Jayne is a trained dress historian and portrait (photographs and artworks) specialist. A former archivist at the National Portrait Gallery, she has been a freelance picture consultant, writer and lecturer for over 25 years.

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Photograph submitted by Tony Pratt

Q: Our family group of cousins/researchers would be very grateful for a date for this picture. We THOUGHT that we had identified the subjects as our great grandmother with her son and one of her 3 daughters. The little boy died in 1889 aged just as, from TB. No other photos of this child exist, so it would be wonderful for us to know that it was him and to add him to our tree.

This picture was taken at The Novelty Studio, Plymouth. We have one other mystery picture from there of a young man. We contacted a self-styled Victorian photo expert in New Zealand and he told us that Novelty Studio only existed from 1913-1915. This obviously rules out Great Granny and her family, especially as we have no record of her family leaving Exeter from 1500 to 1920.

The only other possibility is a branch of the family that lived in Plymouth for a while, but the son of that family was born in 1915 and the daughter 1917. Once again the Novelty Studio dates make this impossible. So our question really is, if you disregard the Novelty Studio dates, what date would you put on this?

Jayne's response...

I have not investigated the Novelty Studios at all, but if it was Brett Payne from New Zealand whom you contacted, then I can confirm that he is an acknowledged photographic historian and that the brief 1913-15 date range that he provided, based almost certainly on trade data, is very likely to be accurate. I am pleased to confirm that this kind of time frame is also supported by the visual image, notably the fashion clues relating to this lady and her two children.

The lady wears the usual dark tailored skirt and blouse customary for everyday wear and for many semi-formal occasions by the 1910s. When worn with a tailored jacket and a large hat this created a comfortable but smart costume suitable for work and whenever outdoors in public, at least among the ordinary working and lower-middle classes.

The lady wears the usual dark tailored skirt and blouse customary for everyday wear and for many semi-formal occasions by the 1910s

Although we cannot see very clearly the shape of her skirt, its style appears to be moderately narrow and, along with the prominent decorative buttons, this suggests a time frame of c.1912-14, or 1915 at the latest. The high choker-like collar of her blouse was rarely worn after 1913, for from about 1910 gradually lower necklines became more fashionable, but this mode does occasionally occur in photographs taken early in World War 1.

Her hairstyle is also typical of the early-mid 1910s so considering the whole of the lady's appearance I would date this photograph broadly to c.1912-15.

Rarely can children's clothing be dated as precisely as adult female fashions, but the attire of these children accords well with the above time period. The boy wears the sailor suit first widely popularised in the 1880s and that would remain in vogue throughout the war; the infant daughter wears a pretty white baby frock, its short sleeves and fitted waist representing the latest trends of the 1910s.

The boy wears the sailor suit first widely popularised in the 1880s and that would remain in vogue throughout the war; the infant daughter wears a pretty white baby frock, its short sleeves and fitted waist representing the latest trends of the 1910s

She looks no older than one year old and the boy must be about 4 years old – 5 at most. So, based on my date estimate for this photograph, he will have been born in around 1907-10 and his sister between 1911 and the beginning of 1915. It is probable that these ancestors lived in Plymouth or were based there temporarily and I would hazard a guess that the husband/father may have been in the navy.

Judging from his absence from this scene, perhaps he was serving away from home just before or during the First World War. If so, this photograph of his family was taken in a local studio and probably sent to him, as a way of keeping in touch and conveying their hopes for his safe return. Hopefully the firm date range and these suggestions will help you to identify these ancestors.