Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Crystoleum: Bringing the Art of Photo Colourisation into the Home

Crystoleum sounds like the name of a Victorian fairground attraction, an entrance for which you might expect to see between Strange and Wilson's Aetherscope and the helter skelter. In fact it was another of the many photographic formats which appeared in the 1880s and 1890s and enjoyed a period of popularity which lasted until the Great War.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Edith and Maud Barnes of Ashbourne, c.1883-1885
Cabinet card portrait by Alfred Cox & Co., Nottingham
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

This is a standard cabinet portrait, showing Edith and Maud Barnes dressed for a stroll in the noon day sun, complete with fake boulders and a landscape backdrop to complete the outdoors scene. Although they lived in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, where their father William Barnes was an ironmonger, it appears the family visited Nottingham frequently, because several of their photographic portraits were taken at the studio of Alfred W. Cox & Co. Edith was born in mid-1877, Maud roughly two years later, which places this portrait sitting around 1883-1885.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
"Bamboo and Fan" card design by Trapp & Münch, Berlin
Cabinet card by Alfred Cox & Co., Tavistock Chambers, Market Place, Nottingham

Turning over the cabinet card reveals a design printed on the reverse which is very similar to "Bamboo and Fan" from Marion of Paris, described by Vaughan (2003) as introduced in 1884, although this particular example is by Trapp & Münch of Berlin.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The card stock used is of a medium intensity grey colour and has the appearance of having been made from recycled pulp in which the darker fibres are still visible, as shown above, of a type which became more commonly used in the mid-to late 1880s.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Edith and Maud Barnes of Ashbourne, c.1883-1885
Colourised cabinet card portrait by Alfred Cox & Co., Nottingham
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

A second cabinet portrait, taken from the same negative, is likely to have been produced on the same occasion. The card mount is identical - albeit this one has not been trimmed at the base - but it shows signs of having been hand coloured. Although somewhat faded, the yellow in the hair, pink cheeks and dresses, brownish fur and red hat bands and cloth are still visible. The studio did, after all, bill themselves as "Photographers Miniature & Portrait Painters," and had offered "portraits in oil or crayon" from at least the early 1870s.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Edith and Maud Barnes of Ashbourne, c.1883-1885
Crystoleum portrait on glass
Photograph by Alfred Cox & Co., Nottingham
Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The third in this series of similar portraits, while appearing in this image to be somewhat similar, bar the different colouring, is quite another format altogether. Closer examination of the original shows it to have been printed on the back of a slightly convex rectangular piece of fully translucent glass, roughly the same size as the original cabinet card.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Recycled carboard backing of crystoleum portrait

This is backed with a piece of card, apparently reused from an unwanted cardboard-backed print of an engraving, possibly of some European city. (Full marks to the first reader who can tell me what city it is, although it's not likely to have much relevance to this post).

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin
Colourised back of crystoleum portrait

Carefully separating the cardboard from the glass, the owner (not myself) revealed a rather surprising picture, appearing similar to the efforts of a young child in a "paint-by-numbers" book. It was obvious, though, that the colours of this crude picture on the concave side of the glass matched perfectly those visible through the convex side and were, in fact, directly responsible for the not altogether displeasing colourised portrait.

Image courtesy of Google Books
Section of Crystoleum (Jones, 1911)

This portrait is a crystoleum, a format distinct from the crystalotype, an albumen-on-glass process patented by the American John Adams Whipple in 1850, used first for negatives and later for positives. The clearest description I have found of the process involved in producing a crystoleum portrait is by "P.R.S." in Cassell's Cyclopedia of Photography (Jones, 1911), which includes the following brief summary:
A is the front glass, on which a photograph B is pasted face downwards. When dry the photograph is made transparent, and delicate details coloured with ordinary oil colours, but the broad masses of colour are not put on. Another glass D, of the same size and shape as A, as put at the back, but is prevented from touching the photograph by means of strips of paper H, which leave a small space at C. On the back E of the second glass are painted the broad masses of colour. The whole is backed up with a piece of flat cardboard or other backing G, leaving a space F. When viewed from the front the coloyrs are seen through the transparent photograph and the whole has the appearance of a delicately painted picture on glass.

Image © and courtesy of Whitman et al (2007)
Disassembled crystoleum portrait (Whitman et al, 2007)

Whitman et al (2007) show a disassembled crystoleum portrait (above) and describe the process:
The Crystoleum process was popular from the 1880’s until the 1910’s, and was usually a albumen print face-mounted to convex glass with gum or paste. The paper is then rubbed away with sandpaper until the emulsion layer is exposed. What was left of the paper was made translucent, if needed, with a dry oil, wax or varnish. The fine details were then painted on the back of the photograph, a second piece of convex glass that has been broadly coloured is layered behind the image glass, and the package is bound with a paper backing.

