Monday, January 17, 2011

Who She Is, I Do Not Know . . .

I have a very old, cracked photograph of an ancestress of mine, done on glass, and which resides in a pretty rose-colored, oval velvet case, surrounded by gold filigree.   It's very small, only one and a half inches tall.  I keep it in a silver cigarette box on a chest of drawers in my bedroom at Darlington House, where it is safely nestled among other little treasures.

Even though I know that I am related to the sitter, a young woman in her twenties, I do not know who she is.  Looking at her photograph, I suspect that it was taken in the 1870s or 1880s, which would mean that she is of the same generation as my great-grandparents.  I know that I am related to her through my mother, MD, in whose effects I came across the photograph after she died over ten years ago.  I recall a conversation I had with MD many years ago, when I was a boy, in which she told me who the sitter was.  I believe she comes from my mother's mother's side of the family.  But beyond that I know no more.

Who, exactly, is this young woman in the photograph, I wonder?  Is she my great-grandmother, known as Giggy, whose Paris porcelain I now own?  Or is she one of the maiden great-great aunts who lived in a house on my great-grandparents' compound, who became the subject of sometimes cruel family fun in later life due to her eccentric and absent-minded behavior?  Is she the one who would spend days on end, lost in reading out-of-date newspapers?

The young lady's photograph appears to have been framed as a keepsake, a memento.  Was it for a doting parent or a loving husband?  Was it a token for a suitor who never returned to be given it, leaving the young lady in question wondering what might have been, if only?

I will never know the answer to these questions . . . for those who could answer them are no more.

I regret that there isn't a slip of paper, tucked into the little velvet case, with the name of my ancestress upon it, written in faded ink in an antique hand.  I recall that there may have been one once, when I was a boy, but if so it is now long lost.

Dear Reader, I implore you to query older members of your family and have them identify the un-named faces in your old photographs, so that the identity of the sitters will not be lost to future generations.

What a fleeting life it is we lead, and how fragile and ephemeral are our memories . . .

The photograph of a photograph taken long ago is by Boy Fenwick


  1. Certainly a good recommendation although with such a very romantic
    image the truth might not fit....then again it might be even more exciting!

  2. Excellent advice.........someone better ask me......and soon!

    I did hire my cousin.......years ago......while my mother was still alive to do albums of old photographs....and she identified......(among many others)

    "Ella in a rickshaw in Shanghai 1932. with her "boy" driving"

    I thew an absolute fit at sixteen accusing my mother of being a "slave-owner" just like her grandparents from Birmingham"!! Her "boy" slept on her mat outside her door!!!
    (My mother lived in Shanghai for two years in the early thirties.......she said it was like Paris then)

    Lordy! These things do get complicated.

    I think it was the girl who read the out of date newspapers. Just my guess.


  3. Such legacies are vulnerable enough to negligent conservation as to make your suggestion doubly sound. Against the romance of anonymity, I will take attribution any day. There will always be plenty of enigma left over.

  4. Reggie, thanks for an intriguing posting with a lovely image and a very good message. I especially enjoy seeing that handsome velvet box, and by that filigree, I would date it closer to the 1870s.

    When I look at such treasures, and especially items that have been handed down in my own family, I am continually reminded that we are but stewards.

  5. I am driven half mad by my failure to write down everything I was told when family photographs were shown to me.

    On another note: Surely Reggie meant to refer to his great-grandparent's 'place'? 'Compound' sounds so, um, like 'drapes' or 'couch'.

  6. I happened to do just as you've suggested two Christmases ago. Unfortunately, the only photographs of which my mother has possession are of one extremely narrow side of the family. Such a shame we don't treasure these things more.


  7. I love the idea of a misunderstood eccentric maiden aunt, content with her own company, spending her days reading historical documents. My kind of woman.

  8. PB: How interesting. My grandmother (on my father's side) also spent much time as a girl in China, where one had "boys" and "girls" as your grandmother wrote. My grandmother also had a beloved mongoose as a pet when she lived there, too.

    CJ and CN: The uncertainty is, indeed, maddening.

    MDR: Thank you. I figured that of all my readers you would be able to accurately date this photograph, given your knowledge.

    DED: I get your point. I struggled with what to call my great-grandparents' "place." "Estate" seemed pretentious to me, and "place" seemed the reverse of that, since it was, in fact a large property upon which there were many buildings and at least three houses filled with occupants, including extended relations such as (quite possibly) the young lady in question, and also servants. In the end I chose "compound," because that's really what it was...

    MT: How fortunate you are to have thought to do that. Reggie wishes he had had the foresight to do so himself.

  9. *nods* *points to family locket* *sighs over rose velvet*

  10. Reggie darling one. It is a good idea, my GranMa who I write about on occasion did just this some 20 years ago. She survived to be 107 years old and at 96 still remembered who's who and if not she concluded "she was somebody,I really don't know-nor care.why must I do this!" In all honesty rather disinterested she was in the Past-always looking to the future and because she did so-captivated the many young people around her. Better this Maiden Aunt to reside with love in your Home (always a good word for a place that loved ones live, by the way-and does not indicate status of one kind or another) than be on some dusty shop or a long forgotten box in some attic-the case is really lovely, nothing enhances color, especially a pink, like the passing of time.

