I can’t be precise about when this photograph was taken. The photographer James Hedderly was active in Chelsea before the building of the Embankment and afterwards. The maid on the steps on the right of the picture is wearing a crinoline which probably puts the date before 1865, but that’s just a clue. The other people in the photograph are not wearing anything which would help with the date. Fashions such as the crinoline had barely reached the working classes at that time. Perhaps the woman isn’t a servant. She’s certainly keeping an eye on the child who is barely visible in the foreground. Photographs required long exposures in those days. You had to keep still. The child, who could be a boy or a girl, has paused just long enough to leave an impression. The other people could be said to be posing for the photograph or at least have been curious enough to linger while Mr Hedderly struggled with all his equipment. They might have known him well enough to indulge him, or at least known who he was, a sign writer by trade who had taken up the new hobby of photography. What is sure is that he wasn’t taking a random snapshot. What he was doing would have been the most interesting thing that happened in Old Church Street that day.
The two men in aprons and the boy have come out to have a look. The bunch of men leaning against the fence are curious about the photographer but may simply have been hanging around outside the pub. If you look closely you can see what appear to be a disembodied set of legs with a blur of motion above them. Somehow that person left before the upper part of his body could be recorded on the glass plate.
The figure who most intrigues me is the woman standing with her half-hidden friend on the left holding a basket. It’s possible with early photographs like these with their long exposure times to bring out details with a high resolution scan. Hedderly’s photographs are full of interesting details if you can examine them at a higher resolution. But some details are just not there. I can see the woman standing looking towards Mr Hedderly. I get the impression that she’s a young woman. You can almost make out her face under the shadow of her hat. Or perhaps I just think I can. Perhaps I just want to see her face. That’s part of the mystery of photographs especially old photographs. That bright day sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century is gone, the people in the photo are dead and buried. But the moment in the photograph is still there. The maid, the child and the man by the lamppost are still there. That young woman is still standing there looking at Mr Hedderly wondering what on earth he is doing. You can almost look her in the eye but you never will. That’s the problem with photographs. Sometimes they just don’t show what you want to see.
She and the others might never have had their photos taken before that day. But if they lived for another ten, twenty, thirty years it would probably have happened many more times. So at some time a photograph of that woman’s face could have existed. I’ll never see it. That’s the other problem with photographs. Many more of them are discarded than preserved. So I’m grateful to Mr Hedderly for all the forgotten days he has kept alive.
This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be writing based on images in the Local Studies collection at Kensington Library. I’m not embarking on a systematic trawl through the collection just picking out pictures that have struck me as interesting. I hope you like them. Feel free to leave comments.