Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Matthew & Vera: New Pictures Discovered

This post is in part a belated response to my cousin Sally in Australia, who in a not-so-recent email asked if I had any pictures of our Blackwell grandmother. At the time, I thought the answer, sadly, was no, but I’ve recently re-discovered some photos in an old album of my mother’s, labeled “John’s mother and father.” 

I had seen the pictures before, but hadn’t really stopped to look at them or taken them in. It’s an old story: the pictures were small, faded and damaged – they hardly registered as pictures of real people.

There are four on the album page. Two appear to be professionally-taken shots, outdoors: one of our grandmother, holding a bouquet of flowers and dressed semi-formally, the other with her arm linked in Matthew’s, with Matthew dressed in tails, holding a top hat. Both are printed with a pronounced vignetting effect, very popular in early photography, and both have residential-looking rooftops in the background. 

Another appears to be a snapshot of Matthew and Vera, with a car in the background. The fourth piece is a contact sheet from a studio session, featuring close-up shots of a teenaged Vera, with flowing golden hair, and in some of them, a feather-adorned tam. My first thought was that she was 16 or 17 in these pictures. I now think she’s more like 13 or 14. 

Do I know for certain the figures in the pictures are Vera and Matthew? 

In the case of the two with Matthew, I can confirm that this is our grandfather (or great grandfather). We have his 1919 passport in which he looks very much the same as he does here, with the same severely centre-parted and plastered-down hair and sticky-out ears. (He’s kind of goofy-looking, isn’t he?) The clincher is the writing on the back of one of the vignetted shots and the snapshot, dating the pictures to July 26, 1916, the date, as we saw in the last post, of their wedding. 

The vignetted pictures are presumably some of the official wedding photos, although the one with both of them in it is out of focus, so if it was taken by a professional, he wasn’t very good. The snapshot, also out of focus, was perhaps taken by a friend, probably as they were about to drive off on their honeymoon.

On the back of the picture of Vera on her wedding day, someone – Vera? Matthew? – has written, “Said to be good.” It’s bound to be one or the other of them. Perhaps a graphologist could tell us if it’s a male or female hand. I’d guess female. But what does it mean? An ironic reference to the bride’s reputation for rectitude – “said” to be good? Or something else entirely?

The scrawl on the back of the snapshot is partly illegible. The closest I can come is, “Fearfully sad you can’t see [illegible] [illegible] which has slipped down onto [illegible.]” The second word I can’t make out looks like it could be ‘skunk’ but that doesn’t seem right. Do they even have skunks in Australia? Anybody else got any ideas?

The pictures are small, not very well taken to begin with, faded, discoloured and damaged. The contact sheet in particular includes eight exposures, each barely the size of a small postage stamp. The others are about 3x5 inches. The scale problem can be partly solved by scanning at more than 100%. The bigger you scan, though, the more pronounced the shortcomings of and damage to the original. I scanned them at between 150% and 300%.  

Enlarged and restored shot from contact sheet

The discolouration problem – yellowing or sepia tone – is solved by scanning in greyscale, which instantly restores them to true black and white. The fading can be largely mitigated in Photoshop using the ‘Automatic Contrast’ command. The damage – dirt, mould, emulsion chipped off, scrapes, etc. – is a more difficult problem. Photoshop has a few tools for tackling this kind of damage. They mainly work by copying adjacent good pixels over damaged sections. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, in some cases, almost magically. It's a tedious and time-consuming process, though. The picture of teenaged Vera took well over 30 minutes to restore.

A note on the last post: both Sally and Rob in Australia have confirmed that the house I showed (in a Google Street View screen shot) is not the house Matthew and Vera lived in. The problem, Rob says, is that there are two 42 Kooyong Roads, in different – but, if I understand rightly, not too widely separated – Melbourne suburbs. The property they really did live in is obscured in Google Street View by a high hedge.


  1. Nice work on the pictures Gerry, the results justify the effort.
    I am trying to decipher the writing on the back, its an interesting puzzle...and I am pretty sure the word is not skunk.

  2. Hello Gerry. "Fearfully sad you can't see my skunk which has slipped down onto arm" Indeed, I think skunk is correct. What Vera refers to is her fur stole which has slipped down onto arm, so it is not easy to see in the photograph. But it is just visible down the side of Vera's coat to just above her knee level. There were skunk farms on Dartmoor, UK, in the past which produced fur commercially. From Tom J

  3. P.S. I think she began to write "fur", then overwrote with "my". And all a bit tongue in cheek and ironical. TJ

    1. Tom Jolliffe, is that you? I assume it is. Very interesting. The other reason I didn't think the word could be 'skunk,' besides being pretty sure there were no skunks in Oz (there aren't), is that it never occurred to me that anyone would wear skunk fur. In our neck of the woods, skunks are reviled pests. We had one in our back yard before we moved. Our cat once came within range of its spray - not even a direct hit - and stank for weeks. I can't imagine anyone wearing the fur. But maybe in a different place and time... Thanks for this.

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