The Victorian image-hoard runs in parallel with the corpus of literature, often presenting an idea of death which for modern observers might seem ridiculous, uncomfortable or even repugnant. At one extreme are ‘spirit’ or ‘spectral’ photographs, which were often presented as records of an apparition’s appearance at a séance. Purportedly evidence of the afterlife, and offered as scientific proof in an age when science and faith were in conflict, these bizarre images are risible fakes, and were described as such even in their own time. Stranger still is the development of post-mortem photography as a means of preserving the deceased’s appearance in life; held up with stands or lying in repose, images of adults and especially infants provided what was supposed to be a true remembrance of the departed loved one. Modern observers might be troubled by this practice, especially when the corpse shows distinct signs of decomposition; cosmetics were used to suggest the subjects were still alive, and open eyes were painted onto closed lids or lifeless pupils. This seems like a cross between Gothic morbidity and the freak-show. But we have to acknowledge that post-mortem imagery was informed by a pitiful longing and desperate unwillingness to let the dead go. In an age when many were not photographed when they were alive, a manipulated print might be the only record of a person’s appearance. — Simon Cooke

Postmortem Portraits

Related Material


Brooks, Chris. Mortal Remains. London: Wheaton, 1989.

Curl, James. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Stroud: Sutton, 2004.

Jalland, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Lutz, Deborah. Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Last Modified 26 September 2020