I"VE been on and off at photographicportrait taking since its commencement— that is to say, since they were taken cheap— two years this summer. I lodged in a room in Lambeth, and I used to take them in the back-yard—a kind of garden; I used to take a blanket off the bed, and used to tack it on a clothes-horse, and my mate used to hold it, if the wind was high, whilst I took the portrait.
The reason why I took to photographing was, that I thought I should like it better than what I was at. I was out busking and drag-pitching with a banjo then. Busking is going into public-houses and playing, and singing, and dancing; and drag-pitching is going out in the day down the little courts— tidy places, little terraces, no thoroughfares, we call drags. I"m a very determined chap, and when I take a hidea into my head I always do it somehow or other. I didn"t know anything about photographs then, not a mite, but I saved up my money; sometimes a 1s.; if I had a good day, 1s. 6d.; and my wife she went to work at day boot-binding, and at night dancing at a exhibition, or such--like (she"s a tolerable good dancer—a penny exhibition or a parade dancer at fairs; that is, outside a show); sometimes she is Mademoiselle, or Madame, or what it may be. I got a loan of 3l. (and had to pay 4l. 3s. for it), and with what I"d saved, I managed to get together 5l. 5s., and I went to Gilbert Flemming"s, in Oxford-street, and bought a complete apparatus for taking pictures; 6 1/2 by 4 3/4, for 5l. 5s.
Then I took it home, and opened the next day to take portraits for what we could get— 1s. and over. I never knew anything about taking portraits then, though they showed me when I bought the apparatus (but that was as good as nothing, for it takes months to learn). But I had cards ready printed to put in the window before I bought the apparatus. The very next day I had the camera, I had a customer before I had even tried it, so I tried it on him, and I gave him a black picture (for I didn"t know how to make the portrait, and it was all black when I took the glass out), and told him that it would come out bright as it dried, and he went away quite delighted. I took the first Sunday after we had opened 1l. 5s. 6d., and everybody was quite pleased with their spotted and black pictures, for we still told them they would come out as they dried. But the next week they brought them back to be changed, and I could do them better, and they had middling pictures—for I picked it up very quick.
I had one fellow for a half-guinea portrait, and he was from Woolwich, and I made him come three times, like a lamb, and he stood pipes and "bacca, and it was a thundering bad one after all. He was delighted, and he
swears now it"s the best he ever had took, for it don"t fade, but will stop black to the end of the world; though he remarks that I deceived him in one thing, for it don"t come out bright.
You see, when first photography come up I had my eye on it, for I could see it would turn me in something some time. I went and worked as a regular labourer, carrying pails and so on, so as to try and learn something about chemistry; for I always had a hankling after science. Me and Jim was out at Stratford, pitching with the banjo, and I saw some men coming out of a chemical works, and we went to "nob" them (that"s get some halfpence out of them). Jim was tambo beating, and we was both black, and they called us lazy beggars, and said we ought to work as they did. So we told them we couldn"t get work, we had no characters. As we went home I and Jim got talking, and he says, "What a fine thing if we could get into the berth, for you"d soon learn about them portraits if you get among the chemicals;" so I agreed to go and try for the situation, and told him that if I got the berth I"d "nanti panka his nabs snide;" that means, I wouldn"t turn him up, or act nasty to him, but would share money the same as if we were pitching again. That slang is mummers" slang, used by strolling professionals.
I stopped there for near twelve months, on and off. I had 10s. at first, but I got up to 16s.; and if I"d stopped I"ve no doubt I should have been foreman of one of the departments, for I got at last to almost the management of the oxalic acid. They used to make sulphate of iron—ferri sulp is the word for it—and carbonate of iron, too, and I used to be like the red man of Agar then, all over red, and a"most thought of cutting that to go for a soldier, for I shouldn"t have wanted a uniform. Then I got to charging the retorts to make carbonate of ammonia, and from that I went to oxalic acid.
