International Women’s Day RQG Member Guest Blog

8 Mar, 2024

International Women’s Day RQG Member Guest Blog

International Women’s Day – Guest Blog by RQG Member Dr Dawn Jennifer

Ordinary women: what can a family portrait tell us about female ancestors?

Until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ordinary women’s identities were constructed, and their lives lived, within the private sphere of the home. A daughter’s, wife’s, mother’s existence was defined by her relationship to men, by family and domesticity, marriage and reproduction. Lives experienced behind closed doors resulted in an absence of genealogical and historical evidence regarding female ancestors. When such records are hard to come by, family portraits may offer an alternative glimpse into the lives of ordinary women, as the following example shows.


The Westfield family portrait. (Author’s personal collection)


Of the few old photographs in my possession, there is only one that depicts my direct line maternal ancestors. From a conversation with my maternal grandmother some 45-odd years ago, I had annotated the reverse of the image with the following information:
[Back row from left to right] Fred, Great-grandma Westfield, Milly, Tom, Great-great grandma Morris, [front row] Nellie.


I knew from my grandmother, Winnie (b. 1899), that the four children in the family portrait were her older siblings. Through searches of birth, marriage and death (BMD) records, and late-Victorian census returns, I established that Great-grandma Westfield was Milly (née Wood, 1865-1934), and Great-great grandma Morris was Milly’s mother, Sarah (née Seakens, 1840-1922). Little else was known about the portrait, for instance when it was taken and why. Fortunately, images like this one hold several clues, including fashion details and portrait photography conventions, that can help to date family photographs and establish the occasion on which they were taken.


When was the photograph taken?

The style of the women’s dress, particularly the leg-of-mutton sleeves on their bodices, indicates that the image dates from around the 1890s. Leg-of-mutton sleeves were very prominent in the last decade of the 19th century. Other clothing design features consistent with the 1890s include Sarah’s tight-fitting bodice, with shirring on the top half, high neckline and lace collar; her full skirt, gathered at the waist, and falling naturally over her hips. The fabric of her dress catches the light, suggesting a heavy silk or damask fabric. Apparently, “…the average woman possessed at least one good brooch…” [1] and, indeed, Sarah appears to be wearing a couple of brooches or pins down the centre of her bodice. While Milly’s dress is mostly hidden from view, the full lace jabot at the high neckline of her bodice is also characteristic of the 1890s. Both women are wearing their hair up, a typical style of the period. Milly’s hair is pulled back, with soft, careless curls on top and a few short curls at the hairline. In contrast, Sarah’s is severely scraped back with a side parting. By combining details about the appearance of the sitters with genealogical information gleaned from the children’s birth certificates, it was possible to conclude that the family portrait of the Westfields was taken circa 1897.


Why was the portrait taken?

Despite being dressed in what was probably their ‘Sunday Best’, “…long established as the obligatory uniform of official portraiture” [2] for working people in the 19th century, the motivation for this family portrait is not immediately obvious. It does not appear to commemorate a specific rite of passage, personal success, or family occasion. The tight framing of the family group, which lacks a foreground and excludes the wider scene, suggests that the portrait may have been taken by an itinerant street photographer. This was a travelling photographer who made his way from street-to-street, door-to-door canvassing for work. Traditionally, street photographs were taken at the front door, at the garden gate or in the back yard. Alternatively, painted backdrops like the one in this portrait were used by street photographers to separate people from their real-life settings and circumstances, which helped to convey anonymity and hide modest dwellings. It is possible, therefore, that this family portrait was the result of a house-to-house call and not in celebration of a specific occasion. It might also explain the absence of adult male members who may have been at work at the time the portrait was taken. Whatever the motivation for this portrait, the painted backdrop, with its heavy drapes on the left and the architectural columns on the right, hints at wealth and an elegant lifestyle, circumstances at odds with reality. Sarah was the wife of a self-employed bootmaker, Milly was the young wife of a commercial traveller in the coal trade.









Folding field camera. Polished wood. Brass fittings. c. 1895. Photo by nfocus on


What does the photograph reveal about Sarah and Milly?

During the 19th century, portrait photography was subject to several visual conventions, which today provide convenient clues that genealogists can use to analyse and interpret photographs taken during the period. Having dated the photograph and inferred why it may have been taken, analysis of the women’s pose, expression and body language, as well as the presence or absence of other known family members, may reveal more about the sitters.

