Victorian England in Focus
This article first appeared in Vernissage Magazine, Vol. 13 Number 1 (Winter 2011)
Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with 19th-century Britain, having read a Dickens novel or seen a British period drama, would surely find the Victorian era highly captivating as a photographic subject. It conjures images not only of cluttered drawing rooms and stiff upper lips, but also of visionary scientists, polyglot explorers, and steaming railways. The period of Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 to 1901, was largely a time of peace and growing prosperity – a time of political reform, health and sanitation advancements, and ambitious construction projects. The invention of photography in 1839 also made this the first period in history to be recorded in photographs.
This convergence of an evocative subject and emerging art medium is what makes the National Gallery’s 19th-Century British Photographs so compelling. This is the third exhibition in a series showcasing the National Gallery’s photographs collection; Modernist Photographs appeared in Ottawa in 2007 and 19th-Century French Photographs in 2009. The stunning collection has been steadily growing since former National Gallery Director Jean Sutherland Boggs purchased 23 vintage prints (and 5 contemporary ones) in 1967. Presented with a choice of more than 2000 images, Lori Pauli, the Gallery’s associate curator of Photographs, who organized this show, selected 105, of which 67 are currently on view at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Many are among the collection’s key holdings, by celebrated British photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Frederick Evans. Other less known works have rarely been exhibited.
This is a chance for visitors to trace the evolution of British photography throughout the century from early, fairly primitive images, to daguerreotypes, to magnificent turn-of-the-century platinum prints. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Pauli discusses the technical and aesthetic value of each photograph, yet one has the impression she is equally captivated by the stories associated with them.
Cameron’s Allegory (1868), for instance, is a somewhat blurred double portrait showing two figures in exotic dress: a white man and a black boy. The boy has a sad, world-weary look in his eyes, as he leans his head slightly into the man’s full beard. As Pauli recounts, the child, Dejàtch Álámáyou, was the son of the Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Orphaned as a result of a diplomatic blunder that involved Queen Victoria, Dejátch was taken to England under the friendly guardianship of Captain Tristram Speedy, a professional soldier and adventurer. There, he became the subject of much public curiosity, appearing in photographs and on the cover of the London Illustrated News. Although he lived for some time with Captain Speedy and his wife on the Isle of Wight, Dejátch was eventually separated from them – by order of the British government – and sent to a succession of elite boarding schools. He was never happy in England, and died of consumption at the age of nineteen.
On its own, this portrait is highly intriguing, to be sure; the 21st-century viewer, with no knowledge of the sitters, is given a fair amount of visual material with which to imagine the situation. The historical context renders this image that much more moving. “It says so much about Victorian life and colonialism,” says Pauli. “They thought they could just turn him into an Englishman.”
Equally poignant is the rarely exhibited Hatfield Rectory photograph album (1854), which Pauli suggests was likely created as a memorial album upon the death of the rectory’s occupant, the Reverend Faithful. The images show not only family portraits, but also gentle scenes of village life. The Reverend’s passing would have forced his family members to vacate the rectory, and they must have tried to capture with the camera the people and places they were leaving behind. “It’s really a memento of a way of life that has passed,” says Pauli.
Other photographs in the exhibition tell stories of an entire society in flux. Thomas Annan’s Close, No. 193 High Street (1868) is one of a series of photographs commissioned by the Glasgow City Improvement Trust to document inner city courtyards and tenement buildings on the eve of their demolition. The image shows a long cobblestone alley between two buildings, with a time-worn stairway in the foreground, and two blurred figures perched on the steps. The puddles and dark tones suggest a cold dankness. Still, there is beauty in the billowing clouds, contrasted with the grid-like forms of the architecture and strung clotheslines.
A companion piece to Thomas Annan’s photograph is Frederick Evans’ Wells Cathedral. A Sea of Steps (1903), a recent acquisition of the National Gallery. Again, strong architectural forms and worn steps dominate the composition. Evans’s sweeping stairway, however, leads up to the columns and archway of a cathedral – as if to heaven itself – conveying a rich sense of harmony and rhythm, if not spiritual enlightenment. Evans himself described “… a veritable sea of steps. The passing over of them of hundreds of footsteps during the many years the stair has served its purpose have worn them into a semblance of broken waves, low-beating on a placid shore.” With its quiet minimalism, this is surely among the most exquisite works in the exhibition.
From the small, familiar and domestic to the grand and exotic, the photographs in this exhibition present a great range of subjects. Fox Talbot’s Shadow of a Flower is notable not only for its date of 1839, making it one of the earliest photographs in existence, but also for its subtle and elusive effects. In the exhibition catalogue, Talbot expert Larry Schaaf describes it as a “ghostlike flower, sinuous and dancing almost like a creation in smoke.” Images of gnarled trees by Augusta Mostyn and Frederick Evans reflect a common preoccupation of the day. The decaying tree as a subject for artists goes back to the 18th century, writes Pauli, quoting artist and writer William Gilpin: “What is more beautiful, for instance, on a rugged foreground, than an old tree with a hollow trunk? Or a dead arm, a dropping bough or a dying branch?”
There are also portraits, street scenes and village scenes that illustrate everyday life in Victorian Britain. The Oscar Rejlander’s genre study, Poor Jo (pre-1862), elicits sympathy for the destitute child pictured, even if the viewer is aware that that image was shot in a studio. In her essay, Pauli calls the subject the “original ‘poster child’ for the homeless,” and situates the photograph in the context of the London described by Charles Dickens and Punch magazine founder Henry Mayhew.
A number of these photographers braved difficult conditions to obtain their shots in faraway, sometimes exotic lands. John Thomson’s Palace of the Leprous King (1866), from his album “Antiquities of Cambodia,” shows the ancient ruins of the temple–palace at Angkor Wat. At the time, a trip into Angkor Wat was so arduous that Thomson was accompanied by two Cambodian assistants, eight boatmen, a Siamese guide and a British Embassy representative. Francis Firth travelled to an island on the Nile on a traditional dahabieh sailboat to photograph the Great Temple at Philae using a cumbersome, large-format camera and delicate wet-plate collodion process. Roger Fenton went to the Crimean War to create Railway Sheds and Workshops, Balaklava (1855), with two assistants, a photographic van, seven hundred glass plates and six large chests of equipment and personal effects.
Considered the “golden age” of photography in Britain, production in this period captured an astonishingly broad array of subjects and activities, many of which are today regarded as masterpieces in the medium. Indeed 19th-Century British Photographs offers a rare pictorial glimpse of a remarkable period in history. The Exhibition runs at the Art Gallery of Alberta until 6 October 2013.