Photography and Dressing Up in Victorian Cardiganshire

We are delighted to present a guest blog by Dr. Lucy Smith.

Dr. Lucy Smith has degrees in English Literature and Archive Administration and her doctorate was on Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography. She is particularly interested in creative archives, and in the representation of Victorian art in literature. In her spare time, she loves painting, exploring historic places, and discovering new bookshops.

Recently, I have been transcribing some of the Webley Parry collection at Ceredigion Archives, and was fascinated to find out that the collection contains a wonderfully eclectic range of photographs that break the mould of the stuffy Victorian portrait, and range into the realms of the fantastical!

Soon after its public invention as a recording device in the 1830s, photography became a leisure activity for upper-class families like the Webley Parrys. However, these amateur photographers wanted to do more than record their images for posterity. Rich families with time and money used photography to play games and create new experimental identities. This may seem like a modern obsession, but the Victorians were there first. Photography blended with the existing upper-class pastimes of pageantry, amateur theatricals and tableaux vivants. Adults were dressing up as their favourite characters from novels, songs and plays of the day, and as characters from history.

The Webley Parry photographs range from large scrapbook albums to tiny cartes de visite that would have been used as calling cards. The Webley Parrys were a gentry family from the Teifi valley who held the estate at Noyadd Trefawr and had strong links to Blaenpant in Llandygwydd. They were big political and social players in the county and were also connected to estates and families around the UK, but they had plenty of time for photography, especially the women of the family. In fact, visits to photographers are frequently mentioned in the personal diary of Maria Brigstocke née Webley Parry in the 1860s, with different members of the family going every day to the photographer to ‘be taken’. The collection includes photographs from several generations of the extended family stretching into the twentieth century, but surprisingly it’s the late Victorian photographs that are full of the most outlandish characters.

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The range of characters for dressing-up is eclectic and reveals interesting hints of subversion about a family that belonged firmly in the establishment. One picture that really surprised me was this studio photograph of the Webley Parry’s cousin Katherine Dundas, showing her dressed as the revolutionary assassin Charlotte Corday, who famously murdered Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leading Jacobins, in his own bath. Katherine is dressed up in the costume of the eighteenth-century, complete with mob cap. The photograph imitates pictures of Charlotte Corday from the time of the revolution, such as this one painted by Jean-Jacques Hauer just before her execution in 1793, at the age of 24.


Source: Wikipedia (see link below)

This story would have been well known to educated Victorians, who regarded the French Revolution as the bloodiest period of history, and which continued to cast a shadow over the Victorian age as a warning of the consequences of social rebellion. It is interesting to speculate on what attracted Katherine to pose as this character. On one level, perhaps the photograph embodies Katherine as an assassin against the extremes of the revolution. On the other hand, dressing up as an assertive political woman who attacked a man, could also be a sign of a rebellious spirit who wouldn’t be constricted by expected roles. It might have taken some nerve to dress up like this in Victorian Wales!

By setting these images in the past, and the realm of myth, Katherine and her family were able to vent the pleasure of trying on a less-restricted fantasy life, whilst not giving up any of the privileges she enjoyed as an upper-class woman. However, by taking a photograph, she also immortalised herself in this role and got to keep it forever.

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Sometimes, the photographs are more funny than rebellious, such as this portrait of sisters Katherine and Mary Kewley dressed as something between Italian peasants and Renaissance minstrels! Katherine (left) is perhaps the most enthusiastic costume fan in the family, and there are many pictures of her in historical outfits – but a lady with a banjo or lute seems to have been her favourite character. The family could have been influenced by popular trends in painting which portrayed women as dreamy musicians with luxuriant dresses, such as Holman Hunt’s Bianca (1868-9).


Source: Wikimedia (see link below)

Many of these costumes might have been borrowed from the photographer’s studio, as commercial photographs would keep a stock of outfits in anticipation of the wealthy patrons who wanted to spend their leisure time being other people. But the Webley Parrys took this further than studio photography and enjoyed dressing up at home as well.

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This photograph shows several of the extended family at the door of Blaenpant Mansion in Llandygwydd. They are from left to right, Charles Hope, Min Munro, John Dodgson, Connie Gabler and Mr Jones, a tutor to the Kewleys. Connie Gabler and Mr Jones are in eighteenth-century dress; Connie in a powdered wig and fan, and Mr Jones in breeches, a long jacket and a flat wide-brimmed hat. Victorians evidently spent as much time romanticising the Georgian period as later generations would spend romanticising them! Charles Hope and John Dodgson are dressed in traditional Greek dress – a branch of the family were connected to the Greek de Palatiano family, through the marriage of Nina de Palatiano with David Webley Parry in 1861. They were also voracious travellers on the continent. However, given the jaunty pose of Charles Hope, they could also have been influenced by the Romantic poet Lord Byron, who often posed in Greek and Albanian traditional dress during his lifetime.

Speculation is open on how the family connected this disparate group of outfits. Were they trying to recreate a real-life occasion or a scene from a novel or poem? Certainly, the Victorian amateur theatrical tradition revelled in borrowing and possibly appropriating the cultures and dress of different countries and classes, in a way that we might think twice about today. However, it’s interesting that the family tutor is dressed as a country gentleman, which reverses the class swap premise!

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The albums in the Webley Parry collection also show the Kewley sisters dancing and generally messing about. In the later nineteenth century, improvements in technology that shortened exposure times meant that subjects could be photographed less formally, as they would not need to hold their poses for so long. Mary and Katherine Kewley and a couple of friends pose here in a chorus line style as ‘The Sisters Ankleine’ which is possibly a reference to their rather daring exposure of ankles!

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This 1897 montage from one of the Kewleys’ albums is also pretty striking, showing some friends posed as child characters from a popular song. The caption reads ‘….’t play in your back yard’ which probably refers to an American waltz of 1894 called ‘I don’t want to play in your yard’ by H.W. Petrie and Philip Wingate. The song refers to ‘two little maids’ with ‘hair down in braids’ and ‘blue ging’am pinafores’ who have a quarrel. This nostalgia for childhood freedom might suggest a desire to postpone the stringent conformity that might be expected of the sitters as adults.  Then again, it could just be a bit of fun! The lower photograph shows ‘M.J’ with a newly fashionable bicycle, cementing the girls as modern young women.

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The Kewleys were also creative in the way that they displayed their photographs in albums. Victorian photograph enthusiasts would produce multiple copies of their favourite pictures which could be cut up and pasted in different contexts to produce varying effects. This could be directly compared to modern day ‘curation’ of photographs on social media. Here several heads have been cut out and pasted together to produce a quirky effect. Mary Kewley appears three times, as the middle heads on the left and the right, and on the bottom right, as a child dressed as an exotic princess, so that she exists simultaneously on the page at different ages. Photography gave the Kewleys the ability to compare different versions of themselves, and condense different time periods and characters onto a single page, so these albums could be seen as a way to explore and create their own identities away from social expectations.

The Webley Parry photographs show how photography was already a crucial part of ‘youth culture’ in the late nineteenth-century. These privileged young people were just as keen as modern social media users to manufacture memories, imitate their favourite celebrities, and look like they were having a good time, perhaps with a similar view of showing off to other people!

Lucy Smith


The Webley-Parry Collection (ref. WP), Ceredigion Archives

Petrie, H.W and Philip Wingate. I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard (1894)

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