A strange photograph in Mary Millais's scrapbook

Mary Millais and an unidentified woman

Mary Millais was the daughter of the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir John Everett Millais and his wife Effie Gray (who had been previously married to the critic John Ruskin). This scrapbook, which was presented to Mary when she was 15, is a typical Victorian compilation of letters, photographs, and clipped signatures -- and just about everyone represented in it is (or was at the time) a famous public figure. She has pasted in letters to her father from Anthony Trollope, Robert Browning and Wilkie Collins, and the clipped signatures include a few of King George IV and novelist Henry James.

About halfway through the scrapbook, though, there is an envelope that feels out of place. It has been pasted down, so we don't know to whom it was addressed -- all we know about it is from the postmarks on the back flap (Birnam and London, 1874). And tucked into this envelope are three photographs -- one of her father, one of an unidentified Frenchman, and the one you see below.

From Mary Millais's scrapbook

At first it's difficult to even tell what's going on here -- there seem to be two figures, one holding a child, standing dejectedly in a prison cell. But as you look closer, the photo starts to feel a little odd.The figure on the left is fully dressed in a kilt, cloak and high boots, resting his head on the shoulder of a woman swaddled in rags. And is that a soldier hidden behind the door, presenting this couple with an envelope? Then you notice that the scene is totally contrived -- the stonework, window, and especially the door appear to be painted props. And what's going on with that hunched dog in the foreground?

Because of the way the image has been roughly cut in an arch, and because of the strange perspective (especially the flatness of the wall behind and the overblown and fake-looking lock on the door), our best guess is that this photograph was cut out of a stereograph card. (Stereographs were all the rage in the Victorian period -- two images from slightly different perspectives were mounted side-by-side on card. The card was placed in a hand-held "stereopticon," and the viewer saw the scene in 3D.) But why Mary clipped this image out of the larger card --- and why she preserved it in her scrapbook with a photograph of her father is unknown.

For more information about Mary's scrapbook, click here.

The Leon Levy Foundation is generously underwriting a major project to upgrade catalog records for the Morgan's collection of literary and historical manuscripts. The project is the most substantive effort to date to improve primary research information on a portion of this large and highly important collection.

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