Selfies, Self – Expression, Celebrity and Victorian Carte De Visite by Mark Hill – Thursday 1st June 2023

Author, lecturer and “Antiques Roadshow” expert Mark Hill gave an enthusiastic and riveting talk on his abiding interest and hobby of collecting Victorian “Carte de Visite”  – nothing to do with visiting cards, but a portrait photo mounted on a small piece of card that became popular in the mid-19th Century with the invention of Daguerreotype photography.

Looking back through history, he showed how we all seem to have a human need to “present” ourselves to the world in the way “we” want to be seen. Rich people commissioned portraits of themselves and famous artists such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and others painted their self-portraits.

Josiah Wedgewood originally invented the first Daguerreotype photograph using silver nitrate and bitumen, but it was Louis Daguerre who discovered how to “fix it” so that it wouldn’t disappear, and Niécphore Niépce who sped up the process and patented it in 1825. The process was expensive as it only made one copy, until William Fox Talbot worked on creating negatives between 1835-39. Finally it was André Adolphe Disdéri who perfected the actual “Carte de Visite” photo (6x9cm) using a camera with four lenses and a sliding plate holder. These little photos became all the rage and “Cartomania” was born with 300-400 millionbeing printed all over the world during the 1860-90s. The Victorians never showed emotion or smiled in their photos, as that was considered at the time as a sign of idiocy, and you dressed to represent your station in life.

The Cult of the Celebrity also developed with people collecting  photos of the Royal Family, well known authors, actors and even politicians. Sarah Bernhardt was particularly aware of her popularity and insisted on being paid for having her photo taken as she knew her following would buy them. By the 1890’s photographers were beginning to “touch up” their photos for the best effect as people wanted to play around with how they presented themselves. Victorians would keep their photos in elaborate photo albums for their families and friends to peruse.

Mark finished by showing some of the technological photographic advances of the 20th/21st centuries and the fact that the  “Selfie” has come a long way since those days, but we are still as keen as ever to be “seen”!


Liz Beecheno