Image © and courtesy of Nordiska museet/The Nordic MuseumImage © and courtesy of Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum
Crystoleum portrait of unidentified young girl, undated
Chromo-Photographie, Jules Delarue, Genève
Image © and courtesy of Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum

This crystoleum portrait of a young Swiss girl from the Nordic Museum, also usefully disassembled, has the same components, and the web site provides an image showing the back of the front glass with the "fine details" (below).

Image © and courtesy of Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum
Crystoleum portrait, back of front glass and front of second glass

The first mention of the crystoleum that I have been able to find in the British newspapers is an advertisement in The Morning Post in June 1882 offering "Lessons given in this new and easily acquired Art of Painting in Oils. Proficiency guaranteed or money will be returned," in Oxford Street, London. This suggests to me that, provided one had an albumen print with which to work and the materials, which could readily be had at the local chemist, no great artistic skills were required to transform the photograph into a work of art.

Image © and courtesy of Nordiska museet/The Nordic Museum
Crystoleum portrait, back of second glass and front of backing card

Indeed by July 1885 the process was being described in full for readers of The Observer (Anon, 1885). It took another decade for it to reach such far flung parts of the Empire as New Zealand, but in August 1896 residents of Dunedin were regaled with details of how to participate in the delights of the "crystoleum craze" by an enthusiastic contributer to the Otago Witness (Anon, 1896).

Image © and courtesy of Länsmuseet Gävleborg/Gävleborg County MuseumImage © and courtesy of Länsmuseet Gävleborg/Gävleborg County Museum
Crystoleum portrait, unidentified place and photographer, undated
Image © and courtesy of Länsmuseet Gävleborg/Gävleborg County Museum

As shown by this scene of a country estate, perhaps somewhere in Sweden, the crystoleum process was not limited to portraits, and could be used to very good effect on landscape photographs.

The portrait of Edith and Maud Barnes was taken in the early to mid-1880s, which roughly equates to the period when the crystoleum started to become popular, transforming into something of a do-it-yourself style process. The Barnes crystoleum may of course have been created some time after the original cabinet cards, but it is interesting to speculate whether it was done by the Nottingham studio of Alfred Cox, or perhaps by a member of the Barnes family. Either is conceivable, and we are unlikely to ever know for sure, unless the reused engraving print can be identified as coming from the Barnes household.

If you have a crystoleum in your own collection, I'd be interested in hearing from you and seeing some images, particularly if the subjects are members your own family. Although it appears to have been very popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times, many examples won't have survived and they may not be very common.


Anon (1885) All About Crystoleum Painting, Observer, Volume 7, Issue 345, 18 July 1885, Page 4, Courtesy of Early Canterbury Photographers.

Anon (1896) A Lesson in Crystoleum Painting (by Cigarette), Otago Witness, 27 August 1896, p.42, Courtesy of Papers Past.

Anon (2009) Victorian Crystoleums - How they were made,

Jones, B.E. (1974) Crystoleums, in Cassell's Cyclopedia of Photography, Ayer Publishing (Reprint of the 1911 Edition by Cassell, London), p. 154-155.

Vaughan, Roger (2003) Dating CDV photographs from the designs on the back: The 1880s Page Two, Victorian and Edwardian Photographs - Roger Vaughan Personal Collection.

Whitman, K., Osterman, M. & Chen, J.-J. (2007) The History and Conservation of Glass Supported Photographs, George Eastman House, Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, p. 36.


  1. Fascinating as ever, and another reason not to blithely remove photographs from frames! It would be so easy to destroy or mar the evidence if not done extremely carefully. Thanks for a very colorful post!

  2. Fascinating post, the crystoleum of the girls is so beautiful.

  3. Completely new process to me. My father wrote a text book on early photographic processes and he didn't include this one!

  4. Liz and Lisa - Thank you, as always, for your kind comments.

    Howard - In his defence, perhaps that's because it was not really an early process, only being used from the 1880s onwards, and it wasn't really very "photographic" either. It could be produced with any photographic print by someone with no photographic expertise whatsoever.

  5. Another great lesson in the alchemy of early photographers, Brett. I have seen both very crude and very good examples of this or a similar technique and wondered at the methods. It still required practice and skill to get right, and if not art it certainly is good handcraft.

  6. I bought a rather expensive chrystoleum on ebay which actually looks like a painting as opposed to a photograph, but it obviously is taken from a photograph of a painting?? features two little boys and a beautiful rocking horse. The frame is yellowish velvet..very interesting to see how these were created.Thanks for the information ..the picture is still online, under 'chrystoleum rocking horse ebay' sold in 2015.

    1. Thanks for the info, oakleaf, very interesting. Sadly, I was unable to find a photo of it online.

    2. I could send you a picture of it, ebay remove listings after a looked like an oil painting onto curved glass,very delicately done, the colours are delphinium blue,a soft red and browns and a sand colour. Not sure if the colours have faded over the decades?

    3. Thanks oakleaf, that would be appreciated. My email adddress is


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