only tangible trace of her I have is her pencilled name on the back of a photograph.

What about that photograph then ? Who is the man represented ? Judging from the stereocard itself and from the clothes the sitter is wearing, I would say this image dates back to the late 1850s early 1860s. It was therefore taken before Amy Laura was born and my gut feeling is that the man in it is none other than Charles Hunt, the father she only knew for the first eleven years of her life. It would explain why this image was religiously preserved.

Charles Hunt was born in Cambridge in 1826 to John Hunt (1796-1852), a tailor, and his wife Catharine Mary Brand (1798-1865). Charles was baptised on 27 August 1826 and then we lose trace of him until the 1841 census. By then the family had moved to Theatre Street, Woodbridge, Suffolk, where John Hunt, now 45, was still a “taylor”. Ten years later the Hunts were living at 1 Vernon Place, Finsbury, London. John Hunt was now working with his two sons William and Charles who had followed in his footsteps and had embraced the tailoring trade. John died in 1852 and, though we do not know what sort of father he was, his death changed things for Charles who soon left his tailoring days behind and became a commercial traveller. It is the job that appears on his wedding licence when he married Jane Fanny, the daughter of piano-forte maker George Stephenson, in the parish of Saint Pancras on 5 February 1854. Their first child, Blanche Alice, was born a couple of months after the wedding took place …

Charles Hunt did not seem to have been a commercial traveller for long and by 1856 he had become a chemist and was working as manipulator in the photographic establishment of Charles Edward Clifford (1822-1903) at 30, Piccadilly, London. He had even written a book, entitled The Collodion Process Simplified, which was published that very year by his employer, C. E. Clifford and had a second edition in 1859. In the frontispiece of Hunt’s book, Clifford introduces himself as a photographer and Artists’ colourman to her Majesty, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales and the Royal Family of England and France.

The photograph under study must have been taken some time in the late 1850s, when stereoscopy was still all the rage and Charles Edward Clifford, Charles Hunt’s employer, was publishing stereoscopic images bearing his blind stamp with his Piccadilly address on them. I have seen at least one of those, in Dr. Brian May’s collection.

By 1861, Charles Hunt and his growing family (his wife Jane, his eldest daughter Blanche Alice, his son Seymour Stephenson and his second daughter Florence Jane) had moved into Clifford’s premises at 30, Piccadilly, where Charles describes himself as an “Artists’ colourman and Photographic Artist”. I would love to know how a tailor got interested in chemistry and photography before becoming enough of a specialist in the collodion process to write a book about it and then set up a photographic establishment, but this part of Charles Hunt’s story will, I guess, remain a mystery.

Ten years and three more children later (although one of them, his second son, Ernest Brand, born in 1865, had died at the age of two), Charles Hunt, his wife and family were living at 15 Acre Terrace, Clapham, where Charles is listed as a photographer, or rather a “Potographer” [sic]. It is not clear when the Hunts moved to Clapham but the National Archives at Kew hold the copyright slip of a photograph of painter John Phillip’s studio taken by Charles Hunt in 1867, just after the artist’s death, and still bearing the 30, Piccadilly address. We also know that Amy Laura was born at Piccadilly in July 1868.

Charles Hunt lived long enough to see his youngest daughter May Maude’s birth (1871) and his eldest daughter Blanche Alice’s wedding to Herbert Lebish (1878). However, he never met his youngest son, Charles (1879-1880). He died at the beginning of January 1879 and was buried on the 11th.

Look at that stereo again. This is all that is left of Charles Hunt, husband, father, tailor, commercial traveller, artists’ colourman, chemist and photographer. It is quite rare to see the features of a photographer and even less common to be able to view them in glorious 3D. The followers of Daguerre usually prefer staying behind the camera and hide underneath their dark cloth. I had no idea when I bought that image that it would yield so much information but, as I mentioned earlier, one should never judge a stereo photograph by its grubbiness. One never knows what treasures it may conceal in its depth.

I would now love to find more images by Charles Hunt, more stereos, especially. Is there a stereoscopic portrait of his wife too, somewhere ? And of his daughter Amy Laura, without whom this article would never have seen the light of day ? I will keep my eyes open, obviously, but if you can help, I would be most grateful.

Denis Pellerin.

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