At a time when photographic shops were still something of a rarity in rural Northern Brittany, it was almost a ritual for onion peddlers to sit for their portrait during their stay in British urban centres. These heavily staged pictures, where the sitter would usually pose rather self-consciously in front of a painted backcloth, almost always showed him carrying an onion-festooned shoulder-pole. Paradoxically, what appeared to British observers as the distinctive attribute of the Bretons' trade, was used exclusively in Britain & would have been an unfamiliar sight for their families back home, to whom the portraits were sent as postcards.
While most portrait-cards would have been carefully kept as keepsakes by relatives, this picture appears to have been trimmed down & recycled as an identity photograph, as shown by the purple stamp mark in the upper left-hand side corner.
What is even more remarkable is the hand-written dates on the passport which the photograph was glued on: August 24, 1916 (Police authorities, Saint-Malo) / December 22, 1916 (Aliens Registration Office, Southampton) !... at the height of the Great War, when all migrant onion sellers had officially been called back to France.
The young hawker's name was Yves Kériven, from a Roscoff family where boys were sent away to work as onion sellers across the Channel from generation to generation.
I have met his two sons, François & Pierre.
|Béret-clad Yves Kériven & his younger son Pierre showing 2 modes of onion-peddling.|
|François Kériven, 1960s.|
|François & his uncle Jean-François posing for the Manchester Evening News in the late 1960s.|
|This portrait of Mr François Kériven was shot last May, when I first met him by chance during his afternoon walk, in front of the Station Biologique in Roscoff.|