An Uncommon Smile

Tuesday 3 September 2019

In this post Eddie Martin from our Photo team describes an unusual early portrait photograph in our collections which has caught his eye recently.

Born in 1819, Cornelius Jabez Hughes followed his father into the business of tailoring before in 1847 learning the craft of Daguerreotype photography from John Mayall in London. Shortly afterwards he moved to Glasgow to work with J M Bernard, and then in 1850 he took over Bernard’s studio in the Monteith Rooms and went into business for himself. As a founder member of the Glasgow Photographic Society in 1854 he was a popular speaker, and throughout his career he wrote a number of articles and books on the subject, including the well-received The Principles & Practice of Photography Familiarly Explained”.

He left Glasgow in 1855 to return to London where he bought the studio of his former teacher, J J E Mayall, and a few years later he made his final move to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. The location of his studio, not far from Queen Victoria’s residence at Osborne House, his association with Mayall (who took the first carte-de-visite portraits of the Queen in 1860), and not least his renowned skill as a portraitist, led to his receiving Queen Victoria and members of the royal families of Britain and other parts of the world as sitters before his camera.

Carte-de-visite portrait of Queen Victoria with her daughter Princess Alice and daughter-in-law the Princess of Wales, c.1865. Cornelius Jabez Hughes. (QVA-08)

We have in our collection two or three examples of these later royal portraits, which were very popular and therefore remain fairly common. In June this year an opportunity arose to acquire an example of Hughes’s earlier Scottish work, a beautiful ninth-plate daguerreotype portrait of a young woman taken in his Glasgow studio. Seated in three-quarter profile, her gaze fixed on a point outside the frame, and with her long necklace, ring and charm bracelet neatly picked out in gold paint, perhaps her most unusual feature is her enigmatic, Mona Lisa-like smile.

Daguerreotype portrait of a seated young woman, 1850-1855. Cornelius Jabez Hughes. (EPM-CJH-1)

Although by no means unique, a smiling face in a portrait of this time is unusual enough to attract attention. Many theories have been put forward for this phenomenon, from hiding poor dental hygiene to facial muscles being unable to stand the long exposure times necessary. Probably the most likely explanation is cultural – making a portrait is a serious business, whether it’s painted or photographed, and nobody wanted to be captured for posterity “grinning like an idiot”. From our modern perspective, however, an image like this one is considered particularly appealing – the relaxed pose and natural expression create an immediate empathy with the subject that transcends the century-and-a-half separating us.

Eddie Martin
Photographic Collections Cataloguer

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