Sunday, 13 March 2022

Kingsley Studios Reader, ca. 1905

This studio portrait of a young woman at a desk, posed with book open in front of her, seems to have been taken by E. Grattan Phillipse, of "Royal Kingsley Studios" at 46 High Street, Ilfracombe, North Devon (later, "Phillips and Lees"—a partnership that ended in 1921). Ilfracombe is—and was, in the first decade of twentieth century, when this photo was likely taken—a seaside resort on the North Devon coast, England, with a small harbour surrounded by cliffs.

As David Lodge notes, in his Foreword to Readers: Vintage People on Photo Postcards (2010; reviewed by me here), about half the real photo postcards from 1900 to 1940 were taken in studios, like this one, and do not actually represent the experience of reading but merely allude to it, with props that "served as indices of culture, education, and in some cases piety" and a “limited repertoire of body-language” (5).

Since the experience of reading is so often feigned—and "reading itself is visually inscrutable"—there is a natural tendency to focus on slight variations in prop and pose in studio photographs, and on "behavioral and sociological" aspects, or to engage in "narrative [and] symbolic interpretation" (6), in posed and un-posed photos at home or in more natural settings.

In previous examples on this blog (for example, here, here and here), I have commented on clothes, and posture. What strikes me about this photo is the faded glory of the props—a carved oak desk, heavily worn and scratched, and a grand, carved, high-backed chair—suggesting a scholarly species of “baronial splendor.” The hardcover book is similarly well-worn: the spine being completely folded back on itself, so that the two halves of book-block can rest flat on the table.

We view the sitter across the desk. She, who appears to be in a rich, velvet dress, gives the appearance of having just glanced up from her reading, in which she was deeply engaged, glancing at the camera with as much unselfconscious naturalism as is consistent with the magnificent ribbons in her hair and the extended exposure times of the period.

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