Great Granddad George

I THINK that I could write a short book about this picture. It’s like a time capsule from my family’s past. We’re lucky to have dozens of Victorian photographs but this is my absolute favourite because the others, usually of people in their Sunday best standing sometimes in front of a painted background in a photographer’s studio don’t give us a glimpse of everyday life. It’s the sort of glimpse of normal life that I long for while I’m checking out the bare details of births, deaths and marriages.

He’s a real guy, relaxing at home. How often is this kind of candid shot going to turn up in a family album?

This photograph is just 5.5 x 8.5 cm (2¼ x 3¼ inches) – as you might guess from that gigantic thumb print! I’m going to do a lot of Photoshopping on this photograph to get rid of the dots and streaks.

My great granddad George Swift (1840-1918) has appeared in my Wild West Yorkshire diary before wearing a velvet dress but I should explain he was only a toddler at the time and in the 1840s that’s how they dressed. He worked as a spring knife cutler in Sheffield but as a sideline he and his wife Sarah Ann ran a little grocer’s shop which must explain the Peak Frean’s Biscuit advertisement (a sandwich board to put out when the shop was open?) in front of the kitchen range.

I’m guessing that the watering can on the range is actually a kettle. Those two black shapes behind it look like the iron lids that cover the hot plates on an Aga. Or are they plates or platters? And I think that the cupboard on the left must be the oven of a Yorkshire range, so George is sleeping by the fire.

What was in the rather nice china bowl beside him? Soup . . . porridge? Have you noticed the colanders and what I think is a potato ricer hanging on the wall on the right.

I remember my grandma (on the other side of the family) cutting newspaper for her larder shelves to resemble those lace edges.

I so wish that I could see the whole of the picture in the top left corner. I think that we’re seeing a clenched left hand and a blowsy flower like a camelia or an old-fashioned rose. Is the flower growing from a kind of tiled planter or is that a piece of card that someone has slotted in the corner of the picture for safekeeping.

I would like to think that the picture is of George’s father Samuel Burgin Swift (1813 – 1878). The style is similar to the oil on canvas portrait of George as a toddler that my mum still has. We have no picture of Samuel Burgin, so wouldn’t I love to see that picture! He was a cutler like his son, so is he holding one of the tools of his trade?



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  1. What a fascinating photo! It is really different from what you usually saw in the old staged photos. I was getting drawn into the story as if he were my relative!

    I was enjoying some of Danny Gregory’s videos yesterday and what should I come across but the video of Danny and yourself! Really an interesting look at how you two fellows create. I’ll be back to see more of his videos. Very inspirational!

    Have a great day!

    1. I’ve got to be very careful not to start droning on about my ancestors. Even the smallest discovery seems fascinating to me but I could immediately see the wider appeal of this unusual photograph.

      It was great having Danny over, even though it was just for a long weekend. Yesterday Barbara and I went to the fish and chip restaurant for lunch and we were remembering when Danny said ‘I’d like to try traditional English fish and chips’ and we took him there.

      Not only did he complain that there was nothing worth drawing (he’s done cruets many times before) but after looking at the menu he said ‘I’ll have the sausage.’

      ‘No you won’t!’ we insisted, ‘You can’t come to a fish and chip restaurant and have sausage!!’

    1. Oh, yes Agar is the jelly, isn’t it, I’ll correct that. Did you spot the boy in the canoe in the picture? Difficult to spot unless you zoom in to the original in Photoshop, but he’s on the tea caddy or biscuit tin on the top right. I think it must be a photo of my granddad Maurice aged about 6 on a boating lake in a Sheffield Park or at the seaside.

    1. So many that I think I’m going to have to do another post about this photograph. And that’s just one photograph from 40 or so in the album. And there’s another album . . .

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