In Search of Old Photographs of Our Area

You might have gathered that I’m a history nut, especially when it comes to the history of our part of Southwest France and of the people who lived in our house. Using local archives, I have been able to find out some details about our predecessors here.

Something that eludes me so far is a photograph of our house or the people who lived here more than 50 years ago. We have to remember that country folk rarely had photographs taken. Few owned a camera, and engaging a professional photographer was expensive and reserved for occasions like marriages. The idea of photographing your house simply wouldn’t have occurred to them.

The ones below date from the late 1960s/early 1970s, just before the house was restored. These are the earliest I know of.

Remarkable discovery

Following a rabbit warren through the internet recently, I discovered that our village boasted a very keen amateur photographer in the late 19th century. The discovery of his photographs is like something out of fiction.

In the 1990s, during the sale of a house in Limogne-en-Quercy (Lot), a photographic collection was discovered in the attic, comprising around 1,600 negatives on glass plates. After so many years in the attic, the plates were dusty, and some were in poor condition.

Market town of Limogne

The local historical society stepped in and saved the plates from potential destruction. Finally, in 2021 they were donated to the Archives Départementales de Tarn-et-Garonne, where they are currently undergoing cleaning, conservation and cataloguing.

Paul Faur

This collection was the surviving work of Paul Faur (1860-1912). He was born in Caylus and became the village notaire. He was fascinated by photography, a hobby he pursued between about 1880 and 1910. Given how complex the photographic process was, Faur’s hobby must have been an obsession, judging by the number of images he made. You wonder when he found the time to do his notarial work.

I came across Faur originally when I found an online exhibition of his work dating from 2003. The photos are classified into “Portraits”, “Les gestes du travail” and “L’imaginaire des lieux“. Within each category, click on the pointing hand at the bottom and then click on the gallery of photos to enlarge it. I am unable to reproduce the photos here for copyright reasons.

I was excited to see an image of a house that looks very similar to one that belongs to friends. I haven’t yet been able to verify this. Alas, no pictures of our own house are included, but the selection is only a very small part of the whole collection.

I found out more about Faur from this article (in French). It reproduces some of his photos, including self-portraits, in a larger format than the exhibition. You’ll find them in the section between paragraphs 30 and 37.

Rural subject matter

Faur enjoyed the artistic side of photography, posing his subjects in both rural and village settings, often in the open air. But his work is particularly valuable because it is a rare and comprehensive record of the rural life of the times.

Oxen, which were beasts of burden and pulled ploughs up to the 1960s

In addition to set-piece family groupings and slightly fanciful pictures of children with kittens and so forth, Faur captured working people carrying out their métiers. You see the clothes they wore, the tools they used, the environments in which they worked.

Farms were mainly dispersed smallholdings, the crops produced by families for their own consumption. Agriculture was largely a solitary occupation, sometimes supplemented by activities such as plaiting tresses for hat-making. Faur recorded these activities.

In the late 19th century, our village had around 4,500 inhabitants. It had an important livestock fair and many shops, cafes and restaurants. Faur systematically recorded the work of artisans that supported the life of a reasonable-sized rural community: blacksmiths, wheelwrights, clog makers, tinsmiths, tanners, knife grinders and many others. All of these have disappeared.

Le rémouleur (knife grinder). Only a mannequin at a local fête, but one of the typical métiers that Paul Faur photographed.

Unaccustomed to being photographed, some of Faur’s subjects seem self-conscious and awkward. However, if the notaire, a village notable, wanted to photograph you, you didn’t refuse.

In fact, Paul Faur was not the only amateur photographer in Caylus at the time. Léopold Mathet was the village pharmacist between 1875 and 1899, when he moved to Montauban. Mathet was particularly interested in colour photography and took many images of local landscapes and architecture. The two men would certainly have known each other.

It’s not entirely clear how Faur’s collection ended up in an attic in Limogne, although he was friendly with the family who once lived there, also notaires. Thankfully, the plates were not thrown out as junk when the house was sold.

No doubt I will have to wait some time for the Faur collection to be catalogued and digitised. I am hoping against hope that I might one day see an image of our house, or at least of a recognisable building or setting in the immediate area.

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    • Things have changed hugely since then. If you messed up a plate, you had to start all over again. That’s probably partly why people look stiff and posed. Compare that with today’s digital photography. A different world.


  1. Brilliant. I keep asking for old photo’s. WE managed to chisel som eout of the previous owner of this house, but finding pre- 1970s photo’s is difficult. we have been shown very few, our neighbour with the firest tractor in the commune. Another neighbours grandparents raking hay. Little photo’s with crinkly edges. As you say, photo’s of special occasions wjich prompt recollections about the people in the photo’s. wonderful background for knowing and understanding our neighbours. Touching sometimes. Treasures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s frustrating, since elderly people don’t understand why we are so interested. Like you, we managed to prise the ones in the post out of our neighbours, who used to own this house when it was a ruin (they farmed land around it). We also have some poor polaroids of the house in the process of and after restoration, but both sets of photos date from the late 60s/early 70s. I can’t find anything earlier, which is why I’m keeping my fingers crossed about the Faur collection. There are plenty of old photos of the general area, but they are often in spots that are unrecognisable today. What remains is such a precious record.


  2. Absolutely stunning photographs. I too love historic photographs. Thankful that my ancestors were among the early lovers of photography. Also have color 8mm films of my family back to 1940 (color film was very scarce during WWII–who knows how my mother secured it!). So I can watch movies of me cluding the year of my birth in 1943. Hope you find that special photo of your own home.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. These photos are fascinating, Vanessa! What a find. Don’t you just want to know all the stories behind them? Who are these people? It would be fun to try and find the places the photos were taken and photograph them as they are now. Bon chance finding an old photo of your house!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They certainly are! Great idea to try to find the places in them. I think I recognise a few of them, but places can change a lot if buildings are demolished or changed. I will have to wait some time before I can consult those photos, but it will be fun to see them.


  4. Wow, what a find and how brilliant it was saved and is being conserved. We know the village descendants of previous owners ‘but one’ of our house who sold it to our vendors. When I asked if they had photographs it somehow morphed into a visit by the local museum historian who didn’t produce any photos but went around the house dating various features and giving snippets of information. All written down, bien sur. Needless to say, as a keen snapper I have photographed the ‘vestiges de moyen age’ of the house in hopes it will be useful to future owners. The lady whose grandmother’s house it was only seems to have odd details her father told her so I suspect the house was in a bad state. One of the vendors told me the house was a ‘ruine’ when his father bought it in 1943. So frustrating not being able to plot a history but exciting as each little bit comes to light.
    I’m excited for you! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s such a good thing the photographic plates weren’t chucked away, as they might have been. Piecing together the history of these houses is like a jigsaw puzzle, isn’t it? For the people who once lived in them, they were just houses. For us, they are repositories of history. It must have been fascinating to have the museum historian round. And a good idea to take photos for future owners. After all, we are only custodians.

      Liked by 1 person

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