Old photos can be a mess. Though we treasure them, it is more for the information they impart than for their artistic appeal. As an illustrator, I work with old photographs daily: retouching them, collaging them, and using them for source material. I particularly enjoy historical topics; photographs can impart more about history than the originals sourced. Illustrations intensify this capability.
While researching genealogy records, the majority of my family branches came from villages just west of Giessen, Germany: Heuchelheim, Staufenberg, Linden, and surrounding villages. I am fascinated to learn about the origins for over sixty surnames of direct ancestors who pre-date the 1600s in this region!
I don’t have the advantage of jumping in my car and driving to these historic hamlets in Hesse, north of Frankfurt. There is an ocean and three generations between me and them. Yet I am propelled to visualize the world of family records beginning from the remnants that remain.
Hence, this journey begins at a tiny picturesque village, Allendorf an der Lahn. Even today, it is a small town that values its environment, is free of industry, and—most intriguing for genealogy—has an Old Town that displays houses built in the 1600s. My guess so far is that they date from after the Thirty Years War.
Judging from accessible information about Allendorf, the citizens prize their progressive modern community. On their town website, they boast of new neighborhoods, an integrated population, and natural beauty. They don’t boast about their old buildings beyond the expected churches and pre-World War II structures, though the town is 1200 years old.
The communities my ancestors knew are now the historic regions; they left in 1870. In Allendorf’s oldest area, I found a few buildings that inspired these illustrations. They are near the old town center which was built around a legendary lime tree. Then I found similar archives from neighboring Kleinlinden. Further, the majority of my ancestor towns have preserved treasures that are over 300 years old.
My Allendorf family began with Peter Germann (Amend) born in 1482 and Peter Volck born in 1473; then Heintz Luh born in 1522 and Gottfried Christmann born in 1552. Records show they were in government, owned property, and produced descendants whose marriages intertwined (making a complicated chart). Though the towns that they knew were destroyed in the Thirty Years War, descendants survived to rebuild.
These illustrations represent the kinds of houses my ancestors may have owned. I don’t have their specific addresses to say if any of their houses still exist (that would require help from Germany); the images do provide a context and graphic appeal that photographs can’t. One multi-great grandmother married and moved to Kleinlinden, so I include a house from there as well. These display a style that distinguishes my approach to give images a flexibility of use and aesthetic appeal.
Hopefully these inspire you to explore your own visual past. If you wish to include illustrations to make your history legendary too, please e-mail me to discuss: firstname.lastname@example.org Fees range from $150 to $300 for a building illustration, depending on complexity. No two projects are the same. Each illustration is a window or a door into understanding, and celebrating, the past.
—Always inspired, Liane Sebastian, email@example.com
Please see these related projects:
“Finding Foundations” It is impressive how much of the past is preserved in Hesse, considering the turmoils that challenge survival. Allendorf is proud of its central old town that has evolved for almost four hundred years. Any of these could have been homes to ancestors, today occupied by cousins. From the center of town, illustrating the historic buildings along Obergasse is a walking-tour of the imagination. It represents a continuity very rare in the “new world,” and a determination for preservation that continues from generation to generation. Through this journey, I find a kindred spirit asking many of the same questions.
“Ancestor Access: Allendorf on der Lahn” — A closeup of the old bakery, this illustration makes it look smaller than it is. Very deep long building, its side faces the signature tree where the two oldest roads cross. Tom had provided resource material which I quote in this portrayal. Although the town has grown, this remains the center and the soul of place. Because Tom has included these illustrations on their town website, it is as if a small piece of me has gone home.
“Spirit of Place: Creation versus Preservation”examines a life-long dilemma of balance. There is a trend in Allendorf to plaster over the original half-timber skeletons. From an American point-of-view, these wooden patterns offer a warmth, coziness, and charm. But, it may be that to the residents, that makes an area appear old-fashioned or out of date. These homes, though hundreds of years old, are very much within date! The plaster lends a geometry, simplicity, and unity, while following the shapes and design. Taking an illustration that I did of Obergasse 7 in Allendorf, I imagine what it must have looked like when my ancestors lived there. Most of the homes that I have drawn would be familiar to them.
“Drawing Backwards in Time” Although a building may have endured many changes since built, hints of its original form exists. Sometimes old photographs show how a house looked, but most often, there are no images. Illustration can fill the gap. I have always wondered what my house was like in 1888 when new. It certainly does not look the same now! With an enclosed front porch, room additions, siding, and decorative shutters, its character is totally transformed. So I went to City Hall, researched the permits and historic records, and concluded with this interpretation.
Liane Sebastian wears an editor’s hat, designer’s coat, and artist’s shoes.