The Carte de Visite by Charles Dickens
ALL THE YEAR ROUND, VOLUME VII
THE CARTE DE VISITE.
THERE are probably few pairs of eyes turned towards this page which have not been directed before now to some nob, or moulding, or key-hole, or door-handle in a photographic studio, and so have remained fixed in a delirious stare till the carte de visite was an accomplished fact. It is commonly a very heavy blow when one first sees the result of that operation which we have so many of us gone through. We explain ourselves in our different ways when we have our first interview with our own portraits after they come from the photographer's. If we are of a demonstrative nature, and besides have not been bred at the Court of St. James's, we exclaim "Lor!" when we first see ourselves. Some again will utter a mere unintelligible exclamation of surprise or grief; others will bless themselves; and truculent and hot-livered persons will invoke upon the head of the artist that which is not a benediction. There remains yet a class of well-bred and undemonstrative individuals who confine themselves to a speechless examination of the arrived cards, merely expressing their agony by an eloquent silence, by twisting the work of art first this way and then that, holding it now at a distance, and now near, and anon upside-down.
We get accustomed to the portrait after a time, are able to face it, to see it on our drawing-room table in a small frame, or in an album, or even in the books of our dear friends and acquaintances. If we are public characters (and it is astonishing how many of us now find that we are so), we are actually obliged at last to get accustomed to the sight of ourselves in the shop-windows of this great metropolis.Our shepherd's-plaid trousers, our favourite walking-stick, our meerschaum pipe, meet our gaze turn where we will.
We do not all come out of the photographic studio alike unhappy. There are those to whom the process does justice, as well as those to whom it does injustice; nay, there are some on whom it confers actual benefits, and who show to greater advantage on the carte de visite than in their own proper persons. I have myself sat on two occasions for one of these portraits. On the first I was simply occupied in keeping still and presenting a tolerably favourable view of my features and limbs to the fatal lens; but the result was so tame and unimposing a picture that I determined on the next occasion to throw more intellect into the thing, and finding a certain richly-gilded curtain-tassel convenient to my gaze,I gave it a look of such piercing scrutiny, and so withered and blasted it with the energy of my regard, that I almost wonder it did not sink beneath the trial. That look has, I am happy to say, been reproduced faithfully, and no one could see the portrait without giving its original credit for immense penetration, great energy and strength of character, and a keen and piercing wit. It is difficult to lay down rules of general application, but it may be safely said that the people who come out of the photographic struggle the best, and who are least injured in the engagement, are people of ordinary appearance, from whom we do not expect much. It is common to hear some lady who is generally acknowledged to be pretty, urged by her friends to sit for a carte de visite. "You really ought to have it done," they say; "you would make such a charming portrait." The portrait is taken, and is, after all, not charming. On the contrary, it is sufficiently the reverse to make the dearest of the victim's female friends happy.
Those to whom this process does the greatest justice are people the proportions of whose faces are well balanced, whose features rather err on the side of smallness than largeness, and who are not generally considered to be beautiful. It is possible to have symmetrical features and a well-proportioned face and yet to fall very far short of beauty; and it is equally possible for a countenance to be wrong in some of its proportions, and yet leave an impression of beauty on our minds.But any one in this last case will be a great sufferer in going through the photographic process. As the two likenesses appear side by side in the album, they will astonish all who look at them. They thought the one was such a much plainer person than she here appears, and the other so much prettier.
There are many beauties of colour and expression which cannot be rendered by the agency of the camera. Colour of hair, colour of the complexion generally, of the lips, the cheeks, the eyes, all these go for nothing; and as to expression, the most expressive countenances suffer most invariably: a little happy touch of expression is a phenomenon one hardly ever remembers to have seen caught in a photographic portrait.If the face be left to take its chance—so to speak—a heavy or mournful look is the usual result, and if any particular expression be attempted it is almost sure to look like a grimace; a truth of which we constantly see illustrations in the portraits of those engaged in the theatrical profession, when some special expression has been attempted. People of mediocre abilities, as people of mediocre beauty, will come off best in sitting for their photographs. They will astonish us by looking so clever, as the others by looking so pretty. Real genius and real beautywill often astonish us the other way. It is asdifficult to give a man's outside, with all we knowof it in a portrait, as to produce a fairrepresentation of his mind in a biography.