This portrait depicts three generations of the Westfield family compactly grouped together. The proximity of the sitters to each other evokes familiarity and closeness, according to the conventions regarding pose. Noticeably, the adult females dominate the photographic space. Sarah’s positioning, which takes up nearly half the frame, and her proprietorial right-hand on the chair indicates power and authority, identifying her as the matriarch of the family. Milly, on the other hand, is partially hidden. Surrounded, and partly obscured by, her four children, this set-up epitomizes the ideal Victorian female: a wife and mother devoted to her children. The absence of adult men, and presence of children, emphasises the domestic and reproductive roles of the women. The pose of the boys, Tom in the background and Fred cut off to the left, gives the impression of distance from the female members of the group. This positioning possibly anticipates the boys’ expectation of, and desire for, their removal from the private sphere of the home to the male-dominated world of work. Alternatively, the arrangement of the boys may have reflected the capacity and skills of the photographer.


All sitters in the family portrait are facing the camera, with their heads and bodies pointing in the same direction. Through this pose there is a sense that their frontal gaze is directed straight at the viewer. Although uncommon in portraits of women, according to Victorian principles, such a gaze might symbolize fortitude and resilience. While this gaze might also be seen as confrontational, genealogical research suggests that Sarah and Milly had both had tough lives. For instance, at the time of the portrait, both women were wives, mothers, step-mothers and housekeepers with four marriages, eight children and 20 step-children between them. And, by 1897, when this image was taken, Milly had already lost three children in infancy.


Most of the sitters in this family portrait assume serious and impassive expressions, consistent with the standards of Victorian photography. In Sarah’s case the severity of her gaze is compounded by her down-turned mouth and piercing eyes framed by wire-rimmed glasses (according to family reports, she was very shortsighted). Public displays of emotion including facial expressions, such as laughing, grinning or smiling were disapproved of by the Victorians. The Westfield family portrait is typical of the era. However, there is the hint of a smile around Milly’s mouth. Was she amused by the process of having her portrait taken? By the antics of the photographer or the other sitters? Or, perhaps, as in the words of Mark Twain – “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow” [3] – her expression reflected the challenges of a working-class woman’s life in the late 19th century.


For 19th-century women whose lives were experienced in the private sphere of the home and who often left minimal traces in textual sources, family portraits offer the potential to elaborate on the basic genealogical facts gleaned from BMD and census records. In the Westfield example, analysis of the family portrait, combined with facts gained from textual sources, provided a more nuanced understanding of Sarah and Milly’s lives.

[1] The Cut of Women’s Clothes, Norah Waugh (ISBN-10‏ :‎ 0571085946 / ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0571085941)
[2] The Victorians: Photographic Portraits, Audrey Linkman (1993) (ISBN ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1850437386 / ISBN-13 ‏:‎ 978-1850437383)
[3] Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven. Mark Twain: Quarantine Memories Notebook With Unique Touch (ISBN-13‏ :‎ 979-8638849672)
Edwards, Lydia. (2020) How to read a dress. A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century. Australia: Edith Cowan University.
Linkman, Audrey. (n.d.) Analysing Victorian Family Photographs. A Checklist of Procedures. : accessed 04 March 2024.
Linkman, Audrey. (1993) The Victorians. Photographic portraits. London: Tauris Parke Books.
The Open University. Free course. Picturing the family. : accessed 04 March 2024.
Shubert, Betty Kriesel. (2013) Out-of-style. A modern perspective of how, why and when vintage fashions evolved. Mission Viejo, California: Flashback Publishing.
Waugh, Nora. (1968) The cut of women’s clothes 1600-1930. London: Faber & Faber Limited.


Dr Dawn Jennifer


Dawn is an RQG Member and has a particular interest in the Destitute Asylum, Adelaide, South Australia and the women admitted for poor relief during the 1800s/early 1900s. She was awarded one of RQG’s annual student prizes for the top mark in the PG Diploma in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies for her dissertation. Dawn is a member of the Society for One-Place Studies, registered under The Lying-in Department, Destitute Asylum, Adelaide. She works as a volunteer with State Records of South Australia.



Joanne Kenyon

RQG Director