Watts Gallery - Artists' Village / Close Up & Personal: Victorians & Their Photographs

Watts Gallery - Artists' Village / Close Up & Personal: Victorians & Their Photographs


Watts Gallery was set up in 1904 to show off the work of George Frederic Watts (1817-1904). A little over a decade ago, the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled it to be restored and renovated and, just this year, the east wing of Limnerslease, the house across the road in which Watts and his wife Mary (1849-1938), also an artist, lived, has been opened to the public, transformed into recreations of Watts’ and Mary’s studios. Just down the road, the Arts and Crafts chapel, decorated with terracotta tiles made by locals under Mary’s direction, adds to what is now referred to as the Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.

Alongside the 100 paintings by Watts, which are on permanent display in the gallery, and the further works and archival materials in the studios, another key component of Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village is its collection of Victorian photography. This is formed predominantly from three sources: the personal photographs of the Wattses; photographs by Frederick Hollyer of Watts’ paintings; and the Rob Dickins Collection of Victorian photographs and letters. The latter is named after the pop music promoter and arts benefactor, who bought a unique archive of some 3,500 Victorian photographs and 1,000 artists’ letters, collected by the renowned London art dealer Jeremy Maas, at auction in 2007 and gifted it to the gallery. One or two of these photographs have crept into each exhibition held at the gallery since this date, but now it was felt to be time to host an exhibition devoted to the photographs, looking at how Victorians collected and consumed the medium. In addition to items from the collection, there are a few loans of Victorian stereoscopy, from the collection of astronomer and Queen guitarist Dr Brian May, completing the story of the Victorian compulsion for this new form of image capturing. Visitors can enjoy a whole range of photographs encompassing and illustrating the artistic, literary and social world that GF Watts inhabited throughout his long career – a career that coincides almost exactly with the Victorian era.

With the advent of photography from 1839, when the Frenchman, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, invented the Daguerreotype, the privilege of owning a portrait was democratised and it became possible for members of Victorian society to begin creating family photo albums. It was not just pictures of the family, however, that were collected, but also pictures of the rich and famous – artists, actresses, authors – and the Royal Family. If the Victorian public was at first sceptical about this new medium, all fears were allayed when the Royal Family itself permitted John Jabez Edwin Mayall to take portraits of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children in 1860, creating a set of 14 cartes-de-visite, which immediately became a bestseller. When Prince Albert died at the end of the following year, some 70,000 copies of his carte-de-visite were allegedly sold in just a few weeks. The collecting and exchanging of these cartes – a 10.2 x 6.4cm format, patented in 1857 by the French photographer, André Disdéri, and introduced to Britain by the leading apparatus manufacturers and photographic agent Marion & Co – became an obsession known as ‘cartomania’, and effectively saw the birth of modern-day celebrity. The actress Ellen Terry – first wife of Watts (albeit for just six months) – was one of the most photographed women of the 19th century, with each of her roles requiring a new portrait for promotion in both Britain and abroad. Since copyright law stated that if the sitter did not pay for their portrait, the photographer owned the image, studios were able to print large volumes of photographs of famous figures and distribute them easily. The number of photographic studios in major cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester doubled almost overnight in the early 1860s, with the centre of the industry being in Regent Street. By 1865, there were 46 photographic studios on this street alone (but, by 1870, more than half of these were bankrupt). Between 1860 and 1862, an estimated 3.5 million cartes-de-visites of Queen Victoria were purchased.

During this period, it became a popular pastime to create scrapbook albums collaging cartes-de-visite of both family members and celebrities. Comparing and admiring such albums was a new form of entertainment for the drawing room. A highlight of the Watts’ collection is a scrapbook decorated by Mary when she was a teenager (c1865-67). Around each of the photographs, she painted dainty floral frames and imaginative settings in watercolours and ink. The actual album is on view in a vitrine in her studio, and the current exhibition includes a digitised slide show of scans of each page. Albums would reflect a family’s social status and often became as elaborate – and as treasured – as the family Bible.

Because Daguerreotypes became tarnished if they were exposed to the air for too long, they were usually kept in wood or leather cases, often lined with velvet. The Watts collection includes a large number of these, some quite exquisitely ornate, with elaborately gilded frames. A selection of these are on show now, with one particular treasure being a miniature album of stamp-sized photographs of European royalty.

The binocular viewers, used to focus and merge two seemingly (but not quite) identical images into one – in the mind’s eye – 3D scene, are equally as ornamented. Introduced at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, Victorian stereoscopy became a popular sensation and form of home entertainment – the Oculus Rift of the day –with images of foreign landmarks and cities – Paris, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Venice, Egypt, and even the moon – enabling people to ‘travel’ to foreign lands, and tableaux vivants, posed by practised actors, bringing to life popular literary scenes or well-known works of art.

Both portrait photography and stereoscopy were largely commercial practices and often the photographs remain unattributed, reminding us of the seeming unimportance of the face behind the camera in comparison with the subject before it. One photographer who sought to change this, arguing that her photographs were works of art akin to paintings, was Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79), a close friend of Watts. She regularly sent him her photographs to receive his comment and criticism and three of her dreamlike works are to be seen here, before a section on how artists used photography more practically, both to catalogue their work and also to create an inventory or lexicon of images, from which to later build their compositions.

The exhibition closes with two photographs of Watts’ half-finished paintings by Frederick Hollyer (1838-1933) – presumably highlights of the collection itself – made so that Watts might paint over them and try out different colours and finishings for his works without ruining the originals. He also worked with such prints to retouch them as a visual catalogue so that his work might be distributed globally. With a gentle pastel effect, these combination works look neither like a photograph nor a painting – they are a true blend of the two, showing just how beautifully art and science might meet.

This exhibition – and the Watts photography collection as a whole – offers an enlightening insight into Victorian society and the birth of celebrity culture through the development and democratisation of photography.

 – essay by Anna McNay


Close Up & Personal: Victorians & Their Photographs continues at Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey, to 13 November 2016.

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Full captions for the selected images at right:

  1. Unknown artist, Watts in Skullcap, Inverness Cape and Bedroom Slippers, Posed Against Backing Sheet, c. 1890, Glass plate negative, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  2. W & D Downey (fl. 1855-1940), Famous ‘Four Generations’, 1894, Carbon print/hard backed, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  3. W & D Downey (fl. 1855-1940), The Misses Dene, 1893, Carbon print, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  4. Stereoviewers, London Stereoscopic Company.
  5. Unknown artist and Mary Watts (1849-1938), Mary Watts Photograph Album, date unknown, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  6. Unknown artist and Mary Watts (1849-1938), Mary Watts Photograph Album, date unknown, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  7. Unknown artist, William and Evelyn de Morgan in Venice, 1914, Photograph, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  8. Unknown artist, Henry Holiday with Ada Forestier Walker and Unknown Man in Costume, 1896, Photograph, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  9. Unknown artist, Lady Katherine Thynne Sitting with her Portrait, c. 1890, Glass plate negative, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  10. Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) and London Stereoscopic Company (fl. c. 1854-c. 1908), Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863, Cabinet card, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  11. Window & Grove (fl. 1873-1908), Miss Ellen Terry as ‘Juliet’, c. 1879, Cabinet card, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  12. Unknown artist, daguerreotype, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.
  13. Daguerreotypes, The Rob Dickins Collection, Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village.