Trawling through the archives of the National Library of Australia recently I came across this magnificent photograph of an actor known only as Mr Heenan.
The archive describes this as a cartes de visite, a type of small mounted photograph which became immensely popular worldwide from about 1860. These cards were made of a thin albumen print mounted on card measuring about 64 mm (2.5 in) × 100 mm (4 in) – about the size of a visiting card. They were traded among friends and visitors and gained such popularity that albums in which to collect and display them became a common fixture in Victorian parlours.
The true carte de visite was not patented by the French photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri until 1854, the year after the date indicated on this particular portrait, so we may be looking at a prototype or something similar, but not identical to a carte de visite.
As with many photographs from the era, the subject is a formal portrait taken in a studio against a painted backdrop where props (like the chair and table) are used to give a three-dimensional effect. Portraiture in this era was treated as a very formal affair with photographers’ studios set up almost as theatrical stages with drapes, furniture, painted architectural forms and moveable indoor accessories used to suggest a drawing room interior.
The full-length pose is typical of the 1850s when photographers would pose the subject in a mock drawing-room interior and generally with a draped curtain to one side. As often the case with younger subjects, Mr Heenan is standing, with one hand hand resting on a strategically-placed piece of furniture such as a chair or table and the other tucked behind his lapel. The posture is designed to convey dignity and importance.
We know little of this image other than the name of Mr Heenan and the date is written in ink on the from and the reverse of the card bears the inscription Old Players & Playgoers Association.
The State Library of Victoria has 32 similar photographs of various members of this association taken over the period 1853-1870. There are no available records explaining the purpose of this association though there was an organisation of that name founded in Melbourne in 1934 according to The Age by a group of actors, presumably reviving the original association. But who Mr Heenan was we may never know.
Photograph of Mr Heenan: sourced from State Library of Victoria. No longer in copyright.
Information on the Players and Playgoers’ Association from The Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954) Retrieved June 16, 2018, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article205268042