Antique Prints in Family History Research

Antique prints can contain excellent clues when tracing a family tree. Finding a print of a relevant date and location can flesh out everyday life for your research. Even better, if you find a view of your ancestor’s street, you can get an impression of the area when they lived there.

My husband’s ancestor Selina Elizabeth Collins lived in the home of John Crace, a London decorator who had many illustrious clients, including the royal family! I don’t know why she was living there (her mother sent her a letter there in 1842) but most likely it was as a domestic servant. We found an original 1880’s print featuring John Crace’s house and shop at 14 Wigmore Street, Grosvenor Square, London as it was in 1820. Grosvenor Square was, and is, a fashionable part of Westminster. The print clearly shows the neighboring houses as they appeared in the 1820’s.

Selina’s father, John Collins, lived with his wife and children in Hungerford Stairs, a grotty area adjacent to Hungerford Market (now the site of Charing Cross rail station). They lived there from 1815, possibly up to 1819. We found an 1828 engraving of Hungerford Market depicting people going about their daily business: buying and selling produce, carrying milk jugs from Thomas Olley’s dairy, dogs, laundry hanging outside and the River Thames in the distance. As it happens, John Collins was a dairyman by trade. John must’ve known Thomas Olley, if not done business with him.

Both prints are framed and hanging on our wall.

If your ancestor lived in a large city, I encourage you to Google their street name and ‘print’ or ‘antique print’.

Many antique print dealers have websites with scanned images of the prints that allow you to browse or search by keyword. Antique prints are highly collectible and can enhance your family history.

P.S. This was the entry that led us to the Crace print:

PRIOR, William Henry, 1812-1882 : WIGMORE STREET IN 1820. (FROM A DRAWING BY SHEPHERD IN MR. CRACE’S COLLECTION.) [London : 1878 (or later)]. An antique print of Wigmore Street – showing the premises of David Davies & Son, coachmakers, at No.15, of Frederick Crace, house decorator, at No.14, and of Richard Hetley, glass shade maker, at No.13. Frederick Crace (1779-1859) was of course rather more than a house decorator – the royal arms are shown above his window – he was extensively employed in the decoration of the royal palaces. He was also the leading collector of London maps and prints of his day – his fine collection being purchased by the British Museum in 1880. Engraved from a study by William Henry Prior, based on an earlier drawing by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864) – who was employed by Crace to make water-colour drawings of London buildings – and originally produced for the part-work “Old and New London” (London 1873-1878) – a work which itself relied heavily on the Crace Collection. Wood engraving on paper. Later hand colour. Engraved surface 105 x 144mm (approx. 4-1/8″ x 5-5/8″). Text on verso. In very good and clean state. A guaranteed genuine antique print.

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