This double portrait is by the Quested Studio of 44 Graham Street, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Unfortunately, the sitters are not identified but the photographer is believed to be Clara Quested, active in Birmingham between 1890 and 1906, initially at 263 Icknield Street and from 1895 at Graham Street.
Clara Quested (nee Clifton) was born around 1861 in Walworth, Surrey (now Greater London) and by 1881 had a photographic practice in Finsbury, London. In about 1887 Clara married and moved to Birmingham. Not only did Clara establish a photographic studio here, but her daughter Corneille also became a photographer at Graham Street, prompting the thought as to which C. Quested actually took the photograph. By 1911 Clara had moved to Valley Road, Lye near Stourbridge.
This is the sum total of my knowledge of Clara and Corneille Quested and it has been gleaned from three main sources: the carte de visite from which this image is taken, a typescript list of Birmingham’s photographers and various on-line records. Six weeks ago I knew absolutely nothing about the Questeds and my learning experience has prompted some thoughts about ‘archival discovery’: a term which is currently fashionable and which can at its best indicate fresh new research but which more commonly becomes an inaccurate label for a new personal experience of the research and effort previously undertaken by others. Such experience in itself can also be positive by giving a new lease of life to earlier collecting, recording and researching activities and I hope that my showcasing of Clara will be judged in this way. However, such activity should not be promoted as equivalent to true discovery of new, unrecognised or previously lost records; nor the formulation of genuinely new insights based on archives. The process by which I learned about Clara Quested is outlined below to illustrate my point.
I have recently listed the photographers represented in a collection of cartes de visite produced in Victorian and Edwardian Birmingham. These are contained in eleven folders and reflect many years’ collecting by Harry Wills, a noted photo-historian. Just one card exists for C. Quested (in Volume 8) which gives no indication of the photographer’s gender. This key fact emerged when I checked the spelling of the elaborately printed surname ‘Quested’.
Joe McKenna’s list ‘Birmingham’s Professional Photographers 1842-1914’ shows C. Quested as Clara and provides her studio addresses and dates of operation. This additional information spurred me to check census information, to understand more about Clara and led me to learn about Clara’s previous photographic career and the female photographic ‘dynasty’ which emerged in Birmingham. I will incorporate such learning into the archive catalogue where appropriate and I hope to learn more about the Questeds as time allows.
However, in no way have I discovered anything that was not known before. The most I can claim is that I have re-appraised previously identified information and presented it in a contemporary manner which might reach a wider community of interest than previous researchers may have been able to. I have benefitted from the hard work done in the last fifty years or so, by Harry Wills researching Birmingham’s photographers and painstakingly seeking out examples of their work and later by Joe McKenna, a former librarian at Birmingham Central Library. In 1977 he produced the typescript list referred to above, which was compiled from trade directories, magazines and newspapers. Ten years later he collaborated with C.E. John Aston and Michael Hallett to publish ‘Professional Photographers in Birmingham 1842-1914’ which incorporated further research into the subject. Twenty seven years after that, I have been able to publicise their work and offer a further glimpse of women’s role in the City’s photographic heritage.
If you wish to undertake your own ‘archival discovery’ in its pure form, I offer two suggestions, which are not mutually exclusive.
Firstly, Birmingham’s women photographers deserve more consideration. Out of 34 listed in McKenna’s 1977 survey, details and photographic output of only a few are currently known of in Library collections. Secondly, strengthening the representation of all Birmingham photographers in the collections is important. Even with Harry Wills’ prodigious effort, his collection only reflects the work of a fifth of the photographers (male and female) listed by McKenna. The Library of Birmingham will welcome the product of your work in seeking out examples of such work.
Finally, I would be delighted to receive more information about the Questeds or about the sitters in the photograph.
Jim Ranahan 09/10/2014
MS 4256 The Harry Wills Collection
LP25.69 ‘Professional Photographers in Birmingham 1842-1914’
C.E. J. Aston, M. Hallett & J. McKenna (1987)
Handlist ‘Birmingham’s Professional Photographers 1842-1914’
J. McKenna (1977)
‘Coming to Light: Birmingham’s Photographic Collections’ P. James (1998)
‘Camfield Harry Wills, Photographic Historian 10th June 1921 – 13th August 2011’
Obituary in The PhotoHistorian 164 (Autumn 2012) ISSN 0956-1455