Sunday, 15 March 2009

Ann in ambrotype

This photo is of my mother’s mother’s father’s mother’s mother... In other words my great great great grandmother. Ann Gomm was born in 1796 in Milton-under-Wychwood, Oxfordshire. She married Thomas Young (1791-1855) in May 1818. She died in 1880 in Shipton-under-Wychwood. This photo was almost certainly taken between the late 1850s and the mid 1860s when Ann Young, as she had become, was in her sixties.

How can I date the photo so closely? The answer lies in the nature of the print - it is a positive image on glass – an ambrotype. The ambrotype process (from Greek ambrotos, "immortal") is a photographic process that creates a positive photographic image on a sheet of glass using the wet plate collodion process. It was patented in 1854 by James Ambrose Cutting of Boston, in the United States. The wet plate collodion process was invented just a few years before that by Frederick Scott Archer, but Archer used it as a negative.

One side of a glass plate was covered with a thin layer of collodion, then dipped in a silver nitrate solution. The plate was exposed while still wet. (Exposure times varied from five to sixty seconds or more depending on the amount of available light.) The plate was then developed and fixed. The lengthy exposure time is one reason why people tended not to smile. It was easier to maintain a still serious face than smile without moving.

The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears to be a positive image: the clear areas look black, and the exposed, opaque areas appear light. This effect is achieved by coating one side of the glass negative with black varnish. Either the emulsion side or the blank side can be covered with the varnish: when the blank side is blackened, the thickness of the glass adds a sense of depth to the image. In either case, another plate of glass is put over the fragile emulsion side to protect it, and the whole is mounted in a metal frame and kept in a protective case. This particular photo has lost its frame and case over the years.

The ambrotype was much less expensive to produce than the daguerreotype, and it lacked the daguerreotype's shiny metallic surface, which some found unappealing. By the late 1850s, the ambrotype was overtaking the daguerreotype in popularity but by the mid-1860s, the ambrotype itself was supplanted by the tintype and other processes.


  1. Lord, Scriptor, it's amazing that you have this picture of a long, long gone relative - Amazing and haunting.

    They must have been relatively well to do, to afford photography then, or was it someone's hobby in the family? This is so interesting, thank you!

    May I ask what you think it is that on the table to her left?

  2. Hello Fhina, That branch of the family was fairly well off (though her having ten children who grew to adulthood must have split up their 'fortune' a bit!. I think it is a cat on the table. The reason the outline is blurred is because of the long exposure necessary in those days - it must have moved.

  3. I agree with AWONI, amazing the picture is so old and in that condition. How wonderful to know so much about your ancestors.

  4. Good grief! That is truly truly truly astonishing!!!

    So pleasing too that you can actually date it. Photographs of that era must be (comparatively) hard to find.

    I'm currently photo-scanning an archive my father has left behind so I can put it on DVD for future generations. The earliest photo (so far found) dates back to 1890.

    Yes, regarding long exposures - I don't think I could sit in front of a camera and smile for up to 60 seconds either. ;-)

    Sciptor - Apologies if you are already aware of this, but if you ever wish to "enhance" an image like that, there is a clever feature In PHOTOSHOP (or any other serious application) that is called CURVES. By remapping certain areas of gray one can re-distribute the grays to match the eyes natural response to lower, mid, and high lighted gray-levels.

  5. Hello Scriptor Senex.
    Ann Gomm was my great grandmother. I have done many hours research into the family.They were tenant farmers having about 150 acres and employing a dozen or so labourers until a relative left Thomas (Ann's husband).. Lane House Farm in Shipton around 1840 along with £200 (which is about £8000 in today's money.I have also a painting of Ann Gomm, which may have been painted from another photograph I have.
    Richard Young.

  6. For those who follow comments, i should perhaps point out that Richard and I have been in touch for a few months now - having found each other through the web - and have swopped photos, etc.
    Thanks James,I often play with my photos but wanted to show how this looks 'in the flesh' as it were after 150 years of being used/abused.

  7. Oh my goodness, Scriptor! My Grandmother was a Gomm, and her family came from Oxfordshire...! I'd better dig out the family history and geneology and look closely!

  8. Good heavens, Robin, that would be a coincidence if we turned out to be distant cousins!

  9. Hi again, Scriptor. I've been doing some family research, and the Gomm family that I'm related to from that same time period (my great, great, great Grandparents) are Thomas Gomm and Hannah Timms from Shipton-On-Cherwell. Not knowing the area, I have no idea how close or how far away that might be from your relatives.
    It's pretty fascinating to go back through family records. I'm looking to see what family photos we might have available. I'm very much enjoying your family photographs project.

  10. Hi Robin,
    Shipton-on-Cherwell is about 15 miles from Shitopn-under-Wychwood. The two Gomm families are almost certainly related at some stage in their history.
    Ann Gomm's parents were John Gomm and his wife Ann (nee Lardner) from Milton-under-Wychwood which is also about 15 miles from where your relatives were. I shall have to see if Richard Young (above) or I can find out anything else about them.


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