At night me and Jim used to go out with the banjo and tamborine, and we could manage to make up our shares to from 18s. to a guinea a-week each; that is, sharing my wages and all; for when we chum together we always panka each other bona (that is, share). We always made our ponta (that is, a pound) a-week, for we could average our duey bionk peroon a darkey," or two shillings each, in the night.
That"s how I got an idea of chemicals, and when I went to photography many of the very things I used to manufacture was the very same as we used to take portraits, such as the hyposulphate of soda, and the nitrate of silver, and the sulphate of iron.
One of the reasons why I couldn"t take portraits was, that when I bought my camera at Flemming"s he took a portrait of me with it to show me how to use it, and as it was a dull afternoon he took 90 seconds to produce the picture. So, you see, when I went to work
I thought I ought to let my pictures go the same time; and hang me if I didn"t, whether the sun was shining or not. I let my plate stop 90 seconds, and of course they used to come out overdone and quite white, and as the evening grew darker they came better. When I got a good one I was surprised, and that picture went miles to be shown about. Then I formed an idea that I had made a miscalculation as to my time, and by referring to the sixpenny book of instructions I saw my mistake, and by the Sunday—that was five days after—I was very much improved, and by a month I could take a very tidy picture.
I was getting on so well I got some of my portraits, when they was good ones, put in a chandler"s shop; and to be sure I got firstrate specimens. I used to go to the different shilling portrait galleries and have a likeness of myself or friends done, to exhibit in my own window. That"s the way I got my samples to begin with, and I believe it"s done all over London.
I kept at this all the winter, and all the time I suppose I earned 30s. a-week. When summer come again I took a place with a garden in the Old Kent-road, and there I done middling, but I lost the majority of my business by not opening on a Sunday, for it was a religious neighbourhood, and I could have earned my 5l. a-week comfortable, for as it was I cleared my 2l. regular. Then I had a regular tent built up out of clothes-horses. I stopped there till I had an offer of a good situation, and I accepted of it, at 2l. a-week.
My new place was in Whitechapel, and we lowered the price from a shilling to sixpence. We did well there, that is the governor did, you know, for I"ve taken on the average from 60 to 100 a-day, varying in price from sixpence to halfa-guinea, and the majority was shilling ones. The greatest quantity I ever took was 146 in one day, and 124 was taken away as they was done. The governor used to take 20l. a-week, and of that 8l. clear profit, after paying me 2l.
the men at the door 24s., a man and woman 29s., and rent 2l. My governor had, to my knowledge, 11 other shops, and I don"t know all of his establishments; I managed my concern for him, and he never come near us sometimes for a month.
I left on my own accord after four months, and I joined two others on equal shares, and opened a place of my own in Southwark. Unfortunately, I begun too late in the season, or I should have done well there; but at first we realised about 2l. a-week each, and up to last week we have shared our 25s. a-head.
Sunday is the best day for shilling portraits; in fact, the majority is shilling ones, because then, you see, people have got their wages, and don"t mind spending. Nobody knows about men"s ways better than we do. Sunday and Monday is the Derby-day like, and then after that they are about cracked up and done. The largest amount I"ve taken at Southwark
on a Sunday is 80—over 4l. worth, but then in the week-days it"s different; Sunday"s 15s.
we think that very tidy, some days only 3s. or 4s.
You see we are obliged to resort to all sort of dodges to make sixpenny portraits pay. It"s a very neat little picture our sixpenny ones is; with a little brass rim round them, and a neat metal inside, and a front glass; so how can that pay if you do the legitimate business? The glass will cost you 2d. a-dozen—this small size— and you give two with every picture; then the chemicals will cost quite a halfpenny, and varnish, and frame, and fittings, about 2d.
We reckon 3d. out of each portrait. And then you see there"s house-rent and a man at the door, and boy at the table, and the operator, all to pay their wages out of this 6d.; so you may guess where the profit is.