  11. We Latins have a much easier time of keeping up with our ancestors I think mainly due to the fact that even after married, women keep their last names. It is also something that should start from childhood. My children have been brought up knowing all the stories and characters, good and bad, of their ancestors. A long time ago, I gathered the family on my father's side and gave them all a family tree going back to the 1500's! a labor of love and one of which I'm proud of.

    My daughter in law gave me a book to start for my grandchildren with places for pictures and stories, family tree etc. I strongly recommend it. Children nowadays grow up knowing nothing about their ancestors and it is something that should be started by their parents when they are young. You would be surprised to know how much they love to hear all the stories!

  12. we have a large box of photos with our unidentified ancestors...
    I wish too there had been some notes made...
    your sweet rose velvet keepsake is charming.

  13. I profit from the labors of my mother and her mother (and mother-in-law) before her -- by the time it came to me, everything was labeled, annotated, organized, and in many cases filed.

    With a little sleuthing, other things that subsequently became mine were put into context, so there's none of that "Who was she?" Tiresome genealogies are tied with string and locked away in files. Ancient bibles have been repaired, when necessary, and carefully put in solander boxes. The veils of Belgian lace are all wrapped up and put away for the next wedding (the seventh generation).

    That still leaves the problem of what to do with all this stuff, which occupies three large closets, two bookcases, and several file cabinets. Sooner or later, no one is going to care. In some cases, it's obvious: it will go to museums, libraries, and universities that already have files going on The Worthy Dead. But what to do with everything else? I can't throw it away, and I won't let it wind up in the hands of a dealer or a collector. (I suppose I will just pick some poor SOB in a younger generation and make it his -- or her -- problem.)

    That leaves one thing -- all the junk that's in my head: stories, stray facts, anecdotes about uncounted family members dating back a long, long time. I'm much too slothful to commit these things to paper (with one exception). Once upon a time, I was the one the old people found to bore with their stories. Now I'm the old one, and it's my job to bore the extended family at parties and on vacation, and most of them do a very good job of feigning interest. But I wonder if they'll remember, and pass it on.

    P.S. Reggie, darling -- No one thought you were PvR, as you said. (You've got to laugh more -- it's good for you.)

  14. Dear Reggie, it's such a shame you don't know who it is. That is excellent advice - we should all endeavour to find these things out for future generations.

    It is a beautiful thing to have and the pink velvet is very unusual xx

  15. I have a large picture of an ancestress with a child -- it was in my mother's things when she passed away -- I do have it hanging on my wall but do not know who she is although I do suspect she must be on my mother's side -- but I'm not sure. And I must admit that the picture doesn't look like any of the photographs of ancestors that I have.
    I had never seen the picture until she passed away so I couldn't ask her about it -- it was probably my grandmother's and my mother got it after my grandmother passed away. Perhaps mother didn't know either!!!

    But it is a great post -- your picture is so sweet.

  16. Reggie, I am new to your blog, but enjoy the humor, sophistication and sometimes snobbery as well. I recently looked back on older blogs and particularly enjoyed the post on domestics and uniforms. I have always required a uniform and those who worked for me wore white ones which I gladly paid for. One never knows what to expect if one allows the help to wear their own clothes and most importantly, the help may glean a sense of pride from elevating their job through the use of a fresh and well pressed uniform. It makes a big difference in the way your guests respond to the domestic help as well. Thanks for the provocative post.

  17. Ancient,

    The only way to keep those memories alive is to START YOUR OWN BLOG! Reggie has been begging you since you first started commenting on his blog and now I too join in. You couldn't have a more adoring and captive audience. Keep the veil, we dont really need to know who you really are...just don't deprive us of the stories and the wit! (besides, Reggie needs some competition!)

  18. I used to think the only thing more maddening than an unlabeled image of an ancestor was to run across boxes and boxes of them at antique stores and shows. Is that the ultimate in photographic filial disrespect ? Not really. I once ran across some 1890s photo portraits of two very attractive unknown ancestors of some equally unknown trespasser when I took some things out to the dumpster behind my Dad's business. I fished them out and keep them on a shelf today - my dumpster people. And yes, I labeled them as not bring our kin.
    Best -
    - Mike

  19. your ancestress is certainly a beauty.

    i have a shoe box filled with these civil war era daguerreotypes, many of them cracked, and no idea who they are. found them in my grandfather's attic in princeton, and he got them from his grandfather's attic in lowell. these people kept every letter, every canceled check, every copy of godey's, and yet failed to label anything. it's a problem being the west coast survivor of a yankee pack rat family... i have no attic!

  20. What an intriguing post that has me intrigued. Being one that has an insatiable quest for knowledge, there has to be a way you can find this young temptress' (for she has tempted you) identity.

  21. Whoever she is, isn't it lovely to think that she is not only remembered by you, but thought of by those of us in your blogosphere?

