Photo Detective: A Scottish Brood
9/27/2009

"My mother came up with a fabulous gift today—a small box of photographs," writes Judy Noel in her e-mail that accompanied this picture. As with all boxes of family photographs, some are identified while others are unknown. Of course, there are also those images that seem to match family information, such as this portrait of a grandfather and three children. Judy believes the man is her great-grandfather Lachlan Bowie who was born in Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland, in 1819 and died in Workington, Cumberland, England, about 1890. The problem is, she is unsure who the children are. Placing the photograph within a time frame may help her determine both the identity of the gentleman and the children. There are three steps in dating this picture—photographer's imprint, clothing and family data.

The photographer's imprint along the bottom edge of the image is "Sherwood, Nook Street, Workington." There is an online index to photographers in the United Kingdom 1850-1950 at www.users.waitrose.com/~rodliffe, but unfortunately there is no information on Cumberland County photographers yet. In order to verify a possible date for the picture, I recommend posting a message through the site's mailing list asking for data on this imprint. Since the site specifically targets people with knowledge and an interest in photographers in the UK, it is quite likely that someone will answer Judy's query.

The clothing worn for this portrait has several distinctive features. First, the child leaning on the man is a boy, not a girl. Younger boys often wore dresses until they started school at which point they switched to short pants. The other clue is the part in the hair—girls used a center part and boys parted their hair on the side. Judy suggested two dates for the image—either 1860s or 1880s. Based on the clothing, the later date is correct. In the 1880s, children wore black stockings and boots that covered the ankle. The girl standing to the man's right is wearing a dropped-waist dress with a broad lace collar typical of the early to mid-1880s. The fact that she is holding a rolled-up paper similar to a diploma may be significant. It would be worth looking for school records from Workington to see if any children in the family graduated or received special recognition during the 1880s. It is a little unusual for a photographer to use a diploma as a prop without reason.

The child on the sitter's left may not be a girl. The hair is too short and doesn't appear to be pulled back. The dress is similar to the girl on the right, but it is difficult to determine this child's gender without more detail.

Lachlan Bowie worked for a steel company and Judy Noel found his attire a bit unusual for a working man. Although difficult to see in the scan of the image, he is wearing a brocade jacket. Unfortunately, the features of his outfit are hidden behind the child he is holding.

When trying to date an image, it necessary to re-trace your steps and see if all the conclusions fit the image. In this case, the costume suggests a time frame of early to mid-1880s based primarily on the older girl's dress and accessories. Judy knows that Lachlan had at least two grandchildren—Peg (born 1882) and Thomas (born 1884). Before stating with certainty that these two siblings are in this portrait, I would do a little more research to find out a marriage date for Lachlan Bowie and see how many grandchildren fit the ages of the children in the portrait. To determine the identity of these children it is necessary to look at the whole family tree to see who is having children at about the right time. Based on the date of the clothing it doesn't appear likely that either Peg or Thomas is in this picture. This is a solvable picture puzzle as long as documentation exists for the Bowie family.

As Judy says in her e-mail, "What a lovely mystery to work on!" It may take a little time, but I'm sure she will discover their names and have fun unraveling her own detective story.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com.

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