There are, however, very many motives which all work in consonance to make us patronise this very thriving business of photography. First of all there is the appeal to our vanity. You yourself are the subject of your own especial consideration and that of one or two others for some considerable space of time.What a delightful thing that is. Whether you are good-looking or ugly you like that, depend on it. Then, the portrait done, you have the opportunity of distributing yourself among your friends, and letting them see you in your favourite attitude, and with your favourite expression. And then you get into those wonderful books which everybody possesses, and strangers see you there in good society, and ask who that very striking-looking person is?
Those albums are fast taking the place and doing the work of the long cherished card-basket. That institution has had a long swing of it. It was a good thing to leave on the table that your morning-caller while waiting in the drawing-room till you were presentable, might see what distinguished company you kept, and what very unexceptionable people were in the habit of coming to call on you. But the card-basket was not comparable to the album as an advertisement of your claims to gentility. The card of Mrs. Brown of Peckham would well to the surface at times from the depths to which you had consigned it, and overlay that of your favourite countess or millionnaire. Besides, you could not in so many words call attention to your card-basket as you can to the album. You place it in your friend's hands, saying, "This only contains my special favourites, mind," and there is her ladyship staring them in the face the next moment. "Who is this sweet person?" says the visitor. "Oh, that is dear Lady Puddicombe,"you reply carelessly. Delicious moment!
Yet, sitting for one's photograph is, after all, not a pleasant performance to go through. Of course it is a mere nothing to what one used to endure in sitting for a regular portrait in a gloomy apartment in Newman or Berners-street.Many of us remember that operation vividly enough, and some even of the new generation can call to mind what they have suffered as children in the artists' quarter just named. They remember the dismal house with the curious window on the first-floor cut up so as to encroach on the second. They remember the dirty servant of all work who opened the door, and who ushered the victims into that dingy dining-room which was too suggestive of dentistry to be pleasant. As in the dental dining-room, so in this of the artist, there was a wonderful impossibility of identifying the apartment with eating and drinking. It would be impossible for anybody to enjoy either food or wine within its precincts.
A few very old periodicals, a very fat and dirty volume of the Every-day Book of Hone, and some one or two books of amateur poetry, were on the central table, and as to works of art these abounded at the dentist's as at the painter's, but with this difference: at the first they would be engravings by different hands, and bearing affecting inscriptions in pencil, that made one's grinders shake in their sockets. "To Mr. Lipscrush, with the artist's grateful remembrances," or,"from a grateful patient," or, "in commemoration of many professional favours conferred on the artist." In the Berners-street dining-room the works of art were without such inscriptions.The pictures which hung round the artistic dining-room—and many of which had no frames—were ordinarily of elevated subjects: Titania with Bottom wearing the ass's head, Ophelia hovering over the book, Ugolino gaunt with starvation, Virginius sacrificing his daughter, and other exhilarating companions to the dinner-table. There they hung, a perpetual monument to the want of taste of the British public, and there hung some of the portraits which the artist had been driven to paint, when he found that high art left his dining-table with nothing more eatable upon it, than an army list or a number of Blackwood. Among these latter works would be included "Portrait of the Artist," painted evidently at the Ugolino period, glaring round at society out of hollow, sunken eyes. The artist's father, his mother, and a general officer, who bore a strong resemblance to the artist himself in a Nathanic red coat and epaulets.
What wonder that one should go up from such a dining-room expecting to hear in a soothing voice the words "Open, a little wider," with an accompaniment of rattling instruments in a drawer? And what a place was the Studio itself when you reached it. That window observed from outside as encroaching on the second-floor was blocked up as to the lower half, so that there was no chance of seeing anything of the street unless it was the garret-window and the parapet of the house opposite, with an old flower-pot, a dangling fragment of clothes-line, and a row of hideous distorted chimneys showing their gnarled and twisted arms against the dull grey sky. To spend an afternoon looking at such a prospect was not hilarious. Nor was the interior of the room much better. The half-finished pictures leaning against the wall, the studies from nature or copies of the old masters—old enough to have grown up into misters one would think by this time—the plaster casts of nude arms doubling themselves up so as to bring out the muscles in a very unnecessary manner, for nobody ever said they were not muscular, the antique heads, with noses on which the blacks and dust had gathered loweringly; their hollow parts and sunken lines protected by the nobbier portions, relieving with a white and brilliant glare the bits of old tapestry, frouzy costume, and improbable armour—all these matters made up an interior which if it was picturesque (which it wasn't) was infinitely dismal and disheartening. You were seated on a throne, too, which to persons not of the regal class was in itself disconcerting. Some question of perspective, or of points of view, rendered it needful that you should be raised on high, and so you were perched up on a green-baize throne. You sat on a cut-velvet old-fashioned chair, whose timbers creaked responsive every time you sighed, and more old-fashioned chairs were placed about the room, which might have reminded one of ancient times, if they had not been so much more suggestive of Auction Marts and nosey brokers.
