Playing with Pictures

Untitled page from the Gough Album, late 1870s Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England“Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this spring, is the first exhibition to focus on a delightful, previously neglected genre. The nineteenth century was an era of widespread visual literacy. Art exhibitions drew enthusiastic crowds, and celebrated paintings of the day became familiar images, disseminated through mezzotint and, later, photographic reproductions. Pencil sketching and watercolor painting were cultivated as expected skills. The first flowering of photography was largely in the hands of talented amateurs such as Julia Margaret Cameron. The forty pages and thirteen albums in this exhibition, dating from the 1860s and 1870s, were undertaken by aristocratic women as a private amusement and outlet for creativity. Anyone expecting period examples of sentimental scrapbooking, however, will be startled by the formal inventiveness and subversive tendencies of these images. In many ways, they anticipate the Surrealist experiments of “exquisite corpse” and Max Ernst’s unsettling narrative scenes, as well as the collages of modernism. Cartes de visite, the popular photographic visiting cards, became raw materials, assembled in spatially disorienting ways and combined with watercolor elements. The results ranged from decorative arrangements of friends and family to bizarre hybrid creatures that suggest the fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and the Victorian fairy painters.

“Diamond Shape with Nine Studio Portraits of the Palmerston Family and a Painted Cherry Blossom Surround,” from the Jocelyn Album(1860s), by Frances Elizabeth, Viscountess Jocelyn, is perhaps the simplest, although feet and skirts keep breaking out of their frames, adding energy to the composition. An untitled page from the Princess Alexandra Album (1866–69) combines dozens of figures of varying sizes, including an out-of-scale dachshund, in a curiously continuous space; the whole sepia-toned arrangement is inset into a colorful, striped, diagonal swatch of floral borders. Marie Blanche-Hennelle Fournier’s 1870s watercolor of a peacock butterfly is a vibrant natural history study; only at second glance do we notice that the eye spots on the wings are occupied by photographic portraits of bearded gentlemen. An almost psychedelic flavor radiates from some of these images, proleptic of twentieth-century counterculture artists such as Jess.

Other albums feature illusionistic watercolor scenes in which photographic elements add a contrasting register of reality. The figures in a page from the Sackville-West Album (1867–73) scatter an upper-class group across a painted lawn set up for croquet. The painted elements are rudimentary. Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer, is an interesting artist, obviously aware of both social complexities and her own role as artmaker. An untitled page from the Filmer Album (mid-1860s) includes a photo of the artist, standing over a painted table holding her albums, glue pot and paper knife. The jaunty figure of the Prince of Wales is considerably larger than that of her husband, seated next to a spaniel on a painted cushion. Photographic portraits hang in painted frames; a woman warms herself at a painted fire. The lively color palette of bright pinks and blues, along with the acute sensitivity to salon life, anticipate the playful modernism of Florine Stettheimer.

Fantasy reigns in a number of these albums. Kate Edith Gough’s lively mind is reflected in the Gough Album (late 1870s), which suggests a highly original assimilation of sources, notably Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and the political cartoons of Punch. In one untitled page, the photographic heads of fashionable ladies have been grafted onto the bodies of painted ducks in a picturesque pond. Georgina Berkeley places a staid matron on the back of an outsized stork, accompanied by a little girl riding a tortoise, in a nonsensical shoreside idyll that suggests Alice in Wonderland. Berkeley’s use of watercolor is agreeably loose, and her animal protagonists have considerable personality. Some of the albums are probably collaborative efforts, such as the Bouverie Album (1872–77), which may be the work of a mother and daughter. One page shows a quartet of young children, photographic portraits enhanced with watercolor, in a fairy-tale marsh. Reduced to elfin size by the tall reeds and mushrooms in the nicely painted setting, the children become alien creatures. One boy astride a giant, ominous toad and another perched atop a red-capped mushroom are particularly arresting. The Victorian era was a golden age of children’s literature and fantasy illustration, and the enduring richness of this material can be traced to the boldness of authors and artists exploring the stranger precincts of the human imagination. The wit of these albums demonstrates how pervasive these imaginative adventures were in Victorian culture. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, by Elizabeth Siegel and other scholars, has 140 illustrations (Yale University Press). “Playing with Pictures,” first seen at the Art Institute of Chicago, was on view February 2–May 9, 2010, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028. Telephone (212) 535-7710. On the web at The exhibition travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada (June 5–September 5, 2010).

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2010, Volume 27, Number 2