A family snap makes a moment last a lifetime

Relatives long gone live on as babes in arms or as octagenarians in the family photo album. Joanna Moorhead turns the pages of a unique history book


Take 25 smiling faces, five dogs and one unrepeatable moment, captured for ever, guaranteed to still be being pored over 20, even 50, years from now. That's the family portrait; and the particular one in my mind right now was taken last week of a rather famous clan called Soames, to mark their mother's 90th birthday.

Mary Soames is the last surviving child of Winston Churchill: in the portrait she's seated centre, every inch the family matriarch, waving her arm to the camera in distinctly Winstonian fashion. Around her are ranged her colourful and interesting family. Her larger-than-life son Nicholas, the Tory MP, is seated to her left, in what looks like a clear signal that, after mum, he's the most important person in this line-up.

Behind them are Mary's other daughters and sons (Emma, Jeremy, Charlotte and Rupert) and ranged around them and in front of them, a whole raft of their children and grandchildren, and their pets. As in all the best family portraits, the snapper has caught the precise second in which everyone is looking happy and relaxed; and what's more, there are those little foibles that give you a sense of the characters (like the larger-than-life Nicholas, who appears to be laughing so uproariously that he's having to hold on to the sides of his chair to keep himself upright).

In this digital age, you might have thought the family portrait had had its day. It made its debut, after all, with the arrival of photography, more than a century and a half ago. Until then, the only families who had a visual record of themselves were the very wealthy, who paid painters to capture how they looked in oils on canvas. The galleries of Europe are stuffed with portraits of royals and noble families, portraits that sought to do exactly what the family portraits in your home or mine, or the Soames's seek to do, which is to mark a moment, to capture a generation, to freeze a frame that is significant, vital and meaningful, and to give it a life of its own, for ever (or for as long as the painting or photograph exists).

Photography put that desire within the reach of those of more modest means, and in no time at all, it had taken root. Victorian family line-ups were posed, formal affairs: you wore your best clothes, you stood in a certain way, you inclined your head just so and, click! The moment is still there, inside those photo albums you inherited from Great Aunt Mildred when she passed on two decades ago.

Fast forward to today, and the funny thing is how similar to its Victorian counterpart the current family portrait is. You book your date; you go to the photographer's studio, which these days is likely to be a whitewashed loft building in some trendy bit of the city. You choose your clothes with great care; sometimes you take along a few alternatives, in case you want to vary the shots. And then you pose, taking care to look as unposed as possible. Look, your photo screams, from your sitting-room wall (the current vogue is for pictures to be poster-sized and framed): we just happened to be rolling round together in a room with a pristine white floor and white walls, wearing our best-but-not-too-formal clothes, on a day when no one was trying to kill anyone else! How remarkable was that?

And therein lies one of the great secrets of the successful family portrait. The key person in making the whole thing possible is undoubtedly the photographer, and in far more ways than being the person who points the camera and presses the button. What makes the snapper so important is that, because he or she isn't one of you, you're all on your best behaviour.

Everyone does as they're told (no one ever does that for Dad, when he sets up his tripod and uses the time-delay switch); when the person with the camera says "look this way and smile", everyone does.

And when the photograph is taken, and a few years have gone by, how precious these family line-ups become. On my desk as I write is a photograph taken in 1998 on my mother's 60th birthday. My father, already looking slightly frail, is sitting centre-stage: my mother, more relaxed, is sitting next to him. Around them are ranged their four children and four grandchildren. It was a moment that can never be repeated: my father has now died, the children have grown up, new children have arrived. One of my brothers has a new wife, and the other has split up from the wife in the photo. Families, though the anchor of our lives for most of us, change all the time: and it's our family portraits that remind us of the way we were, almost to the point of proving to us that we once looked like that, that we once were that young, that we once had a father alive, that we once had a baby.

Family photographs unite the generations, too, in a tangible way. The other family portrait in my study is one of the most precious images I possess: it shows my grandmother, then in her late eighties, holding a tiny baby – my daughter Rosie, then a few weeks old. Flanking them are my father and me: four generations in one frame, an image that only had a lifespan of a few short months before my grandmother was gone. Just once, she held a great-granddaughter: her old lady's hands, cradling the pink new skin, symbolise the thread of the years, the passing of the baton from one generation to the next – and only the family portrait could capture the weight and poignancy of the moment.

Then there are the portraits that were never taken – and the hole they leave. We never did have a professional picture taken, in my family, of all six of us: and then suddenly it was too late, because my youngest sister was dead, aged not-quite four, and the opportunity to show that we were once that family was gone. I once visited a family where a child died and then another child had been born – as happened in my own family, in fact – and I was shown a photoshopped portrait of the family with both children, the dead child and the living child, sitting next to one another on the sofa. The mother seemed proud of it, comforted by it: an old tradition and modern technology had combined to give her a sliver of what life might have looked and felt like, had circumstances been different.

But there's another thing the family portrait does, and that is to create a narrative. I recently interviewed a woman in her eighties who had her family portraits lined up, six deep, on a huge table in the centre of her sitting room. The earliest portraits were of her grandmother and her parents in the late 19th century; the most recent were of her great-grandchildren and their parents. Through the images, she could trace her family history across seven generations: looking into those faces, some long dead, she could see similarities and resemblances and trace them through the years.

So it will be with the Soames family portrait, 20 or 30 years from now. Some as-yet-unborn young Soames will pick up the picture taken at his great-great grandmother's 90th birthday, and will idly muse on his great-uncle or his father's cousin's face and think: did he really ever look like that? He'll spot someone he doesn't recognise at all, and he'll find his granny to explain the lineage to him. And then he'll peer at his great-great grandmother, the one who had the very, very famous father, and he'll think: she was the link to him, the great wartime prime minister of the 20th century.

And while not every family has a figure like Winston Churchill in it, every family has history running through it: and every family portrait has its own rich, unique, and irreplaceable story to tell.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Analyst - Bristol

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An IT Support Analyst is required to join the ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Britain, we have a drink problem

Stefano Hatfield

In Sickness and in Health: Cheers Jacko, the kindness of strangers is a great tonic

Rebecca Armstrong
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick