Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children


  • Nicola Bown Birkbeck College, University of London


Victorian sensorium, photography, post mortem, children


In an 1882 article on ‘A Grave Subject’, the photographer George Bradforde wrote: How the relatives can bear to look upon these photographs I cannot understand, unless they have a peculiar love of the horrible. For my part I cannot see the necessity of photographing the dead at all. If the departed were truly beloved, nothing that may happen in this world can ever efface the dear features from the mind’s eye: it needs not a cold, crude photograph representing the last dreary stage of humanity to recall those lineaments. Indeed, I should imagine it would in time lead to the forgetting of the pleasant smile or the lightsome laugh, and supply, in place, a ghoul-like resemblance of anything but a pleasant nature (394- 5). This sums up the reasons why photographic portraits of the dead are no longer widespread. Such images would today be viewed as ghoulish and morbid, and a photograph of a dead body now strikes us as bearable only in the form of news images in which horror is the main thrust of the story. Such pictures bear witness to the obscenity of violent death: they are a necessary record of atrocity rather than the portrait of a dead person. Victorian photographs of the dead, however, were for the most part not those of murders or victims of war; they were family members, most commonly children, who had died at home. They are not news photographs distributed widely among strangers, but portraits, commissioned by family members and kept in the home.