Lady Aberdeen's Memorial Photobook to her Son: An Elegy in Visual Form
During her years in Canada as the vice-regal consort of the nation between 1893 and 1898, Lady Aberdeen had a keen interest in photography and was an active amateur photographer. Her photobook Through Canada with a Kodak, published in 1893, is a combination of a travel narrative and a survey of photographs she had collected or taken herself with her Kodak camera. Despite her marginalization in Canadian art history, Lady Aberdeen was one of the few amateur women photographers to emerge in late Victorian-era Canada. While travelling throughout Canada, she documented her stay by taking Kodak “snap” photographs of landscapes and views, as well as of vernacular and familial subjects. An exceptional turn-of-the-century photographer and public figure, her work can now be found in the collection of the Canadian Photography Institute at the National Gallery of Canada, including a special memorial photobook that straddles both the private and public spheres of her life.
Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks Hamilton-Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair (1857– 1939), born to Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks and Isabella Weir Hogg in 1857, was the wife of the Earl of Aberdeen, John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon. A Scottish politician, he served twice as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and fulfilled the role of Governor General of Canada from 1893 until 1898. Lady Aberdeen’s legacy has been widely associated with her philanthropy and her involvement with Canadian women’s rights and history, having established institutions such as the National Council of Women of Canada, the Women’s Art Association of Canada and the Victorian Order of Nurses. She was the first woman to address the Canadian House of Commons and to receive an honorary degree in Canada, from Queen’s University in Kingston. In addition, she was the long-serving president of the International Council of Women and the author of several books.
Lady Aberdeen’s photographic oeuvre as seen in her images from Through Canada with a Kodak tended to fixate on the European traveller's gaze, which captured the colonial setting that was part of the British imperial realm. Such images represent her perspective of Canada through an “imperial eye” view, as outlined by scholar Mary Louise Pratt in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Her published images are typical of this view and are congruent with the aesthetic of other photographically illustrated books made by aristocratic women travellers at the time, such as A Cruise in the Eothen by the illustrious travel writer Lady Anna Brassey, also in the Gallery's collection.
Archie Gordon, In Memoriam, Lady Aberdeen's photobook of 1909, includes nine photographs by her that are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Unlike her photographs in Through Canada With a Kodak, these images are intimate snapshots of her private life. Archie Gordon, In Memoriam was a privately circulated memorial book created by Lady Aberdeen in remembrance of her third son, Archibald, who had died at the young age of 25 in a car crash that year. It features family photographs and snapshots by her, as well as photographs collected by professional studio photographers such as William Topley and Elliot & Fry. Photographs by other members of the Aberdeen family also appear in the album, including images by Archie Gordon himself. Colour reproductions of artworks have also been pasted in the book, including of paintings by British artist Louisa Starr-Canziani and the Canadian portrait and figure painter Wyatt Eaton.
The snaps by Lady Aberdeen in the memorial book depict intimate reflections of her family life. Making the Best of a Broken Arm, a child portrait of Archie with the family dog, is highly sentimental. Another family photo, After Chipmunk, evokes through stark contrasts of light and dark a feeling of temporality. It reflects a sentimental view of the fleeting nature of time, which leaves an emotional impression on the viewer. Preparing for a Roundup at Coldstream, BC, and Coldstream-Hops Going to Market, also family snaps of the Aberdeens, present pastoral views of the landscape. These works demonstrate a real concern for aesthetics, through their use of vignettes and attention to composition.
In contrast to these family photographs, Lady Aberdeen's Entrance to the Private Cemetery, Haddo House is a work that comments on the family’s public image. This photograph depicts a view of the family’s private cemetery at their Scottish estate Haddo House in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. The image is placed near the end of the memorial book, alongside photographs of her deceased son by an unknown photographer. Although the experiences of attending Archie Gordon’s funeral and visiting the Aberdeen cemetery were private, these images were placed in the book to allow those outside the domestic realm of the Aberdeen family to partake in these private moments. It is likely that Lord and Lady Aberdeen would put their personal lives on display in order to maintain their social image as a productive, stable and loving family unit, to reinforce their political duty as representatives of Queen Victoria’s empire.
Other photographs in the book conform with this message. They are often taken by professional photographers, such as Archie at the Age of Three Months by the London photographer Hayman Selig Mendelssohn. Here, Lady Aberdeen is depicted as a loving mother, a device used to project her social image as a feminine ideal. Although the memorial book is considered private, its primary purpose is to be circulated and shared for the purpose of remembrance.
The relationship between the intimate, private vernacular photographs by Lady Aberdeen in Archie Gordon, In Memoriam and the memorial book itself negotiates both private and public space. The photographically illustrated book differs from a family photograph album in that it is intended for wider, more public reception and circulation, and its images are sequenced around a specific theme. Scholar Patrizia Di Bello in the 2012 publication The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond states, “… for a book to be considered a photobook, it must present something more than a mere collection of images; it must demonstrate intention and coherence in design, whether this refers to the agency of the photographer-auteur, of an editor, or possibly even of an editorial team.” The photobook’s meaning, therefore, is dependant on the relationship of the images to the text contained in the object.
The first half of the Archie Gordon, In Memoriam photobook contains written memorial tributes about Archibald Gordon, authored by people who knew him well, including his rector and colleagues at Oxford University and his sister Marjorie Pentland. The subtitle of the book is An Album of Recollections, which references the objects’ relationship to memory. The photographs are placed at the end of the text and are pasted in chronological order. As the viewers flip through the album’s pages, they see Archie as a baby, a young boy, a student and a man, until the end of the book where they reach the death photographs.
The method of representing chronologies and narratives in photobooks and album-like objects has long been seen as a way for individuals to memorialize the best and most precious moments in their life – to capture temporary memories and materialize them. By organizing a visual record of her son’s life, Lady Aberdeen has created an elegy in visual form. The photographs in Archie Gordon, In Memoriam, represent a view of Archibald Gordon's life that is tied to notions of nostalgia and remembrance. The resulting book – and Lady Aberdeen's work – is deeply moving.
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