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Postscript added 2006-12-15

'A witness lasting, faithful, true':

the impact of photography on Quaker attitudes to portraiture



 This text is copyright under the Berne convention.

All rights are reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study, research, criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright Act, 1956, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrical, chemical, mechanical, optical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without my prior permission as copyright owner.

© Benjamin S. Beck 2001–2023

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 Chapter 1. The context—plainness
 Chapter 2. Quaker aesthetics
 Chapter 3. Appreciation of nature, and the sciences
 Chapter 4. Attitudes to portraiture
 Chapter 5. Photography
 Chapter 6. Photographic portraiture
 Chapter 7. Conclusion
 Appendix: Quaker portraits


. . . 'Thus, I for you, each year secure,

This photographic portraiture.

Not drawn by human hand and art

Where chance and error have their part.

But here by Nature's self imprest

The unsubstantial shadows rest.

A witness lasting, faithful, true.

A record dear to me and you.' (1)



It is received wisdom, among historians of Quakerism, that:


Until the mid-19th century Quakers officially shunned portraits, fearing that they might untruthfully flatter and 'exalt the creature'. . . . Ever fascinated by new technology, Friends in the mid-19th century welcomed photography and, innocently unaware of future developments, believed it unerringly truthful. They had no scruples in being photographed . . . (2)

This dissertation is a reaction to what struck the author as a suspiciously straightforward account of a bouleversement in Quaker beliefs, often expressed in similar terms, but never adequately tested against the historical evidence. The purpose of this paper, then, is to explore attitudes to portraiture among Quakers over a period extending from the late eighteenth century through to about 1870; to consider the context for these attitudes; to consider the degree to which attitudes changed, the manner of the change, and the extent to which the change is attributable to the impact of photography.

In addition to a wide range of secondary sources, three principal categories of primary sources were drawn on: contemporary photographic images; Quaker autobiographies, memoirs, diaries and letters; and the Quaker press.

The argument is developed in logical sequence, beginning with a contextual discussion of the Quaker concept of 'plainness', the development of Quaker aesthetics and the appreciation of nature and the natural sciences, then narrowing the focus to attitudes to portraiture, Quaker interest in photography, and finally photographic portraiture.


It will be as well, before going too much further, to look briefly at the history and character of the Society of Friends (Quakers). As a religious movement, Quakerism developed from the turmoil of the mid-seventeenth century in England. Generally recognized as the founder of the Society was George Fox, though prior to the nineteenth-century other individuals had risen to positions of great respect in the community, notably William Penn and Robert Barclay. One of the most distinctive features of Quakerism is its absence of any form of priestly or ministerial hierarchy, Friends believing that a person's spiritual relationship with his or her divinity should be unmediated. Quakers held 'meetings', rather than services, in 'meeting-houses', not churches, and even the internal layout of the meeting house tended towards the elimination of hierarchy, the benches being arranged around the four sides, facing inward. Though the distinctive feature of Quaker worship was (and is) shared silence, it was open to any member, without distinction, to address the assembly—to 'minister'—if so moved. Unusually, from the very first days of the movement, women were accorded equivalent status to men, in their spiritual endowments and the acceptability of their ministry. The egalitarianism of the society was perhaps one reason for the initial perception of Quakerism as subversive, but it has operated as one of the strengths of the society over the years, and has figured largely in the contribution that Quakers have been able to make to the various humanitarian causes they have promoted, including prison reform, the abolition of slavery, and the peace movement.

Though initially Quakerism had numerous adherents, the movement went into a decline during the 18th century. This was not helped by the exclusivity of its membership—for the Society was hard to join, but had no difficulty in finding cause for expelling people (3). By 1800 there were believed to be only 20,000 members in the country, and an unofficial census in 1840 recorded just 16,277. (4) On the morning of the Sunday on which the 1851 religious census was held, 14,016 Quakers attended meeting. Religion was already a minority interest in Britain, by this date, but Quakers clearly constituted only 'a minuscule part of this minority.' (5) From 1860 British Quakers published an annual Tabular Statement of membership statistics, regarded as 'perhaps the most reliable of all nineteenth century denominational statistics'; membership that year was just 13,859. In the first 60 years of the 19th century, the number of Quakers in membership had fallen by 30%. (6) The early 1860s saw a turn in the tide, and membership was to rise again, reaching 17,000 by 1900. (7)

Through various prohibitions, not least their own refusal to swear oaths, Quakers were traditionally excluded from the great English universities (8), and hence also from the professions (9). It is probably for this reason that they gravitated towards commerce and manufacture, and there is no doubt that by the middle of the nineteenth century British Friends were relatively affluent. A writer in The Friend in 1851 characterized the sect as 'Belonging as we do, almost entirely to the middle class--nearly all engaged in business of some kind--all well educated.' The evidence supports this view. At a time when the average wage was £50 p.a., the average annual income of English Friends was £182 for every man, woman and child. The average age of death among Quakers, in the 1850s, was over 53—more than double that of the general population. (10) Elizabeth Isichei, the historian of British Quakerism of the period, analysed the occupations of Quakers who died in 1840 & 1841, 1870 & 1871, and 1900 & 1901, finding striking confirmation that the body was predominantly middle-class: At each period, the members of the highest class—the 'gentlemen', bankers, merchants, farmers, and professional men—formed roughly half of the total; the second class—retailers, independent craftsmen, foremen and clerks—was always the second largest. (11)