One of our dodges is what we term "An American Air-Preserver;" which is nothing more than a card,—old benefit tickets, or, if we are hard up, even brown paper, or anythink,—soap wrappings, just varnished on one side. Between our private residence and our shop, no piece of card or old paper escapes us. Supposing a party come in, and says "I should like a portrait;" then I inquire which they"ll have, a shilling or a sixpenny one. If they prefer a sixpenny one, I then make them one up, and I show them one of the airpreser- vers,—which we keep ready made up,—and I tell them that they are all chemicalized, and come from America, and that without them their picture will fade. I also tell them that I make nothing out of them, for that they are only 2d. and cost all the money; and that makes "em buy one directly. They always bite at them; and we"ve actually had people come to us to have our preservers put upon other persons" portraits, saying they"ve been everywhere for them and can"t get them. I charge 3d. if it"s not one of our pictures. I"m the original inventor of the "Patent American Air-Preserver." We first called them the "London AirPre- servers;" but they didn"t go so well as since they"ve been the Americans.
Another dodge is, I always take the portrait on a shilling size; and after they are done, I show them what they can have for a shilling,— the full size, with the knees; and table and a vase on it,—and let them understand that for sixpence they have all the back-ground and legs cut off; so as many take the shilling portraits as sixpenny ones.
Talking of them preservers, it is astonishing how they go. We"ve actually had photographers themselves come to us to buy our "American Air-Preservers." We tells them it"s a secret, and we manufacture them ourselves. People won"t use their eyes. Why, I"ve actually cut up an old band-box afore the people"s eyes, and varnished it and dried it on the hob before their eyes, and yet they still fancy they come from America! Why, we picks up the old paper from the shopsweep- ing, and they make first-rate "Patent American
Air-Preservers." Actually, when we"ve been short, I"ve torn off a bit of old sugar-paper, and stuck it on without any varnish at all, and the party has gone away quite happy and contented. But you must remember it is really a useful thing, for it does do good and do preserve the picture.
Another of our dodges,—and it is a splendid dodge, though it wants a nerve to do it,— is the brightening solution, which is nothing more than aqua distilled, or pure water. When we take a portrait, Jim, my mate, who stops in the room, hollows to me, "Is it bona?" That is,—Is it good? If it is, I say, "Say." That is,—Yes. If not, I say "Nanti." If it is a good one he takes care to publicly expose that one, that all may see it, as a recommendation to others. If I say "Nanti," then Jim takes it and finishes it up, drying it and putting it up in its frame. Then he wraps it up in a large piece of paper, so that it will take sometime to unroll it, at the same time crying out "Take sixpence from this lady, if you please." Sometimes she says, "O let me see it first;" but he always answers, "Money first, if you please ma"am; pay for it first, and then you can do what you like with it. Here, take sixpence from this lady." When she sees it, if it is a black one, she"ll say, "Why this ain"t like me; there"s no picture at all." Then Jim says, "It will become better as it dries, and come to your natural complexion." If she still grumbles, he tells her that if she likes to have it passed through the brightening solution, it will come out lighter in an hour or two. They in general have it brightened; and then, before their face, we dip it into some water. We then dry it off and replace it in the frame, wrap it up carefully, and tell them not to expose it to the air, but put it in their bosom, and in an hour or two it will be all right. This is only done when the portrait come out black, as it doesn"t pay to take two for sixpence. Sometimes they brings them back the next day, and says, "It"s not dried out as you told us;" and then we take another portrait, and charge them 3d.
We also do what we call the "bathing,"— another dodge. Now to-day a party came in during a shower of rain, when it was so dark it was impossible to take a portrait; or they will come in, sometimes, just as we are shutting up, and when the gas is lighted, to have their portraits taken; then we do this. We never turn business away, and yet it"s impossible to take a portrait; so we ask them to sit down, and then we go through the whole process of taking a portrait, only we don"t put any plate in the camera. We always make "em sit a long time, to make "em think it"s all right,—I"ve had them for twoand-a-half minutes, till their eyes run down with water. We then tell them that we"ve taken the portrait, but that we shall have to keep it all night in the chemical bath
to bring it out, because the weather"s so bad. We always take the money as a deposit, and give them a written paper as an order for the picture. If in the morning they come themselves we get them to sit again, and then we do really take a portrait of them; but if they send anybody, we either say that the bath was too strong and eat the picture out, or that it was too weak and didn"t bring it out; or else I blow up Jim, and pretend he has upset the bath and broke the picture. We have had as many as ten pictures to bathe in one afternoon.
