Review: New Technologies and Victorian Society
It perhaps isn’t too ironic that Charles Dickens’ opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities can also serve as a vivid motif for the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection.
As Dickens writes in his 1859 novel contrasting two opposed worldviews of late 18th century Industrial-era European culture: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
As he himself notes, Dickens might as well have been writing of his own time. And as illustrated in UMMA Curator Emerita Carole McNamara’s selection of some of this museum’s most significant photographic holdings, mid-19th century England would have indeed been among the best and worst of times. As the exhibit shows us by example (and McNamara’s choices are certainly peerless), England was undergoing rapid transitions in both technology and society that would affect and influence the world.
The Victorian era—measured by the 63 year reign of Queen Victoria of the House of Hanover; dated 1837 (on her assumption of the British throne) to precisely the turn of the 20th century—was a paradoxical period of peace, prosperity, refined sensibilities, and highly moralistic national self-confidence often described as Pax Britannica because of the progressive rise of British prosperity fostered by the nation’s worldwide empire.
But it was also a time of sometimes brutal industrial consolidation coupled with an unprecedented population growth as millions of British subjects continued their equally unprecedented migration around the country as well as around the world—and particularly from the British countryside to the country’s urban centers. London especially swelled from one and a half million inhabitants at the beginning of the Victorian era to more than triple that number by the end of the century.
There to capture this extraordinary social, political, economic, and cultural transition was a technological marvel that would reshape the history of art as well as how we see the world. For, prior to the innovation of the photographic camera in the early decades of the 19th century, draughtsmanship and painting had always vacillated between impulses of realism and fancy. And although various forms of pre-camera photographic equipment go as far back as ancient China and ancient Greece, the notion of photography as a practical technology was spurred in the early-19th century through the development of chemical photographic processes.
As McNamara says in her introduction to New Technologies of this era:
“The first half-century of British photography charts the journey of a new medium with distinct expressive and artistic potentials. Although photography served as an aid to science and exploration, it captured aspects of British society in ways that are poetic and artistic. Early photographers exploited existing pictorial conventions and their subject matter is often derived from painting traditions—portraits of family members and friends, still-lifes of household objects, and landscapes.”
In short, spreading quickly around the world, mid-19th century photography emancipated art from its dependence on subjective creativity by giving photographers the ability to capture images drawn directly from life. And these pioneers were quick to explore the new technology with increasing alacrity.
Some of the earliest images on display—three 1844 salted paper prints from calotype negatives: “Part of Queen’s College, Oxford”, “Loch Katrine” (from the “Sun Pictures of Scotland”), and “Bust of Patroclus” (plate five from “The Pencil of Nature”)—reflect the range of British photography at this seminal period as crafted in what can only be described as an inspired creativity by William Henry Fox Talbot.
Fox, one of England’s foremost photographic technologists of the time, invented a photographic procedure through his silver salt and nitrate process that made it possible to produce as many positive prints as anyone would wish of any image. And Fox’s forays into what is now called contact printing fostered the development of landscape photography and artful photojournalism with a zestful fidelity that’s still breathtaking today.
Among the socially-oriented documentary works on display are David Octavious Hill’s circa 1840s carbon print “St. Andrews, Baiting the Lines” drawn from his “A Series of Calotype Views of St. Andrews” and John Thomson’s equally penetrating 1876-77 Woodbury type “The Crawlers” drawn from his “Street Life in London” series; both works where the emphasis is to give viewers a sense of what life would have been like for the 19th century British working class.
This is surely among the worst of times as the photographs clearly show us a society caught on the moorings of seriously pressed workers (in Hill’s photo) and a thoroughly economically depressed mother with child on her lap (in Thomson’s photo) even as the country was itself among the more enlightened polities in the world at that time.
Likewise, as we see in New Technologies, portraiture would be slow, but steady in evolving. Largely because of the length of time necessary to develop negative plates through bulky equipment, the posture of early portraiture sitters is far more formal than what we’re used to seeing. As such, John Adamson and Robert Adamson’s circa 1841 salted paper print from calotype negative “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” is a decidedly straight-forward no nonsense visage.
Yet even as a palpable steely discomfort renders Brewster’s portrait rather starched, this famed Scottish scientist, mathematician, and editor of the influential 18-volume Edinburgh Encyclopedia (as well, coincidently, inventor of the first three-dimensional lenticular stereoscope camera) poses patiently for the brother Adamsons. Focusing on the seated Brewster’s white hair as well as left-hand crossed on his waist; “Sir David Brewster (1781-1868)” crafts a decorous ceremonial portraiture that’s common to this day.
Technology itself is best represented by Scotsman James Stewart’s 1878 albumen print, “No. 247.” This seemingly simple profile of a steam locomotive is actually handsomely pregnant in both its photographic and technical articulation. Certainly one of the most important inventions prior to the Victorian era, and also a technology that was relentlessly worked upon through this period, the external combustion engine was of as much fascination to the Victorians as rockets still are to us in our time.
Stewart’s composition is flawless. The steam locomotive is depicted squarely in the center of the photograph with remarkable attention paid to its sleek design. A concise masterwork, Stewart pays attention to the locomotive from its striking forward smoke box to its perched cab with the photo being crafted sufficiently to scale as to accent its curvilinear brake shoes in contrast to its horizontal air brake pump. “No. 247” is a fastidious rendering of this marvel of 19th century machinery.
But perhaps the most stunning composition in New Technologies is Julia Margret Cameron’s circa 1865 “The Kiss of Peace” albumen print. Cameron, a deeply religious woman who only began photography at middle age, most often photographed her family. Yet in this inspired composition of friend and domestic depicting the Christian tradition of “the kiss of peace” practiced as a gesture of friendly acceptance, Cameron’s “The Kiss of Peace” is also a keenly observed proto-feminist mediation on the status of women in Victorian society.
The photograph’s mood is reminiscent of the distinctive British Pre-Raphaelite art that had a uniquely influential popularity only shortly before the advent of photography. As such, the models’ wind-blown hair, simple cloth drape, and their languid diagonal gaze mirror an inward melancholy that in turn suggests that period’s conception of the supposed innocence of femininity—but Cameron clearly knows better. As knowingly heartfelt as it is aesthetically accomplished, her “Kiss of Peace”—certainly one of the most famed photographs of the 19th century—is a profound mediation on the paradoxical symbolic and heightened dramatic sensibility of the Victorian era.
John Carlos Cantú has written extensively on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: “New Technologies and Victorian Society: Early British Photographs from the UMMA Collection” will run through May 8, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm; and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764-0395.