British Primitives: Purest and Best

By Muffy McLanahan

It is a little bit of magic realized: of natural magic. You make the powers of nature work for you, and no wonder that your work is well and quickly done.

William Henry Fox Talbot, 1839, the year he invented his “photogentic drawings”.

The Golden Age of British Photography is a large, beautifully printed book which is the result of an exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Alfred Stieglitz Center, The Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A brief biography introduces each photographer, six British photographic authorities contribute essays on specific artists, and throughout there is a lively historical narrative describing the period. The occasional repetitions cause no annoyance and merely serve to restate a point or fact. Of the 209 photographs reproduced, 186 are tritons and the rest are duotones. The calotypes possess strong brown tones, the albumen prints are rich in detail, and one is able to sense the lustrous quality of the platinum prints.

As the introduction to the book points out, “In photography, as in other fields, the primitives, who had little guidance except their own promptings of what might be realized, remain among the purist and the best.” And if their photographs are not enough to draw the reader into the text, the stage-setting account of collector Chauncy Hare Townshend’s life, portrayed in many of Charles Dickens characters, will surely do the trick.

While discussing the various methods used by the early photographers, the authors point up the social and economic factors the influenced the photographers’ work. At the time of photography’s invention (1839) there was a critical turning point in the Industrial Revolution in Britain: the High Victorian age of materialism gave rise to modern capitalism, while at the same time, the changing class structure saw experimentation in liberalism and democratization. Learning became fashionable. Territorial gains offered exciting exploration. These early photographers saw it all through their lenses. Like roger Fenton, many worked hard to advance this “scientific medium” and struggled to have it recognized as art.

A number of the great photographers, such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Roger Fenton, and Frederick Evans, began and ended their careers in other fields, but their contributions to the photographic world were invaluable.

The longest essay in the book is on Peter Henry Emerson whose electric and often impulsive writings accompanied so much of his insightful photography. He lectured on his soft-focus principal calling the sharp-focus style “an impersonal mathematical ‘plotting’ by the lens of objects before it.” This he latter repudiated when he became disenchanted with photography.

The Golden Age of British Photography is a scholarly, well-researched capsule history of the period from 1839 to 1900, which manages to retain a light, artful touch. There is no pseudo-intellectual, weighty dialogue contrived to confound the reader. There is a genuine and successful attempt to entertain as well as educate. Its greatest success, however, is the photographic collection garnered from the Victoria and Albert, London: The Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle; the Royal Photographic Society, Bath; the Science Museum, London, (the first photographers were exhibited with machines): and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

After traveling to the Victoria and Albert and The Philadelphia Museum, the exhibition will appear at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (May 18-August 4, 1985): the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.