Your Collection: Wells Cathedral: A Sea of Steps by Frederick H. Evans


Frederick H. Evans, Wells Cathedral: A Sea of Steps (Stairs to the Chapter House and Bridge to the Vicar’s Close) [1903], platinum print, 23.4 x 19.1 cm. NGC

Born in London, England in 1853, photographer Frederick H. Evans began his career as a bookseller in London’s Cheapside, where he befriended writers, artists and intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.

Long interested in science and the natural world, in 1883 Evans purchased a camera to produce photomicrographs: images captured through the eyepiece of a microscope. His series of photomicrographs featuring seashells earned him a medal from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) in 1887, and his first solo exhibition was held at the RPS three years later.

In the same year that he bought his first camera, Evans began corresponding with J.J.G. Wilkinson, a follower of the Swedish mystic, Emmanuel Swedenborg. This, combined with exposure to work by J.M.W. Turner and Axel Haig featuring cathedrals and abbeys, influenced Evans in his choice of early subject matter.

From the start, Evans was attracted to the stairs at Wells Cathedral. This was perhaps not unusual, given this description of the stairs from a contemporary guidebook: “There are few things in English architecture that can be compared with it for strange impressive beauty.” Evans’ first images of Wells Cathedral were taken in 1894, when he produced a series of 50 glass lantern slides to share with his camera club. It would take him another nine years to produce the image he felt best captured the essence of the cathedral steps.

By 1898, Evans had closed his bookshop and had made photography his profession. Throughout his career, he would remain resolutely devoted to straightforward photographs, without any of the retouching techniques prevalent at the time. Although he enjoyed trying new angles and exploring natural light and its effects, he eschewed anything that involved manipulation of the actual image. This philosophy would be further articulated in Evans’ later writings, where he described his photographic theory of “plain prints from plain negatives.”

Interestingly, although Evans disliked any manipulation of the negative or the resulting print, he was not above manipulating the space he photographed. Often described as a perfectionist and “the last great idealist”, Evans occasionally asked church deacons to remove pews and gas fittings to give him his camera an unobstructed view.

Evans would ultimately become extremely knowledgeable about cathedrals and abbeys, often spending entire days in cathedral towns in both England and France, familiarizing himself with their architecture, and the way light illuminated various features. To Evans, light lent a spiritual quality to the church interiors.

By 1905, Evans was well known for his architectural photographs, and was commissioned that year by Country Life magazine to photograph French chateaux and parish churches in England. Evans sent 60 prints from the series to American photographer and publisher Alfred Stieglitz, who praised Evans’ work in print. In 1906, Stieglitz also exhibited Evans’ work at the 291 Gallery in New York City, introducing the British photographer and his style to a new audience.

Throughout his career, Evans’ preferred medium was the platinum print. The platinum process allows for the greatest range of mid-tones, allowing for a full and subtle expression of volume, and a nuanced rendering of light. As can be seen in Wells Cathedral: A Sea of Steps, the platinum process suggests the soft tonality of a pencil drawing, combined with the linear precision of etching. 

Although platinum printing offered a broad range of subtle mid-range tones and was more resistant to deterioration, it was also very expensive. As the cost of platinum and platinum paper continued to rise, Evans decided that, rather than compromise the quality of his images, he would simply give up photography. By the 1920s, his output had accordingly diminished — due also, in part, to his dislike of a new photographic interest in abstraction. This is not to say that Evans gave up photography altogether. Although his focus shifted from architectural images to landscapes, Evans continued to work into the 1930s.

The stunning Wells Cathedral: A Sea of Steps is one of some 200 Evans photographs in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Produced in 1903, the image captures the stairs to the Cathedral’s chapter house, and the bridge to the vicar’s close. The angles seem odd, the composition almost abstract. As Evans himself described it:

The steps now rise steeply before one, and the extraordinary wear in the top portions leading to the corridor, is now shown just as it appeals to the eye in the original subject, a veritable sea of steps. The passing over 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. The beautiful curve of the steps on the right as they rise to the height of the Chapter House floor, is for all the world like the surge of a great wave that will presently break and subside into smaller ones.

Sea of Steps is considered one of Evans’ greatest images of the period. So popular did it become, that camera clubs swarmed to the cathedral, hoping to capture the same view. Permanent indentations were eventually made in the floor to help amateurs set up their tripods in the appropriate spot. 

The National Gallery copy of Sea of Steps was acquired in 2009. When it came up for auction in May 2005 at Sotheby’s in London, it had a slight stain, but subsequent treatment has restored the print to its original brilliance. Later examinations reveal no signs of current or potential instability. Of the original “French mount” secondary support, only two elements remain.

Some photographers of the time dismissed Evans’ work, considering it lifeless and flat. One critic even went so far as to accuse Evans of “deadly calculated exactitude.” Others, however, understood his true brilliance, as suggested in this 1903 quotation from the journal Camera Work: “He stands alone in architectural photography, and that he is able to instill into pictures of this kind so much feeling, beauty and poetry entitles him to be ranked with the leading pictorial photographers in the world.”

Wells Cathedral: A Sea of Steps will be on display as part of the exhibition Luminous and True: The Photographs of Frederick H. Evans, on view at the National Gallery of Canada from May 28 to September 13, 2015.

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