Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors
For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?
Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.
The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.
In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.
Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.
‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?
A few days ago we asked if anyone could help to interpret this photograph of two postcards which we know refer to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. What we didn’t yet understand was how it refers to it. Who is the bell boy on the right? The uniformed horse? Why is he laughing? What does the pump refer to? Russian Reddit users u/sUpport84 and u/agrostis came to the rescue. The explanation below is thanks to him.
First off, these two postcards are part of a set of three as it is taken from a (presumably French) triptych from the period. The whole thing is a mocking take on Japanese ambitions in the Far East.
The bull is Russia, Japan is the frog and the bell boy / servant is Britain. As an ally of Japan, Britain was keen to use her power to curb Russian influence in the region. France, meanwhile was allied to Russia. The artist is poking fun at the pretensions of Japan by referencing the fable of the Frog and the Ox, in which the former tries to inflate itself to the size of the latter and bursts in the attempt. In the postcard the frog asks “Look, aren’t I big enough yet?”. Britain’s reply is “not yet”.
Hailed as ‘unsinkable’ before its maiden voyage on 11 April 1912, the Titanic retains an iron grip on the popular imagination. This is reflected in high prices for any contemporary postcards featuring the ship and, in particular, ones printed or posted before it sank. Most coveted of all is a card written on board and posted at the layover in Cork (then Queenstown) before it left on the ill-fated journey to New York. One such card written by a maid who wrote “I wish you were here, it is a lovely boat and it would do you good. Am just going on deck” fetched £8,500 at auction last year.
Inevitably, unwary buyers (particularly online) can be caught out by fakes but this is the real thing: a Rotary Photo card posted just six weeks after the sinking and is signed by someone we know only as ‘J.H.’. His wry comment “I thought you would like this card” highlights just how dramatic this event was for people at the time and there was a huge demand for Titanic postcards immediately after the sinking. Some studios even used images of Titanic’s sister ship Olympic to cash in on this.
Photographs of the real Titanic show that the lower deck promenade is enclosed along the length of the ship while only the front half of the upper ‘A’ deck (circled) is similarly enclosed.
Two classic French ‘metamorphosis’ postcards from around 1905-1910. Some artists delight in reminding us that, no matter how much fun we’re having, we’re all going to die. Hence the two ladies bidding each other ‘au revoir’ in a sunlit park are oblivious to the shadow of Death who may have other plans for either one (or both) of them. The other card is titled less ambiguously. ‘Tête de Mort’ hints that even the carefree happiness of the two children sledging is overshadowed by the inevitability of the grave.
This device is known as a memento mori – in Latin “remember you will die” and it was a common feature in a great deal of Western art. While the recipient of such cards might well appreciate the skill involved in creating the illusion, it seems pretty grim as gifts go. Most surviving examples are real photograph postcards though so they often fetch good prices. Just remember that you can’t take them with you…
Bad news has always sold well and disasters often feature on early postcards like this one from New York in 1905. Ironically, it occurred on September 11th when a high-level train jumped the tracks killing eleven passengers and one passer by. The driver was held responsible immediately went on the run being arrested two years later in San Francisco.
Accidents involving all kinds of transport are a particularly prevalent theme from postcards in the early part of the twentieth century. The lack of safety features and an arrogant belief in our superiority over mere machinery would provide no shortage of subjects. Any number of picture postcards feature the aftermath of car, plane and shipwrecks, a bemused public gawking at a tangle of metal and scattered debris. Yet some of the more sought-after postcards actually show the ‘before’ picture of notable disasters. Cards featuring the Hindenburg or the Titanic in their pomp have particular appeal.
Easy, effective, instant global communication is something we now take for granted thanks to email, WhatsApp and all the other platforms available to us. It was different just thirty years ago and it was unimagineable during the Great War. At a time of national crisis with hundreds of thousands of people displaced because of military commitments, the postal service played a vital role in keeping families in touch and maintaining morale among servicemen and women. Receiving a postcard nowadays is always welcome but its receipt was generally greeted with far more joy a hundred years ago.
This series of cards was sent by John Moorcroft to his wife in Epsom. The fronts show a variety of aircraft used by the RFC in whose service he was employed at Aldershot. On the back he writes to tell her of impending leave and the train he plans to take. Happily, he survived the war but for some families a simple postcard was the last message they ever had from a loved one.
Deltiology, as postcard collecting is known, is now the third most popular collecting hobby in the world (after stamps and money). 1989-1919 is regarded as the Golden Age when picture postcards were extremely popular but collections can be centred on any period, theme or location.
Whether you’re wondering if it’s for you or you’re a seasoned deltiologist, there’s sure to be something interesting to discover at Charing Cross Collectors Market this Saturday.
The Edwardian splendour of classic rail travel is recalled in this rare mint condition promotional postcard for the Great Central Railway (1897-1922). The company would later form part of the much larger London and North Eastern Railway. Today it survives as the UK’s only main line heritage railway (http://www.gcrailway.co.uk/)
Postcards, coins, stamps, militaria and ephemera of all sorts attract interested amateurs and discerning collectors alike every Saturday at Charing Cross Market. See you there.