Regret to inform you, Officer commanding 55th field ambulance France 11th August
W H Keevil 550483 Royal Engineers died 7 August gunshot wound left thigh
Actress Alex Kingston is famous for her portrayal of strong female roles like Moll Flanders and River Song in the most recent episodes of Dr Who. She was a guest on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are recently and revealed a fascinating tale of the role of some civilian portrait photographers in the First World War.
A Personal Portrait Photography History
Alex’s paternal great grandfather, William Keevil, was a photographer before the First World War, but when the hostilities broke out, he became a Sapper in the Royal Engineers.
In 1917, his wife, Nan, received the telegram notifying her of his death. It arrived in a brown envelope that her Uncle still retained. From the condition of the envelope, she must have ripped it open fearfully to discover that she was now a young widow left to bring up children aged 16, 10 and four. But, undeterred, she began to take in lodgers, supported by a very small War Widows Pension.
Alex wanted to know if William’s interest in photography and the arts is something that is genetic in her family and what he did in the Royal Engineers.
At the Battersea Library, she found out more about her great grandfather’s career as a photographer. His birth certificate revealed that William Henry Keevil was born on 7 November in 1875 to Walter and Ellen Keevil (formerly Law) and his father was a lawyer’s clerk.
At a time when most people left school aged between 14 and 16, the census for 1891 shows 15 year old William working as a lantern slide maker, so he was clearly fascinated by images – but there was no obvious influencing artistic bent in either of his parents. But, by the 1911 census, he had his own freelance business as a magic lantern slide manufacturer.
The 1912 birth certificate for his first daughter shows that his profession is listed as a photographer, which a visit to the National Media Museum in Bradford confirmed that this was a natural progression up the career ladder, where he is in charge of his own business, working for someone as a photographer.
Lantern slides had been in existence for over 200 years using candles and later oil lamps to project drawn and painted images onto a blank wall. Once they could project images taken from real life by a camera, they could be printed onto a piece of glass (or slide) and local high street photographers would take images from around the community – people, local groups, scenic views. Every so often they would hold an evening event where they could show their slides for a small charge to guests.
After 20 years working his way up, fixing cameras and developing pictures, William became a photographer in his own right.
Even after the launch of the Kodak Box Brownie, which allowed people to take their own ‘snaps’, they still wanted studio produced pictures with painted backdrops and props to produce fabulous individual and family portraits for display in their own homes. Not so very different from the family and individual images that we take digitally a century later.
Portrait Photography in History – World War One