The contemporary source most frequently referred to for everything to do with Quakers at the start of the nineteenth century is Thomas Clarkson's Portraiture of Quakerism. Clarkson (12) was not himself a Quaker, but throughout his life had extensive contact with Friends and, when asked if he considered himself to be of their number, replied that he was "not in name; but I hope in Spirit; I was nine parts out of ten of their way of thinking." (13) He felt moved to write his exhaustive three-volume Portraiture (first published in 1806) in an effort to make their views more widely known and better understood. Written with obvious sympathy for its subject matter, it now stands as a near-definitive exposition of the Quakerism of his age. Its importance is considerable, for not only does it describe Quaker theological beliefs, but it also describes the make-up of the Society that embodies them, the social and cultural context within which contemporary Quakers lived, and qualitative aspects of the Quaker lifestyle.

Clarkson's Portraiture will feature again, but at this stage it is adduced as perhaps the fons et origo of the present-day understanding of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century attitudes to portraiture among Quakers. In view of the importance of this work, it is worth quoting at length. In a chapter in which Clarkson—discussing the Quaker concept of 'plainness' (vide infra, Chapter 1), in its various manifestations—focussed on its application to home furnishing, and the proprieties of display, he stated that:


Neither, as a general rule, would a person in going through the houses of Friends find portraits either of themselves, or of any of their families or ancestors, except, in the latter case, they had been taken before they became Friends. The first Friends never had their portraits taken with their own knowledge and consent. Considering themselves as poor and helpless creatures, and as little better than dust and ashes, they had but a mean idea of their own images. They were of opinion, also, that pride and self-conceit would be likely to arise to men from the view and ostentatious parade of their own persons. They considered, also, that it became them as the founders of the Society to bear their testimony against the vain and superfluous fashions of the world. They believed also if there were those whom they loved, that the best method of showing their regard to these would be, not by having their fleshly images before their eyes, but by preserving their best actions in their thoughts as worthy of imitation; and that their own memory, in the same manner, should be perpetuated rather in the loving hearts, and kept alive in the edifying conversation of their descendants, than in the perishing tablets of canvas fixed upon the walls of their habitations. Hence, no portraits are to be seen of many of those great and eminent men in the Society who are now mingled with the dust. (14)

To round out the picture completely, in the present context, the editor (15) of the third edition of Clarkson's work, published in 1869, added the following footnote:

 'Portrait-painting may be said to be now almost entirely superseded by photography, which seems very generally considered open to less objection than the previous mode of obtaining likenesses.--Ed.' (16) As will be seen, however, this careful wording doesn't altogether conceal Smeal's own less favourable views. (17)


1. Morris (1980): 30 (quoting John Dillwyn Llewelyn, who came from a family of Quakers, and was nephew to Richard Dykes Alexander, the most noteworthy early Quaker photographer, so was undoubtedly familiar both with Quaker attitudes to photography and with the 'Quaker aesthetic', the context for their attitudes to portraiture).

2. Milligan & Thomas (1999): para. 99 (unpaginated).

3. The Society was described by the demographic historians Richard Vann and David Eversley as 'largely endogamous' at this period—Vann & Eversley (1992): 245.

4. Isichei (1970): 110, xxv.

5. ibid.: xix. To put this into perspective, the Church of England recorded a morning attendance of 2 million, the various branches of Methodism 694,000, the Congregationalists 515,000, and the Baptists 353,000. Even the Countess of Huntingdon's Connection had more people attending church that morning.

6. Isichei (1970): 112.

7. ibid.: 110. Reasons for the change in the Society's fortunes will become apparent in the course of this paper.

8. Oxford and Cambridge; Quakers are known to have attended University College, London, from its inception—indeed its founder, George Birkbeck, was of Quaker stock.

9. With the exception of medicine.

10. ibid.: 166-68.

11. ibid.: 172-73.

12. Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846) is best known as a major figure in the campaign against the slave trade—perhaps less well remembered than William Wilberforce, but at least comparable in stature.

13. Sox (2000): 5.

14. Clarkson (1869): 81-2. He added: 'The views which actuated the first Friends on this subject are those of their descendants as a body at the present day. There may be here and there individuals who have had a portrait of some of their family taken : but such instances may be considered as exceptions to the general rule.'

15. Robert Smeal, also editor of The British Friend.

16. ibid.: 82.

17. A brief look at some of the principal secondary sources may serve both to locate Clarkson's importance in Quaker historiography and relevance to the present study, and to reinforce (and qualify) the preliminary assertion as to the 'received wisdom.'

John Nickalls's 1958 Some Quaker Portraits, Certain and Uncertain quotes Clarkson's work, giving his view that 'We may I think accept his statements as representing the prevailing views among well-concerned Friends in his day.' Offering the caution that Clarkson was perhaps too eulogistic, Nickalls also refers to Smeal's 1869 footnote on photographic likenesses. He notes that in the first half of the nineteenth century, however, there were differing views on portraiture among Friends, asserting that by this date, notwithstanding any objections, there were 'many' portraits of Friends drawn or painted, engraved and published. (18)

18. Nickalls (1958):2-3. ' ' ' (19)

19. Nicholson (1958): 27, 51-5, 88-92, 101-2, 109. '—- ' '—


Chapter 1




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