Updated: Jul 23, 2021
A 120-year old seaside picture nearly drowns.
I love antiques fairs. Old photographs, cameras and other equipment can be found in all sorts of places but the better quality stuff often seems to come via antique dealers. Ardingly in Sussex hosts several huge fairs every year and I've found some lovely items there, so I was there this June despite rather iffy weather.
-And I found this lovely little tintype. It's the usual sixth-plate size and from 'A. Osborne' of Clacton on Sea. He (or she) gives the address as "The Beach". - It was common practice for enterprising photographers to set up a beach hut or tent darkroom and make souvenir tintypes for visitors. I've a soft spot for these cheap little pictures: People look relaxed and often amused (I'm sure the photographer needed a lot of charm and patter) and there's less of the formality you get from studio pictures. The almost instant nature of the tintype mean that they were still being made decades after the advent of dry plates, roll film and other advances which while technically better took much longer. You could pose for a tintype and be holding it in your hand only a few minutes later.
A. Osborne also had a 'proper' address: Dudley Road which I'd guess housed the formal studio, and that's where i think this one was made. The classic period props are here: the painted canvas backdrop and the rustic stile to lean on. Was there a photo studio supply company making these? They all look so similar.
Beach tintypes are usually plain and unadorned. - you might get a paper frame if you were lucky but the prices were rock bottom so there were few if any extras. This one is a little more fancy: a glossy half-case, a glass protector and a gilt-looking oval mat. Clearly the premium service!
Remember I said the weather was iffy? It had rained quite a bit first thing in the morning and this picture had been sitting in a puddle before the stallholder realised it. The poor chap was mortified that something could have survived over a hundred years only to get ruined by a moment's distraction. He'd put it under he counter of his (outside) stall to protect it when the showers came but the water seeped in and the card frame was a soggy, disintegrating mess. Price reduced to a fiver...
As I make tintypes myself, I know they are pretty tough. Water shouldn't cause serious damage. The original photographer would have rinsed the plate after fixing, and while prolonged dampness will cause rust another brief wetting after 120-odd years shouldn't have any serious effect.
These half-cases and mounts are easy to take apart as they were assembled without any tools. The outer case is made of cardboard covered in black and gold paper. The gold-coloured mount is made from 'pinchbeck': a brass-like alloy which is amazingly resistant to tarnish. Designs were pressed into thin sheets and the edges folded over the image to make a quick, good looking frame. This can usually be popped out of the cardboard surround quite easily.
Leaving the card to dry, let's look at the back of the pinchbeck frame:
The metal is simply folded around the edges with finger pressure - and none too evenly at that. It's easy to unfold it and get access to the plate itself.
The blistering at the top is a bit of a concern. Tintypes were never made of tin, but thin sheets of steel, blackened with an asphaltum mixture. If it's lifting like this it can mean the plate is rusting underneath. Even so, it's less of a problem on the back.
Here's the front. You can see how uneven the plate edges are. It was no doubt cut out by hand. Thankfully there are no serious blisters on this side, but there is a rusty area on the right. The nature of the process means that there's often uneven coating, processing or even finger marks around the edges of a collodion image, so the oval mount covers a lot of sins! The cover glass is filthy: it has done its job though and protected the image surface.
As tintypes are direct camera originals the detail can be extraordinary. I always give images a good high resolution scan just to see what's there.
I love the gestures. The little girl is clearly nervous as her pinched thumb and finger show, but Mother has a comforting hold of her other hand. Baby is holding Grandma's hand - and being gently steadied with the other. Everyone has kept very still for the (maybe 5 to 20 second?) exposure and about the only sign of movement is the feather in Grandma's hat. I'm sure they were all delighted with it, that day in around 1900 and I like to think that the children still treasured it when they were old. Who were they? What became of them? Here I am looking at a moment from more than a century ago. Photography is a time machine...
Cleaning and Restoration.
The rule here is NEVER TOUCH THE IMAGE SURFACE DIRECTLY. Most tintypes are varnished with Gum Sandarac or Shellac to protect the silver image from tarnishing but this one looks uncoated. This makes for a brighter picture but if exposed to the normal pollutants in the air it will tarnish like any silver item. It seems the photographer relied on the cover glass and frame to keep it sealed, and to be fair it's worked well. If I were to touch the surface with a finger I'm sure a fingerprint would appear in a matter of weeks. Gentle dusting with a blower is usually enough. Anything more stubborn is best left where it is. The silver image is incredibly thin and any poking and prodding will likely scratch it.
The cover glass can be washed and polished. I avoid the window cleaner type sprays as they contain quite strong solvents but so long as you rinse it off, polish well to remove any residue and ensure it's bone dry before reassembly it should be fine.
Similarly the pinchbeck frame can be cleaned (but avoid solvents or metal polishes etc.) and folded back around the plate and cover glass. The cardboard outer case is still drying out. If it's not too warped I'll glue the paper covering back on with archival bookbinder's paste. If it's too far gone I could make something similar from thick card just to help preserve this lovely little picture for another 120 years.