What an afternoon's entertainment! If the artist talked, you felt he was not minding his business; if he worked, he was apt to be silent; while, if he tried to combine labour and conversation, his talk would be characterised by the remark unconnected and the reply inappropriate, and the afternoon's labour would very likely result in that disastrous phenomemon, an unrecognisable likeness.
Now what is the photographic ordeal after this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
But, just as the sufferings which we are called on to undergo have in this age been reduced, so also, alas! have the powers of endurance, and so the same human being, who once bore a journey of three days and nights by coach, grumbles at a two hours' whirl by railway; and he who has known the horrors of a month or so of sittings, finds that to wait an hour or so in a photographer's gallery, going right through all the portraits on the wall and table, exhausts his patience. When at last he is released from the waiting-saloon and mounts to the operating-room above, that he is in the worst possible cue for the performance in which he is to take a part. He feels at once dazzled and oppressed by that glare of light above his head. It makes him blink, it closes up his eyes, it gives him a sense of having been up all night. The properties about the room, too, are bewildering. There are all sorts of things appropriate to all the different professions which different sitters may be expected to follow. There is a piece of complicated wheel-work for a mechanician, a pair of globes for a geographer, a nautical compass for the mariner, and a pair of compasses for a civil engineer. There, too, is a palette and an easel for the artist, a book for the divine, an empty brief for the lawyer, an hour-glass for the philosopher, and an inkstand and a pen with a tremendous feather in it for the author. Lastly, there is a wretched painted scene which is intended to take the public in as a landscape-background, but the honest instrument will never fall into the scheme, and hating the landscape always proclaims it for the sham which it is. This background is intended for private and non-professional persons, and there is also a pillar and a curtain—but who are those for? What is the profession of that unhappy and misguided wretch who is supposed to pass his life in a perpetual environment of pillar and curtain? There may have been persons so situated once, but now we turn our pillars into letter boxes, and the curtain draperies into ladies' cloaks rich in festoons of crimson.
The thirty seconds which the light requires to take a likeness are so utterly exhausting, that if there were one more necessary I believe no human being could go through with the thing. The horrible necessity of keeping motionless is an incentive, of almost irresistible force, to violent action. Terrific are the temptations of those thirty seconds. You feel that you must make a face, yell, spring up, and cut a frantic caper. You say to yourself: "Suppose I were to sneeze, to choke; suppose I were to burst out into a rude guffaw? I will, I must! Suppose I were to squint; I think I am squinting. The brass knob on which I am told to fix my eyes is getting muzzy; it is huge in size; it revolves; I can't see it. My hands are tingling, swelling, bursting. All is dizzy before me—I shall explode!"
There is, in truth, much that will always be adverse to the production of an agreeable photographic likeness; but at the same time, it is quite as true that a very great deal might be done by a little more knowledge, thought, and painstaking, to render such portraits infinitely more pleasant than they are generally found to be.
People who are considered good-looking, and those even who are beautiful, have a hundred different aspects, and to seize the best one and reproduce it is a function of Genius and not of Chemicals. If you have had a friend whom you have wished to show off to another friend, have you not often been disappointed that the first was "in such bad looks" as really not to look even pretty? The person who was expected to be struck with admiration has wondered at your taste, and you have been obliged to own that there was matter for disappointment. Even in nature, out-of-door nature, this is so. The view which you saw from the hills above the old French town, with the evening sun lighting up the rich plain, making the mountains in the distance amethysts, and the river a line of gold, while the one cloud shadow lay over the old cathedral tower and blackened it, so that all the rest sparkled the more— what is that very same scene when the sky is grey, and the mountains grey too, and plain and river and cathedral are all of one monotonous slate-colour!
But though it may take a Reynolds to do justice to the beauty of the living creature, and a Turner to reproduce that of the mountain and the plain, there is much to be got out of the Photographic Lens—which it would be wickedness to disparage —infinitely more than it is ordinarily made to convey to us. There are one or two simple matters which might be borne in mind by photographers with immense advantage to their sitters, and to their own reputations as well. They do not yet quite understand their trade.
