The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"The Empty Picture Frame" (1895)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“The Empty Picture Frame” was written by “Mrs. Alfred Baldwin” and first appeared in The Shadow on the Blind (1895). “Mrs. Alfred Baldwin” was the pen name of Louisa Baldwin (1845-1925), a British poet, author, and anthologist who is remembered today only for her supernatural stories. “The Empty Picture Frame” is a moderately interesting ghost story which is most notable for its Miss-Havisham-meets-the-supernatural premise.

Katherine Swinford is the mistress of Eastwick Court, a large estate. She is a spinster; the one man who loved her for herself and not her property “died long ago, and his fever-worn body lay buried in the hot sand of a tropic shore, and Katherine Swinford was still and would always remain Katherine Swinford.”1 She is particularly melancholy one twilight, and she wonders why she never heard back from her cousin, Sir Piers Hammersley; Katherine invited Sir Piers to Eastwick Court, along with his daughter Joceline. Joceline shares the name of Katherine’s ancestor, Joceline Swinford, whose lover had died fighting for the king, and who herself died of a broken heart following his death. But Sir Piers never wrote back to Katherine, which strikes her as unusual and almost rude. Suddenly Katherine hears the sound of carriage wheels on the gravel driveway, and soon enough Katherine’s butler is announcing the entrance of “Miss Hammersley.” Miss Hammersley is dressed in old-fashioned clothes and bears an extraordinary resemblance to the portrait of Joceline Swinford. Miss Hammersley is also distant, vague, and dreamy in manner, outdated in her vocabulary, always cold, and served by a maid whose dress is similarly “in entire disregard of existing fashion.”2 

Katherine brings Miss Hammersley to the portrait of Joceline Swinford, but discovers that the portrait has vanished. This greatly upsets Katherine, but Miss Hammersley assures her that the portrait will soon be restored to her. Several days pass, and Miss Hammersley shows herself to be oddly ill-informed about modern manners but knowledgeable about bygone days. She even mentions having gone to London while the King was confined, something that happened a century and more gone by. Then one day one of Katherine’s servants mentions that he saw Miss Hammersley and her servant walking through the house late at night and going through the unused parts of the mansion. That night Katherine sees them doing the same and follows them. Katherine hears them talking about the spot where Joceline Swinford’s lover died and saying “It was here that he died! On this spot my love died!”3 Miss Hammersley’s maid asks her, “Shall you not rest, Mistress, since you have seen that which you prayed to see once more?”4 and Miss Hammersley responds, “Yes, I shall rest. I shall sleep till we all wake together.”5 The following day passes awkwardly, with Katherine convinced of Miss Hammersley’s madness, and that night Miss Hammersley leaves abruptly. The carriage Miss Hammersley and her servant leave in disappears abruptly, and when looked for the portrait of Joceline Swinford is restored. From that point forward Katherine’s health pines away, and she dies within a year, a changed woman.

“The Empty Picture Frame” is not particularly remarkable. The true identity of “Miss Hammersley” is telegraphed from her first appearance, and it is equally clear that she means no harm. The reader is left to be chilled just by the idea of a ghost, which for those past the age of thirteen is an unlikely prospect. “The Empty Picture Frame” has good characterization in the person of the imperious spinster Katherine Swinford, and Baldwin tells the story in a readable fashion, but there is otherwise little to recommend the story. Baldwin, who was fifty when the story was published, was obviously hearkening back to the ghost stories of her youth, the relatively genteel and well-mannered and reserved ghost stories of the 1850s. But “The Empty Picture Frame,” and the collection it was published in, appeared a year after Machen’s The Great God Pan,” and in the wake of Machen Baldwin’s ghost stories would have looked, and in fact were, particularly old-fashioned.

Recommended Edition

Print: Mrs. Alfred Baldwin, The Shadow on the Blind and Other Ghost Stories. Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2001.


1 Mrs. Alfred Baldwin, “The Empty Picture Frame,” The Shadow on the Blind and Other Ghost Stories (Ashcroft, BC: Ash-Tree Press, 2001), 3.

2 Baldwin, “The Empty Picture Frame,” 5.

3 Baldwin, “The Empty Picture Frame,” 18.

4 Baldwin, “The Empty Picture Frame,” 18.

5 Baldwin, “The Empty Picture Frame,” 18.