Anyone professing interest in the history of photography will have read the words of Elizabeth (Rigby) Eastlake (1809-1893), more familiarly known as Lady Eastlake, in her essay ‘Photography’ published in the Quarterly Review in April 1857.
But who was she?
One of the very earliest commentators on the new medium, only preceded by Francis Wey (1851), and in advance of both Charles Baudelaire (1859) and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1859), Eastlake stated that her…
“…chief object at present is to investigate the connexion of photography with art—-to decide how far the sun may be considered an artist, and to what branch of imitation his powers are best adapted.”
Her essay was unsigned as was the custom for correspondents who were women, lest they be passed over by the predominantly male subscribers.
Admittedly, in some passages her heroic language is so Augustan as to make even Alexander Pope sweat under his wig, as florid as the doorstep of a florist, and as hard to wade through, even in the extracts used to represent her in histories and anthologies of photography. Does that account for why she has had so tragically few commentators despite her vanguard position?
Though lacking Pope’s satire, Eastlake’s archaic allegorical language nevertheless plausibly critiques photography’s claims to be art in parabolic terms as might be penned by the author of The Rape of the Lock:
On the prepared plate of Daguerre and on the sensitive paper of Fox Talbot, the great luminary concentrates his gaze for a few earnest minutes; with the albumen-sheathed glass he takes his time more leisurely still; but at the delicate film of collodion – which hangs before him finer than any fairy’s robe, and potent only with invisible spells – he literally does no more than wink his eye, tracing in that moment, with a detail and precision beyond all human power, the glory of the heavens, the wonders of the deep, the fall, not of the avalanche, but of the apple, the most fleeting smile of the babe, and the most vehement action of the man.
Her section on the history of the medium is pertinent and concise; the facts that she presents being the very material repeated in others’ chronologies since. She opens with a survey of the popularity and spread of photography, numbering its practitioners in London, naming several, and staking a British claim for its origin, in Humphrey Davy. She gives mention to Sir Charles Eastlake (1793–1865), whom she married in 1849, as first chairman of the Photographic Society, established in 1853, and whom, she notes “was chosen expressly from the realms of art.”
Both Eastlakes were accomplished artists themselves, and one imagines that what she sketched (above) at 31, nine years before they married, might picture their eventual marital partnership as art historians. She was already known as a writer (Letters from the Baltic, 1841; Livonian Tales, 1846; The Jewess, 1848) and was a contributor to the Quarterly Review, in which Photography appeared.
Charles, in 1841, had been appointed secretary to the royal commission for decorating the Houses of Parliament remaining so until 1862 and in 1843 was made keeper of the National Gallery. His resignation from the post in 1847, over a portrait erroneously ascribed to Holbein, did not prevent his 1850 appointment as president of the Royal Academy, marriage, knighthood, nor his directorship from 1855 of, once again, the National Gallery. Together they travelled in Europe almost annually, collecting mainly Italian art for the Gallery, and in their partnership she augmented her earlier art writing and translations from the German, including Gustav Friedrich Waagen‘s Treasures of Art in Great Britain (1854-1857) completed at the same time as Photography.
After only 16 years of marriage, in 1865 Sir Charles died in Italy. Nevertheless, Lady Eastlake continued her writings for the Quarterly Review and her books, amongst them being; Life of John Gibson, R.A. Sculptor (1870), Five great painters : Essays reprinted from The Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews By Lady Eastlake In two volumes (1883), her completion of Ann Jameson‘s History of our Lord in Works of Art (1890), and after her death two volumes of lifetime of letters and diaries in Journals and correspondence of Lady Eastlake (1895) were published by her nephew. Lady Eastlake enjoyed a wide circle of influential friends that included Florence Nightingale, and wrote a life of the radical Harriet Grote (published 1880), who shared her friendship of Ann Jameson, and who was signatory to the 1866 women’s suffrage petition.
Why then has Eastlake been so neglected? Her only biography as such is Marion Lochhead‘s Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake (London: John Murray, 1961), though that draws only on Eastlake’s nephew’s perfunctory anthology of her letters and diaries. David Robertson provides insights on Elizabeth in his 1978 Sir Charles Eastlake and the Victorian Art World.
However, biographers of Charlotte Bronte and John Ruskin have dismissed Rigby/Eastlake’s critical reviews of Jane Eyre and Modern Painters as unjustified, while her more strident views are often taken out of context, particularly by modern feminist commentators, as representing conservative or reactionary Victorian thinking. Valerie Sanders‘ Eve’s Renegades (1996) uses the Lacanian trope to brand Elizabeth a “phallic speaker”. Australian Melissa Miles, attributes to her words a gendering of the sun as a masculine power, though it was a not uncommon metaphor of the time, and personalising ‘Photography’ as the receptive feminine.
Such accusation is rejected by Professor of Art History Julie Sheldon (author of the Eastlake entry in Hannavay’s invaluable Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography) in her fastidious foreword to, and commentary on, her 2009 collection of Eastlake’s writings The Letters of Elizabeth Rigby, Lady Eastlake (being de facto the only full and reliable biography), and by Adele M. Ernstrom who suggests that; “so applied, this Lacanian formula attributes to women a version of the Marxist concept of false consciousness, i.e., misrecognition of one’s material situation in society.”
