Contemplating the Photographs of Frederick H. Evans


Frederick H. Evans, Winchelsea, Steps to Queen Elizabeth’s Well (c. 1905), platinum print, 22.9 x 18.6 cm. NGC.

Frederick H. Evans’ 1905 photograph of the steps leading to Queen Elizabeth’s Well in Winchelsea, England, is quintessential Evans. The stones, softly illuminated in the foreground and framed by trees and overgrown foliage, wend their way into the dark, mysterious forest interior. Moving from a light sepia to deep black, through an infinite number of greys, the tonal range is astonishing. And the image brings together the two subjects most dear to this photographer’s heart: architectural detail and trees.

Winchelsea, Steps to Queen Elizabeth’s Well recalls Evans’ acknowledged masterpiece, Wells Cathedral. A Sea of Steps (1903), in which a sweeping stairway leads like a series of soft waves to the illuminated Chapter House. Both images are part of the new exhibition, Luminous and True: The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans, which features a selection of works by the influential Victorian photographer, from the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Thirty-three delicate, precise prints of cathedral interiors, façades, forests and landscapes are on view in the upper Prints, Drawings and Photographs galleries. All are either platinum or photogravure prints, complemented by a set of glass lantern slides shown in light boxes and projected on a wall in a looped slide show.

It is a subtle, refined display that invites quiet contemplation. “What’s important here is to take time looking at each print,” says Ann Thomas, the Gallery’s Curator of Photographs, and organizer of the exhibition.


Frederick H. Evans, Gloucester Cathedral, Alabaster Effigy (c. 1896 – 1910), platinum print, 19.7 x 24.6 cm. NGC.

Indeed, patient viewing is likely what the artist would have wanted. Evans was profoundly spiritual, although not necessarily religious. He found deep meaning in cathedral architecture and nature, and imbued his images with a divine sense of light and dark. Considered one of the most important architectural photographers in art history, he was also a master printer who knew how to use the platinum process to full advantage in order to achieve the subtlest of tonal gradations.

Frederick H. Evans was born in London in 1853. His father was a music teacher, and Frederick, too, developed a love of music, as well as interests in science and literature. He earned his living first as a bookseller, which exposed him to a broad range of writers and artists, along with their ideas and creative works. He was familiar with John Ruskin's writings and J. W. Turner's cathedral watercolours, and was friends with George Bernard Shaw and Aubrey Beardsley.

Evans began experimenting with photography in 1883, making microscopic images of shells and other sea life. In the 1890s, he was elected to the Linked Ring — a group of artists advocating that photography be accepted as an art form — whose members included Henry Peach Robinson, Alvin Langdon Coburn and Alfred Stieglitz.

Around 1890, Evans had begun photographing English and French cathedrals, and by 1898 had given up his bookshop to devote himself to photography full-time. Commissions for architectural photographs followed, including several for Country Life magazine. He made portraits, including the one of George Bernard Shaw on view in the exhibition, and broadened out into landscape photography, taking a particular interest in forests for their mysterious and spiritual qualities. His views of individual trees are like exquisite portraits, with trunks and limbs shown with the finest of detail.


Frederick H. Evans, New Forest, A Pre-Raphaelite Study (1894?, printed before 1909), platinum print, 20.5 x 15.2 cm. NGC.

The connection between Frederick Evans and John Ruskin will be evident to anyone who saw the Gallery's 2014 exhibition of Ruskin's meticulously detailed drawings and watercolours. Both artists were keen, patient, and intense observers who spent long hours in front of their subjects. Evans famously stayed for weeks in each cathedral town, familiarizing himself with the architecture and the way light fell across columns and sculptures; Ruskin drew as a daily, journalistic activity, seeking to strengthen his powers of observation and learn about the world. Both focused their attention primarily on nature and architectural detail, and seemed to have understood, at a deep level, the artisans who carved intricate porticos, columns and arches.

Evans’ interest in nature, churches and light is fully in line with the Victorian preoccupation with finding connections between the natural world, spiritual harmony and scientific and artistic expression. He was truly a man of his times, and his images offer a clear window on the society in which he lived. For Evans, says Ann Thomas, “the cathedral was seen as the physical worldly manifestation of the spiritual.”


Frederick H. Evans, Ely Cathedral (1901), photogravure, 20 x 13.1 cm. NGC.

The metaphorical quality of cathedral architecture is particularly evident in the iconic Sea of Steps, in which the stairs lead towards a heavenly light, as if in pilgrimage. That same quality is also striking in Ely Cathedral (1901). With his camera positioned deep within the recesses of the church’s transept, Evans has filled almost the entire frame with layers of darkness. In the centre, however, a thin but brilliant shaft of light illuminates the central nave, the site of worship.

Durham Cathedral from the Wear (c. 1896–1910) is somewhat unusual for Evans, as it features a distant view of a church, rather than a close-up detail. Like Winchelsea, Steps to Queen Elizabeth’s Well, it makes the spiritual connection between architecture and nature: a single, shapely tree leans over the river as though reaching for the cathedral.

Frederick H. Evans, Durham Cathedral from the Wear (c. 1896 – 1910), platinum print, 18.9 x 23.9 cm. NGC.

The work of Frederick Evans has been fundamental in building the National Gallery’s outstanding photographs collection. When Director Jean Sutherland Boggs founded the department in 1967, she appointed the visionary James Borcoman as the Gallery’s first Curator of Photographs. He strategically sought to build the collection upon a foundation of a group of British, French and American photographs that were key to the development of the medium. Nineteen prints by Evans were among these foundational acquisitions. More recently, in 2010, the Gallery received an extraordinary gift from an anonymous donor of 140 photographs and lantern slides by Evans.

In an exhibition pairing guaranteed to surprise, Luminous and True is installed adjacent to Chagall: Daphnis & Chloé. Visitors emerging from the vibrant and sensual Chagall exhibition — all about love under the flowering trees — will find their hearts slow to a more meditative pace for Evans.

Luminous and True: The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 13, 2015.

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