If the eyes in a portrait are not seen, and they complain, we take a pin and dot them; and that brings the eye out, and they like it. If the hair, too, is not visible we takes the pin again, and soon puts in a beautiful head of hair. It requires a deal of nerve to do it; but if they still grumble I say, "It"s a beautiful picture, and worth half-a-crown, at the least;" and in the end they generally go off contented and happy.
When we are not busy, we always fill up the time taking specimens for the window. Anybody who"ll sit we take him; or we do one another, and the young woman in the shop who colours. Specimens are very useful things to us, for this reason,—if anybody comes in a hurry, and won"t give us time to do the picture, then, as we can"t afford to let her go, we sit her and goes through all the business, and I says to Jim, "Get one from the window," and then he takes the first specimen that comes to hand. Then we fold it up in paper, and don"t allow her to see it until she pays for it, and tell her not to expose it to the air for three days, and that if then she doesn"t approve of it and will call again we will take her another. Of course they in general comes back. We have made some queer mistakes doing this. One day a young lady came in, and wouldn"t wait, so Jim takes a specimen from the window, and, as luck would have it, it was the portrait of a widow in her cap. She insisted upon opening, and then she said, "This isn"t me; it"s got a widow"s cap, and I was never married in all my life!" Jim answers, "Oh, miss! why it"s a beautiful picture, and a correct likeness,"— and so it was, and no lies, but it wasn"t of her.—Jim talked to her, and says he, "Why this ain"t a cap, it"s the shadow of the hair,— for she had ringlets,—and she positively took it away believing that such was the case; and even promised to send us customers, which she did.
There was another lady that came in a hurry, and would stop if we were not more than a minute; so Jim ups with a specimen, without looking at it, and it was the picture of a woman and her child. We went through the business of focussing the camera, and then gave her the portrait and took the 6d. When she saw it she cries out, "Bless me! there"s a child: I haven"t ne"er a child!" Jim looked at
her, and then at the picture, as if comparing, and says he, "It is certainly a wonderful likeness, miss, and one of the best we ever took. It"s the way you sat; and what has occasioned it was a child passing through the yard." She said she supposed it must be so, and took the portrait away highly delighted.
Once a sailor came in, and as he was in haste, I shoved on to him the picture of a carpenter, who was to call in the afternoon for his portrait. The jacket was dark, but there was a white waistcoat; still I persuaded him that it was his blue Guernsey which had come up very light, and he was so pleased that he gave us 9d. instead of 6d. The fact is, people don"t know their own faces. Half of "em have never looked in a glass half a dozen times in their life, and directly they see a pair of eyes and a nose, they fancy they are their own.
The only time we were done was with an old woman. We had only one specimen left, and that was a sailor man, very dark—one of our black pictures. But she put on her spectacles, and she looked at it up and down, and says, "Eh?" I said, "Did you speak, ma"am?" and she cries, "Why, this is a man! here"s the whiskers." I left, and Jim tried to humbug her, for I was bursting with laughing. Jim said, "It"s you ma"am; and a very excellent likeness, I assure you." But she kept on saying, "Nonsense, I ain"t a man," and wouldn"t have it. Jim wanted her to leave a deposit, and come next day, but she never called. It was a little too strong.
There was an old woman come in once and wanted to be taken with a favourite hen in her lap. It was a very bad picture, and so black there was nothing but the outline of her face and a white speck for the beak of the bird. When she saw it, she asked where the bird was? So Jim took a pin and scratched in an eye, and said, "There it is, ma"am—that"s her eye, it"s coming out," and then he made a line for the comb on the head, and she kept saying, "Wonderful!" and was quite delighted.
The only bad money we have taken was from a Methodist clergyman, who came in for a 1s. 6d. portrait. He gave us a bad sixpence.