Sheldon details the hardships suffered by the family—widow, two sons and six daughters—after the death, when Elizabeth Rigby/Eastlake was eleven, of her father, obstetrician Edward Rigby, and their necessary downgrading to more economical accommodation beyond his Norwich estate. Rigby’s situation led directly to her choosing to rely on her writing to support herself, while her sisters made unfortunate marriages with German landholders who ruled the lives of thousands of peasants on the shores of the Baltic. Tall and statuesque (she dwarfed her husband), intelligent and artistically talented, bold and strident in her opinions, Eastlake would brook no special pleading being made for her gender.
She was 32 when in 1842 their Framingham estate (above, in her parting drawing of it) had become unaffordable. They sold it and Elizabeth, her mother and younger sister retreated to Edinburgh where they remained for six years. She was preceded by a recommendation from her friend John Lockhart, editor of the Quarterly Review to Professor John Wilson, urging him to ‘cultivate Miss Rigby – she is of the right stuff’.
There, amongst the ‘charming’ Edinburgh society within which Elizabeth Rigby moved was the photographer, landscape-painter, and Secretary of the Royal Scottish Academy, David Octavius Hill, who found her attractive; “the tallest, cleverest & best girl of these parts”. He made a series of calotype portraits of her from 1844 and 1845.
Eastlake’s 1875 Photography should be read in the light of a critique of John Ruskin as art critic that she wrote for the Quarterly the year before. Ironically, as Ernstrom (Elizabeth Eastlake v. John Ruskin: The Content of Idea and the Claims of Art, 2012) points out, feminist art historians who might decry the Ruskin paternalism and deprecation of women artists have overlooked the radical nature of an essay which takes issue with Ruskin’s invalidation of the painter’s language except as a vehicle for ‘ideas’ and allegory—the ‘subject’ of their pictures. Eastlake, as an artist herself and as an art historian too, opposes to this the higher value of;
“those qualities which no other art but itself can express, and which are therefore to be considered as proper to it.”
Therefore in reading her extended account of the failure by the photographic emulsions then available—daguerreotype, calotype, albumen, collodion—to register colours correctly, with a strong bias toward blue, one is led toward her argument against photography fulfilling artistic qualities. She takes the photographers’ point of view (though not known to be a practitioner herself) in recounting their frustrations by describing various conditions in which exposure is slowed by the colour of the light, and backs this up with her knowledge of scientific investigations into the effect by Antoine Claudet (1797–1867), and others, linking it to discoveries about the reaction of plants to coloured light so that the photographic emulsion is portrayed in the context of ‘Nature’ the subject of natural sciences then being pursued by people of wealth and leisure, many of them also women.
This scientific material joins other evidence she gathers against the idea that photography enables the same control as drawing, and raising special objection to its lack of tonal range and its contrast;
Things that are very smooth, such as glass and polished steel, or certain complexions and parts of the human face, or highly-glazed satin ribbon—or smooth leaves, or brass buttons—every thing on which the light shines as well as everything that is perfectly white, will photograph much faster than other objects, and thus disarrange the order of relation. Where light meets light the same instantaneous command seems to go forth as that by which it was at first created, so that, by the time the rest of the picture has fallen into position, what are called the high lights have so rioted in action as to be found far too prominent both in size and intensity.
And this bring us to the artistic part of our subject, and to those questions which sometimes puzzle the spectator, as to how far photography is really a picturesque agent, what are the causes of its successes and its failures, and what in the sense of art are its successes and failures?
These are the words of an artist familiar with the monochrome. Her own imagery may readily be compared to that of the calotypists of her day. Here she has settled down on the strand in Deal (Kent) in August 1850 to satisfy her ‘fit of sketching’; “I was sketching even on the morning I left. I had got into a large scale of sepia drawing”, and these, as Sheldon and Susanna Avery-Quash assert, compare favourably with drawings made by Amelia Long, Lady Farnborough (1772-1837) of the River Thames in the 1810s, praised for her “judgement in the distribution of her lights and shades and the disposition of the component parts.”
Rigby’s sepia sketches are themselves almost photographic in their unvarnished factuality. They also abbreviate the tonal range and exchange the colour of their subjects for monochrome shades, but serve as a demonstration of her conviction that;
“Nature…is not made up only of actual lights and shadows; besides these more elementary masses, she possesses innumerable reflected lights and half-tones, which play around every object, rounding the hardest edges, and illuminating the blackest breadths, and making that sunshine in a shady place, which it is the delight of the practised painter to render.”
While of such subtleties the photography technology of her day, as she points out, gives “comparatively no account”, as one can confirm in contemporary renditions in calotype/albumen by Calvert Jones, made only three years later, of a similar subject 100km away in Eastbourne.
So where, in Eastlake’s estimation, does photography stand in relation to art?
Correctness of drawing, truth of detail, and absence of convention, the best artistic characteristics of photography, are qualities of no common kind, but the student who issues from the academy with these in his grasp stands, nevertheless, but on the threshold of art. The power of selection and rejection, the living application of that language which lies dead in his paint-box, the marriage of his own mind with the object before him, and the offspring, half stamped with his own features, half with those of Nature, which is born of the union–whatever appertains to the free-will of the intelligent being, as opposed to the obedience of the machine—this, and much more than this, constitutes that mystery called Art, in the elucidation of which photography can give valuable help, simply by showing what it is not.
A lack of ‘facture‘, of expressive ‘making’ permitted by the ‘machine’ of photography, and its lack of a distinct, meaningful language, is why, for Eastlake, it falls short of Art. Has she come too early to see that photography’s “qualities which no other art but itself can express” just might be what she describes as its “business…to give evidence of facts…minutely and…impartially”?
It was to take half a century, to realise that to question that factuality would reveal the aesthetic value of our medium.