The Old Oak Tree: Augusta Mostyn
The oak tree was a popular subject in mid-19th century art, owing in part to its symbolic role in European culture as a representation of both nature and history. Corot, Rousseau and Courbet all painted images of oak trees, and many early photographers, such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Gustave Le Gray and Comte Olympe Aguado, trained their cameras on the solid trunks and gnarled branches of this stately tree. Posing people at the base of a tree was also a common pictorial convention at the time. By setting human figures next to such massive props, the artist could suggest not only differences in scale, but also the fleetingness of the human life span when compared to that of an oak.
Oak Tree in Eridge Park, Sussex by Henrietta Augusta Nevill, known as Lady Augusta Mostyn, presents us with a view of the tree on the family estate – then known as Eridge Place in Sussex. The fifth child of William Nevill, 4th Earl of Abergavenny, Mostyn took up photography as a young woman. She and her two sisters, Caroline and Isabel – nicknamed “the Trio” by friends and family – may have been introduced to photography by W.J. Thoms (1803–85), the antiquarian, amateur photographer and editor of the journal Notes and Queries. Mostyn must have learned photography some time before 1852 (since she and her younger sister Isabel had their photographic prints displayed at the London Society of Arts exhibition in December of that year). Henrietta, Caroline and Isabel had portrait photographs exhibited at the Photographic Society Exhibition in London in January of 1854, and both Mostyn and Caroline had landscape and architectural photographs included in an album produced by the Photographic Exchange Club in 1855. Mostyn was represented by two photographs of Eridge Park (including Oak Tree, Eridge Park) and Caroline by a view of Allington Castle in Kent. In June and July of 1861, the three Nevill sisters and their mother, Caroline Nevill, Countess of Abergavenny (née Leeke), paid a visit to the photography studio of Camille Silvy in London, and like many other aristocrats, had their portraits made.
Trees, and in particular older trees bereft of leaves, were of particular interest to Mostyn, and she made several studies of this subject. While French photographers and painters worked in the Fontainebleau forest, English photographers such as William John Newton were busy making photographs of the Burnham Beeches. Like the beeches in Newton’s photographs, there is an anthropomorphic quality to the tree depicted here. Since both possess trunks and limbs, the comparison of human bodies to trees has had a long tradition in Western culture. Whether either photographer was aware of the human resemblances in the trees they photographed is unknown, but such natural curiosities were certainly considered worthy subjects for artists from at least the 18th century onwards.
Mostyn also photographed the castle that was part of the Nevill Estate at Eridge Park, the village post office and a manor house possibly in the town of Birling, Kent, where she spent her childhood and later returned to live for a while with her own children. She and her sisters also made portraits of family members and friends, although it is unclear whether any of these images have survived.
Mostyn’s choice of subject matter – picturesque forest views or village scenes – has strong connections to the photographs produced by other members of the Photographic Exchange Club, a group of British photography enthusiasts who made photographs of trees, rivers, bridges, ruins and domestic interiors. These were published in albums (at least two and possibly four were created), which were circulated in 1855 and 1857.
Widowed in 1861, after only six short years of marriage, Mostyn was left to care for the couple’s two young boys. Unfortunately, at the time of her husband’s death, the family was on the brink of bankruptcy. Intent on recovering and preserving their assets, Mostyn set to work transforming an area of land considered then by some to be “wasteland” in Llandudno, North Wales, into a profitable tourist resort. She displayed shrewd management of her portion of the family estate and was instrumental not only in building parish churches in the two villages close to the estate, but also in ensuring that the people who lived on the estate lands were properly fed and educated in practical arts, such as sewing.
It appears that Mostyn’s efforts at photography ceased in the early 1860s, possibly due to her increased responsibilities following the death of her husband. Although her own production stopped, she maintained a passion for art and became the founder of Llandudno’s Mostyn Art Gallery, so that there would be a place to exhibit the work of the Gwynedd Ladies Art Society, of which she was both president and patron.
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