  22. Sadly, this is one story I am unable to clarify. MD was not one to go on about ancestors or relatives unless they had quirks or bad habits.

    xox Camilla

  23. Flo: I'm inclined to agree with you, as to the sitter's identity. Just a hunch, though.

    LPC: You, too? What a coincidence...

    LA: And I thought Brooke Astor was old! Clearly your granny was made of sterner stuff.

    Lindaraxa: It is interesting, isn't it, how children really are fascinated by such stories. I was as a child. But it is only as adults that we become obsessed with them, needing (or wanting) to wrestle out all the details and connections.

    HHB: Most of what I have is labeled, at least of the family stuff that I still retain. I do have boxes of photos of strangers that I bought over the years at antiques centers and book barns, as I enjoy collecting (or did at one point) them.

    Ancient: Both the current (mine) generation and the ones preceding have unloaded vast quantities of diaries, letters, photograph albums, collected sermons, and various papers to universities, libraries and historical societies where the works/persons had some connection and where said institution was all too happy to receive, as opposed to finding a burden (which is how we felt loaded down with it). I have done my best to give (and will subsequently bequeath what I haven't yet) any and all "family" things (jewelry, silver, china, furniture, etc.) to my nephew (well, to his parents in safe-keeping for same). Rather freeing, actually.

  24. It's lovely and very touching that know matter what this dear relatives history was, she is now cherished and cared for by you...somehow, she must know that. The image and the case are beautiful, if only in this day and age, we would place our loved ones in such special frame attire as they did then,, it speaks volumes.
    xo J~

  25. Christina: Indeed!

    Martha: You and I have much company on this, I am afraid. Perhaps we should stir the pot up a bit and make up names for our ancestresses, so at least future generations think they know who they are... It will certainly make their genealogical studies all the more interesting, and complicated.

    Lindaraxa: I am glad to see someone else take up the tom-tom on this score. Please, Ancient, put us out of our misery!

    Mike: Most amusing, and how fortunate said folk were to be rescued from land fill.

    Ornamentalist: That must be maddening, indeed!

    David Toms: If I really wanted to do my homework, I am pretty sure I can find out who she is. However, since much family archival material has been dispersed to various institutions (see my response to Ancient, above) it requires more work and commitment of time than I am prepared for, at least so long as I hold gainful employment. Perhaps when I retire I shall take it upon myself to become (another) or the family's genealogical busy bees and get to the root of the matter... Or not.

    North of 25A: Thank you, kind of blows one's mind, doesn't it?

    Camilla: Thanks--yes MD was more interested in misfits than most.

    24 Corners: Thank you for your lovely comment.

  26. Reggie,

    Our family loves to go through boxes and albums of photographs when we gather. Everone has many framed photos in our homes. It is so frustraing when we come across one in a box that has not been labeled and noone knows who it is!

    Your locket is a precious keepsake indeed!


    Art by Karena

  27. I cannot stress how important it is to make sure things are identified. We are now in possession of six 17th and 18th century portraits - but can identify only two of the sitters, thanks to the foresight of some ancestor who wrote the names on the back of the canvas. We know the others are relations, but can only guess at their identities,
    Oddly the furniture from the same source is will documented, thanks to a great grandfather who had a mania for affixing small brass plaques to everything with details of when it was made, who owned it and - in the case of a crib - all the children who used it. I guess he cared more about things than people.
    Equally frustrating are the photo albums dating from the early 19th century to the 1920s. There are numerous pictures of lawn parties at various estates along the Hudson river, Hyde Park, the Mills mansion at Staatsburg, Montgomery Place and others, but none of the people are identified.
    It is very sad that the only people who could have identified some of the individuals pictured died in the 1980s before anyone had a chance to pick their brains.

  28. I'm so delighted that you wrote " ancestress" I cannot abide the fact that actor now serves for actress.

    Such a romantic post.

  29. Anon 2:52: Thank you for your comment, and welcome! The "uniforms" post is a gift that keeps on giving, and is my most commented upon post ever.

    Karena: It is maddening, indeed!

    Anon 1:09: Thank you for your interesting comment. From the sound of it we do not live all that far apart from each other, at least that is if you live today near the places you mention in your comment.

    Tabitha: Why thank you, it is a personal pet peeve of mine, as well. One much prefers "authoress" to "author," too--at least when referring to those practitioners of the fairer sex.

  30. Reggie, am slowly getting caught up on blogs, so am late to the party on this one. But, what a lovely photograph. And the case, oh! I once posted a photograph on my blog, which was miraculously identified. I bought it for 50 cents in a junk shop. Well, several months later a woman emailed me to say that it was inscribed to her father! A photograph of the old family cottage in Maine. Needless to say, I was overjoyed to be able to reunite the photograph with its rightful owner. All the more reason to identify those old photos.

  31. Dear Reggie,

    I was in a book store today (2/10/11), looking through the new release of Mark Twain's autobiography, and saw something that made me recall this posting.

    Though the image is in black and white, there is a photograph of Twain and his bride Olivia, in a case that looks similar to yours and is described as being purple velvet. The portraits were made on porcelain and date to 1869.

    Do have a look - I think your ancestor's portrait and Twain's wedding portrait could originate from the same place.



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