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Queen Victoria’s Favorite Photographer

on September 9, 2010 – 3:15 am

A new Royal Collection book and touring exhibition celebrate two of the leading artistic figures of the 19th century. The photographs of Roger Fenton and Julia Margaret Cameron were collected by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who lent their enthusiastic support to the new medium of photography and its pioneering practitioners. Twenty-two of the finest works by Fenton and Cameron from the Royal Photograph Collection will travel to venues across the UK in 2010-11. The accompanying book, Roger Fenton • Julia Margaret Cameron: Early British Photographs from the Royal Collection by Sophie Gordon, is published by Royal Collection Publications in June, special exhibition price £14.95.

Roger Fenton was born on 28 March 1819 and trained as a barrister. His earliest surviving photographs date from 1852, the year in which his work was exhibited at the Society of Arts in the first British exhibition devoted exclusively to photography.  The following year he was introduced to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the inaugural exhibition of the Photographic Society.  Shortly afterwards Fenton was invited to Windsor Castle to photograph the six eldest royal children.  Fenton was to return to the Castle and to Buckingham Palace several times throughout 1854, producing a series of portraits of the Queen, Prince Albert and their children.  His unprecedented access to the private life of the royal family undoubtedly had a great impact on his career. Fenton also had a profound effect on Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, sustaining and developing their burgeoning interest in photography.

The exhibition includes Roger Fenton’s final commission for the royal family, carried out after the photographer’s return from the Crimea in 1856. In the autumn of that year Fenton travelled to Balmoral to photograph the newly completed royal residence in Scotland and members of the Queen’s family and household.  In The Princess Royal and Princess Alice, Balmoral, the Queen’s eldest daughters are seated on a bench in front of the gardener’s cottage.  In this composition and in Fenton’s photographs of their siblings, Princess Helena and Princess Louise, and Prince Alfred, the photographer skilfully uses compositional devices, such as a walking stick or an overturned stool, to anchor his subject to the ground and provide a variation of texture within the image.

In 1859 the National Rifle Association was formed out of the volunteer regiments that had sprung up across the country in anticipation of war with France. Roger Fenton joined the West Middlesex Volunteers the following year and that summer photographed the first annual meeting of the National Rifle Association on Wimbledon Common. Queen Victoria inaugurated the occasion, conducting a review of the Volunteer Rifle Corps and firing the first shot from a specially prepared rifle.  She wrote in her journal, ‘I gently pulled a string & it went off, the bullet entering the bull’s eye at 300 yards!!’ The exhibition includes Roger Fenton’s The Whitworth Rifle fired by the Queen at Wimbledon, July 2, 1860 and the strikingly abstract image The Queen’s target.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased a number of Fenton’s commercial photographs, including his views of Windsor Castle and the surrounding parkland taken in 1860. Since the opening of two railway stations in Windsor, a visit to the Castle was a popular trip from the capital. Fenton may therefore have intended his work to meet a demand for souvenirs or to serve as illustrations to guidebooks.  In The long walk, the Castle’s sweeping avenue slices perhaps?–?through the landscape and is punctuated by a single female figure Fenton’s wife, Grace. Two years after completing the Windsor series Fenton sold his photographic equipment and returned to practising law.

Following Prince Albert’s premature death in 1861, Queen Victoria’s interest in photography focused primarily on portraits of her family and of leading personalities of the day. One of her most important acquisitions was a number of works by Julia Margaret Cameron, whose portraits were unlike anything produced by contemporary studio-based photographers. Julia Margaret Cameron was born in India into an artistic professional family. She took up photography at the late age of 48, when her daughter gave her a camera. Cameron produced what she described as her first successful photograph in January 1864, and the following year her work was exhibited in London. 

The exhibition includes six of Cameron’s powerful portraits of male sitters, whom she conscientiously presents as objects for admiration. Cameron was attracted to subjects whom she felt had attained heroic status through their achievements.  She came into contact with many of the leading writers and painters of the day through her sister, Sara Prinsep, who held a salon for artists at her home, Little Holland House in London.  Among this circle, the painter G.F.Watts probably had the greatest influence on Cameron’s work. Both Watts and Cameron aspired to producing portraits that expressed the individual character of the sitter rather than a record of their external appearance. 

Cameron stated that, when photographing prominent men, she intended to capture ‘faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man’. Among her subjects are the painter Herbert Wilson and the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Perhaps the finest example of Cameron’s portraiture and characteristic ‘out-of-focus’ technique is her photograph of Thomas Carlyle, the most celebrated historian and essayist of the 19th century.  Carlyle is placed in front of a dark background, his neck and shoulders covered with a dark cloak. With all distractions removed, the viewer’s attention is forced on to the face of the great man.  Although the blurring of the image was initially a technical error, it was adopted by Cameron as an artistic technique to achieve a more painterly effect and give her photographs a sense of energy and dynamism.

[Image: Copyright The Royal Collection 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Buckingham Palace, 11 May 1854 by Roger Fenton
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