Recently I paid a visit with the family to Castle Drogo, a National Trust property west of Exeter. I'd been before, but not for many years, so perhaps they've changed the displays. It is probably the last castle to be built in England, being completed in the 1920s as a family home for Julius Drewe, a grocer (Home & Colonial Stores) with mediaevalist interests. In Mrs Frances Drewe's boudoir are displayed the two largest Opalotypes I have ever seen!
Opalotypes, or Opal Prints, were first seen in the mid-1860s but were of minor importance then. They became very popular as an up-market presentation around 1890-1900, and most collectors will have come across a few examples. A sheet of white (opal) glass carries a print - usually a carbon print made using Autotype carbon tissue, sometimes a collodion or silver/gelatin print made by coating the opal glass and processing in the usual way. It is an attractive format, with a good range of tones, and in its carbon form very durable, as neither the pigment nor the support suffer from the fading effects of light and the usual deteriorations of silver-based emulsions. They are naturally black and white, of course, but often hand- coloured either selectively or fully.
They are commonly seen as portraits, like most other print processes sold to the general public. Examples I have previously come across are suitable for display in ordinary living rooms - that is to say, around whole-plate or 10x8 inches. I have in my collection several of those, and a 12x15 inch oval, which I thought was a big one. Audrey Linkman in her book on Victorian Portraits suggests 11x13 inches as a common size, and they are also known as portrait miniatures, following the lead of miniature paintings on ivory
If you are building a castle, though, you don't do things by halves. As the illustration shows, two of these prints are enough to fill a wall. The portraits are of Julius's mother and Frances' mother, and are 33x45 inches plus frames. They are in excellent condition - there was no visible silvering, so I think they are probably carbon prints. The studio signature is Sauvy, Manchester, a photographer I haven't previously come across. He was of French origin - Adam Alphonse Sauvy was at the Maison Francaise in King St., Manchester from 1887-1900. The Castle Drogo prints must have been made by contact printing from enlarged copy negatives - possibly not by Sauvy, but were they printed by Lafosse, also of Manchester, and a large-scale Opalotype printer to the trade? The Collections Manager at Castle Drogo doesn't know, but a review of their photograph collection is planned for this winter, so we may find out more.
An occasional and irregular blog, mostly of photographic experimentation and photographic history.