For colouring we charge 3d. more. If the portraits are bad or dark we tell them, that if they have them coloured the likeness will be perfect. We flesh the face, scratch the eye in, and blue the coat and colour the tablecloth. Sometimes the girl who does it puts in such a lot of flesh paint, that you can scarcely distinguish a feature of the person. If they grumble, we tell them it will be all right when the picture"s dry. If it"s a good picture, the colour looks very nice, but in the black ones we are obliged to stick it on at a tremendous rate, to make it show.
Jim stands at the door, and he keeps on saying, "A correct portrait, framed and glazed, for sixpence, beautifully enamelled." Then, when they are listening, he shows the specimen
in his hands, and adds, "If not approved of, no charge made."
One morning, when we had been doing "quisby," that is, stopping idle, we hit upon another dodge. Some friends dropped in to see me, and as I left to accompany them to a tavern close by, I cried to Jim, "Take that public-house opposite." He brought the camera and stand to the door, and a mob soon collected. He kept saying, "Stand back, gentlemen, stand back! I am about to take the public-house in front by this wonderful process." Then he went over to the house, and asked the landlord, and asked some gentlemen drinking there to step into the road whilst he took the house with them facing it. Then he went to a policeman and asked him to stop the carts from passing, and he actually did. By this way he got up a tremendous mob. He then put in the slide, pulled off the cap of the camera, and focussed the house, and pretended to take the picture, though he had no prepared glass, nor nothing. When he had done, he called out, "Portraits taken in one minute. We are now taking portraits for 6d. only. Time of sitting, two seconds only. Step inside and have your"n taken immediately." There was a regular rush, and I had to be fetched, and we took 6s. worth right off.
People seem to think the camera will do anything. We actually persuade them that it will mesmerise them. After their portrait is taken, we ask them if they would like to be mesmerised by the camera, and the charge is only 2d. We then focus the camera, and tell them to look firm at the tube; and they stop there for two or three minutes staring, till their eyes begin to water, and then they complain of a dizziness in the head, and give it up, saying they "can"t stand it." I always tell them the operation was beginning, and they were just going off, only they didn"t stay long enough. They always remark, "Well, it certainly is a wonderful machine, and a most curious invention." Once a coalheaver came in to be mesmerised, but he got into a rage after five or six minutes, and said, "Strike me dead, ain"t you keeping me a while!" He wouldn"t stop still, so Jim told him his sensitive nerves was too powerful, and sent him off cursing and swearing because he couldn"t be mesmerised. We don"t have many of these mesmerism customers, not more than four in these five months; but it"s a curious circumstance, proving what fools people is. Jim says he only introduces these games when business is dull, to keep my spirits up—and they certainly are most laughable.
I also profess to remove warts, which I do by touching them with nitric acid. My price is a penny a wart, or a shilling for the job; for some of the hands is pretty well smothered with them. You see, we never turn money away, for it"s hard work to make a living at sixpenny portraits. My wart patients seldom come twice, for they screams out ten thousand blue murders when the acid bites them.
Another of my callings is to dye the hair. You see I have a good many refuse baths, which is mostly nitrate of silver, the same as all hair-dyes is composed of. I dyes the whiskers and moustache for 1s. The worst of it is, that nitrate of silver also blacks the skin wherever it touches. One fellow with carroty hair came in one day to have his whiskers died, and I went clumsily to work and let the stuff trickle down his chin and on his cheeks, as well as making the flesh at the roots as black as a hat. He came the next day to have it taken off, and I made him pay 3d. more, and then removed it with cyanide, which certainly did clean him, but made him smart awfully.
I have been told that there are near upon 250 houses in London now getting a livelihood taking sixpenny portraits. There"s ninety of "em I"m personally acquainted with, and one man I know has ten different shops of his own. There"s eight in the Whitechapel-road alone, from Butcher-row to the Mile-end turnpike. Bless you, yes! they all make a good living at it. Why, I could go to-morrow, and they would be glad to employ me at 2l. a-week—indeed they have told me so.
If we had begun earlier this summer, we could, only with our little affair, have made from 8l. to 10l. a-week, and about one-third of that is expenses. You see, I operate myself, and that cuts out 2l. a-week.