The two great main considerations which should occupy the mind of every photographer are these: What is the best view he can take of his sitter, and what the effect of light and shade which will be most becoming to that sitter's countenance. On these two considerations the success of the portrait entirely depends. Now as to the question of view there is some tolerable amount of understanding manifested by the great body of photographers. The sitter is generally so placed that the most favourable aspect of his face may come before the lens, and so that the rapid perspective to which he is subjected shall distort him as little as may be. It is pretty well known that if his legs are nearer the machine than his body the first will be disproportionately large for the last; that if his hand is stretched out towards the artist, it will be twice the size it ought to be, and that even the fact of his nose being nearer the camera than the rest of the face will give to that central feature a large and swollen aspect. Such general rules as these, applying equally to all sitters, are then pretty well understood. But this is not enough. The photographic artist who would wish to produce a really successful portrait, should study the special defects and the special beauties of the individual before him, and consider in what view the faults of such a physiognomy will assert themselves least strongly, and the merits show the most. This is the function of an artist, of a man of considerable natural abilities, and immense experience. It is exercised by some of the best French photographers in an eminent degree, and by one — M. Camille Silvy — who has setup his studio here in England.
M. Silvy — and almost he alone in this country — seems to understand the immense importance of shadow as an ingredient in a successful portrait. This is his great stronghold, more even than the taste which he shows in his choice of view, costume, and accessory. These last are great elements in M. Silvy's portraits, but the distinguishing merit of them is the well-chosen light and shade. It is perfectly surprising that this has not been more considered by all photographers. Their process is a thing simply of light and shade. It is the light that makes the portrait come into existence at all.The patches of shade, more or less dark, alone prevent a carte de visite from being a sheet of blank paper. Surely the shapes of those patches of shade are all-important. It is little known—and when it is known we shall have prettier photographs—that a light coming from above the head of the sitter is the most unbecoming thing in the world, and that a face so lighted cannot by any possibility show to advantage.Now, the ordinary photographer's glass-room has a diffused light all over it, but mainly coming from above, so that the eyes show in two dark caverns of shadow, while a black patch appears under the nose, throwing the termination of that feature up to the skies, and making it show as an isolated nob, the full sizeof which is—and few of us can bear this—done the amplest justice to. This top-light, moreover, scores out relentlessly those baggy marks which many of us have too well developed under the eyes, and which are not characteristics of the human beau-ideal, while — in the case of ladies — a kind of trough on each side of the mouth is joined to the chin-shadow after the fashion of a Vandyke beard.
In ladies' portraits, the elimination of beauty, and not so much of character as in men, is the thing to be borne in mind. Now, the most becoming light is one level with the face, or even, perhaps, somewhat beneath it—it being a great mistake to suppose that the foot-lights on the stage are unbecoming. Such a light as that described above would make any face in the world ugly, and yet it is just such a light which is to be found in most photographers' rooms.
As much as possible, as much as may consist with the action of the photographic process, the light from above should be got rid of in taking these portraits, and a light from the side brought into use. This seems to be understood in a rare manner by M. Silvy. His portraits are very popular, but, perhaps, many of the people who like them are ignorant of the reason which causes their preference. The reason lies, to a large extent, in the softness and size of the shadows which lie in such agreeable masses on the faces which come within the range of this photographer's skill. He has discovered the simple truth, that in an affair in which it is a question altogether of shadows, the distribution of those shadows is a thing of vital importance. Of every face in this town there is a view to betaken, and a light and shade to be selected, which will show it to advantage or disadvantage.To subject all to the same glaring light, descending on all alike, and to all unbecoming, is scarcely the way to produce agreeable results.Yet we have known a photographer standing under his own light, and most hideously distorted by that circumstance alone—without the additional help of his instrument — to argue with us, the wretched sitter, that we were none the worse for his light!
It is difficult to speak strongly enough about this question of shadows and their value. Queen Elizabeth, in her ignorance, thought shadows unbecoming to the glory of her majesty, and wished to be painted without any at all; and, doubtless, there are people who now-a-days think shade a smudgy dirty thing, the less of which comes upon their countenances the better. But light cannot be thrown out in its full brilliancy, nor forms shown in their variety, without it said. Why, one of the main differences between a fine day and a dull one lies in the shadows which proclaim the first, and are wanting in the other. On a wet, dull day, as you stand in the grey sickly light, you may look all round about in vain for your shadow; it is not to be found. A cheerless, monotonous glare is over all things.The sun comes out, and the first thing it does is to cast your shadow dark and clear and sharp upon the ground — your shadow and that of the trees, the buildings, and all things else that come within reach of its rays. How different everything looks then; how solid, how bright, how finished! Those shadows are larger in the early morning and again as the day declines, and it is one reason of our admiration of those two seasons that then the rising or sinking sun catches but one side of every object, and leaves so large a portion of the scene lost in a mysterious and softened shade.