Great photos of great detectives, no. 4

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 3, 2013

You’ll have to go offsite for this one*, but it’s well worth a look: the only known surviving photo of Jonathan Whicher.**

It’s a novel artifact, beyond just Whicher’s appearance in it. The photo is an example of the carte de visite format, once an internationally popular means of swapping images in the dark ages long before Twitter or Hipstagram, but now nearly forgotten. The composition and style seems strange: despite the small format of the image, the “frame” is pulled back some ways from Whicher, who appears in some sort of large country house backdrop. Whicher himself, rather than facing the camera, gazes off at something to his left with an expression of utter insouciance.

Perhaps the only regular instance of a similar style, in our own era, is the staged high school senior picture… but then, these are probably also one of the few surviving legacies of the carte de visite phenomenon, too. (Or were, as of the mid-1990s; it would not surprise me if these are going the way of the yearbook as young people just stick with social networking sites instead.)

The Whicher portrait is credited to Powell of Charing Cross, who has something of an interesting background himself; in the updated edition of Suspicions of Mr. Whicher that includes this photo, Kate Summerscale relates a bit of Powell’s story, as well.

All told, meanwhile, the survival of this photo of Whicher is remarkably fortunate, as well as a reminder that Whicher really was a figure of some note; it’s worth recalling that this photo is from a time not long after the President of the United States could serve one full term and part of another and leave behind scarcely 130 photos…

* This photo appears in Brilliant Deduction, but only under a limited license, so I’ve not posted it anywhere on the web site.

** One may read of, or even see an image purported to be, a second photograph of Mr. Whicher. Without going into details that it may not be my place to reveal, I will say only that I have very, very good reason to believe that any such claims are inaccurate.

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