The backgrounds of these postcards have become of great interest to me in as far as they help elicit a sense of empathy with those who are pictured. Some of the postcards feature no backgrounds at all and are simply headshots which make an empathetic response a little more difficult. What I want to look at here are natural and studio-based backgrounds, examples of which can be found below.
I’ve already discussed windows in old photographs and in the background of the image above one can see a window of one of the houses behind.
I wonder what the same scene would be like if I was standing behind, looking through the net curtains? I’d see the back of the young man being photographed and those who are taking the picture – more proud parents perhaps? I’d watch for a while, then turn my back and return to my own life within the terraced house. It’s imaginative wanderings like this which serve to animate the scene, to remind us that the past was once ‘now’.
I imagine this photograph was taken in the garden of the soldier’s parents’ house. I can imagine them holding this image, just as I’m doing now and walking outside to see that corner of the garden in which he’d been standing. The dilapidated fences, the dirt ground, the trees and the houses behind would all resonate with his presence. If I walk outside into my own garden, with this image in my hand, everything that makes ‘now’ what it is, would serve to animate it. The feel of the wind, the sounds of the birds in the trees, the feel of the ground beneath my feet etc.
This photograph was obviously taken in a studio and whereas in the previous image the backdrop is a real scene, the one above is like something from an 18th century painting. In the foreground we can see bunches of wild flowers growing alongside a quiet country track, leading off through an idealised landscape complete with ‘Rococoesque’ trees, a river and a picturesque bridge. One almost expects the solider to turn away from the incongruous chair and to walk off up the path and out of sight.
With the first image, the domestic backdrop of a garden, its fences, the chicken coup and the backs of neighbours’ houses provides a stark and disturbing contrast with what we know awaited the young man being photographed. This contrast is just as stark in the studio picture above, and in some respects even more disturbing.
Whereas the fictional scene could at least be imagined by the artist, what the man standing before it was about to face on the battlefield would never have been conceivable even with the keenest of imaginations. Reality was in a way even less real than this Arcadian backdrop which seems to depict something akin to Paradise. Perhaps this is why I find this image so haunting?
The reverse of the postcard contains text which reads: To Mr J Wade, With happy memories of past days spent at Waresley House.
I did some research into Waresley House and discovered that it was once the home of both the Peel family (Robert Peel) and the Perrins family of Worcester Sauce fame. A large Georgian pile, I wondered what the soldier did there, who Mr J Wade was and whether or not he was the owner of the house. Having looked at the 1911 census however, I could find no record of Mr Wade. The house was owned by a Mr Gibbons, an 87 year old widower who lived there with his two daughters (both single and aged 49 and 47) and nine domestic servants.
It is possible that Mr Gibbons died soon after 1911 and that Mr Wade took over the house thereafter. Looking for Mr Gibbons on Ancestry, I found him in the same house in 1891 along with 13 children. The cook in 1911, Mary Pugh was also listed.