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Friday, 29 January 2016


Artistic cabinet card back stamps
“I'm afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.”
Andy Warhol

 These days, when the word ‘art’ can mean pretty much what you want it to, some of us might feel nostalgic for the 19th century, when the word had a very precise definition. Or so we like to think. It turns out our great, great or merely great grandparents were just as vague on the subject. To them, ‘art’ didn’t necessarily carry a value judgment; it could refer to pictures in general, which is to say any pictures regardless of their quality. An artist was someone who made pictures. Of course they had artists – people of questionable morals and hygiene who couldn’t keep a proper job – but if a sign painter called himself an artist no one was going to correct him. In Nashua, New Hampshire, Joseph Gauthier advertised himself as an art photographer and to emphasize his credentials had the landscape on the easel. The mountain could be Mt Adams or Washington in New Hampshire, but it could as easily be a generic mountain. You’ll notice the palette and the brush at the bottom of the canvas. The logic suggests the painting is being completed while we watch.

 Thomas Donovan of Brighton and Boak and Sons of Malton and Driffield are just two other English studios that used this same back stamp. A glance at the bottom left shows it was produced by the printing firm Marion of Paris. The woman is supposed to be a figure from the Italian Renaissance but, given the period this was produced, we could also think of her as pre-Raphaelite. Note the ivy, a plant that has had numerous symbolic meanings throughout English history, some erotic and others more cerebral. What of the snake unwinding upon the vase? The first thought is that it is a nod to Genesis, but why? 

 There is little immediate information on the Curtis Art Gallery, most likely located in upstate New York, but we can imagine the kind of art that hung on its walls. Apart from views of Niagara Falls, we could expect a few mildly pictorialist scenes among the Currier & Ives type prints and a few still lifes. The clue is in the Japanese fan sticking out of the vase in the bottom right. C1880s the inclusion of Japanese elements in any kind of pictorial design was a nod to art: not the high art the Renaissance as in the first backstamp but an indication that the producer had a rarified and sensitive outlook. This was an era when drinking Japanese tea out of small bowls was a mark of wealth and sophistication.

 The acknowledgement to Japan is more explicit here in the umbrella. Again it is also a design by Marion, now of London as well as Paris. You’ll notice that, like Spence Lees and Curtis, J Maclardy offers services as a portrait painter. On the backs of CDVs sighted on Ebay, MacLardy says he or she also paints on ivory. That would be miniature ivory portraits. Although at this time (1880s) the idea of the artist as a member of the avant garde was being recognized, it would be churlish to argue that Maclardy was not an artist.

 P. Drew is Alfred Palmer Drew. The Cabinet Card Gallery has some information on him, including the tragic destruction of his studio in 1896. For now we are only interested in the rather excellent back stamp. Although it doesn’t carry a printer’s name it is hard to believe that Drew would go to the expense of producing this on his own. An earlier post discussed the putti (as the cherubs are properly called) and their unclear symbolism. Here as usual there’s a suggestion they are up to mischief. Note how the one at the top is about to pull the sheet from the easel, so revealing the painting underneath, but the camera nearby indicates it will actually be a photograph. You’ll also notice that the little thug at the bottom has upset a frame and allowed a photo to fall out, so presumably advertising the fact that customers can have their portraits framed as well.

 Two more putti, common enough on back stamps so we need not pay too much attention except that the one at the top wears an apron with the sun as a crest, telling us he or she an emissary from the sun or is the agent ultimately creating the photograph. The photo is from Bulgaria but the stamp was produced by Bernhard Vachs (?) of Vienna. There’s an evocation of Greek mythology here; of the putti caught up in a shroud discarded by Demeter, goddess of fertility, or even her daughter Persephone, associated with Spring.

This elegant design also has allusions to Greece and also the Orient, but it is the two ships that catch our eye. Smith’s Falls is on the Rideau River but these ships are on a somewhat larger body of water, the closest to the town being Lake Ontario, which is some distance away.  It’s proof if we want it that the back stamp need not bear any relation to the photographer’s business or philosophy. John Moore either consulted a catalogue or he found an ad in a photographic magazine, but when he saw this design he liked it at once.

Finally, we come to Paul Darby, whose claim to fame, such as it is, was that he photographed James Joyce at his graduation in 1902. We don’t know whether Darby was Irish, French or British but we can see that by century’s turn he has embraced the design and typography of Art Nouveau; well who wouldn’t. to be an artistic photographer was as much about being wise to contemporary fashion as it was about being up with ideas in painting and sculpture. The idea of purity, of suffering for art had caught on around Montmartre but over on the Boulevard de Strasbourg hunger and struggle were the last things anyone would admit to.