Object: Lord Chief Justice of England Carte de visite
Location: National Portrait Gallery
What contribution does this example of a carte de visite image of a senior member of the judiciary make to our understanding of the changing role of visual images in the formation and dissemination of ideas about the nature of the judiciary?
Carte de visite photographs are important in a variety of ways. Invented in the mid 1850’s and made using new technological developments they affected a revolution in the production and distribution of photographic images. Cartes are the first example of photography as a mass media phenomenon. Carte de visites bring together commerce, personality and institutional formation and change. Cartes were produced to be sold to and purchased by the newly emerging middle classes. Judges were one of the categories of ‘eminent’ and ‘celebrated’ personalities who were for sale in studio catalogues. In part this was due to studios exploiting existing interest in established public personalities. In part it was their desire to grow this market by identifying new categories of persons to be ‘celebrated’. The establishment were also early pioneers of using carte de visite keen to use them as new tools of mass media to communicate with populations. The carte de visite was also associated with the birth of the photograph album. Cartes were not intended to be viewed in isolation but to be views in juxtaposition with other cartes. The albums have been described as a machine for the production of imagined communities in the comfort of the middle class parlour.
The size of the cartes, 3 1/2 in. x 2 1/4 in. (89 mm x 58 mm), provides the viewer with a mediated quasi interaction of intimacy that had until their invention been most associated with miniature portraits of the viewers most loved companions and family members. The photographic process also provided the viewer with an experience of previously unattainable realism and a new experience of transparency. If this experience of those in high judicial office may be of a new openness it also had the potential to reveal the humanness of those office holders as the photographic process captured their physical ticks and flaws.
The carte de visite of the Lord Chief Justice is an example of a new type of judicial image. An examination of the nature, form and use of this image in the context of the technological, social and cultural developments that shaped it and were shaped by it can shed some light on the judiciary as a social and political institution in mid-19th century England.
This 19th century object provokes and challenges ways of thinking about the judiciary and research on the judiciary. The ephemeral nature of this object means that surviving examples are rare. As a piece of popular culture it is an object more decried and overlooked than studied. One limitation is that the vast majority of cartes have been destroyed and the albums broken up. The changes that have followed in the wake of the carte revolution mean that photography is deeply embedded in the everyday of contemporary society. It may be difficult to capture the impact of the 19th century revolution upon the contemporary experiences of the cartes and the viewers experiences of the judicial subjects depicted in those cartes.