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Playing with Pictures at The Met, New York

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has recently mounted some photographic exhibitions showcasing 19th-century British photographers, almost all of whom were male.

However, the latest display, Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, is dedicated to the ladies, those accomplished Victorian women who used their ladylike skills to create humorous, often bizarre, photocollage albums.

These albums, created for fun, were just one of the many pastimes of aristocratic ladies of the 19th Century including Princesses, Countesses, Viscountesses and many others.

The display showcases more than 40 album pages shown in frames, together with 13 entire albums exhibited in cases. The individual pages of each album can be viewed on a “virtual album” on nearby computer monitors.

The exhibition shows how the traditional arts of drawing and painting were combined with photography to create unusual, often satirical results. For example, Georgina Berkeley created animals with human heads. Famous, or not so famous personalities were morphed onto everyday household items or fashion accessories, as shown by Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough’s Mixed Pickles. A piece by Alexandra, Princess of Wales, provides a social record of every class of Victorian society.

Photography, Photocollage and the Victorians

By the middle of the 19th Century, photography was becoming an increasingly popular activity in England. The studio portrait and the fashion for the carte de visite – a visiting card bearing a photo of its owner – kept the professional photographers busy.

It was fashionable for cartes de visite to be collected by aristocratic ladies, many of whom were also keen amateur photographers. The photos they took, and the cards they collected, provided a rich source of material for their scrapbooks. They challenged the serious conventions of photography, frequently lampooning subjects as varied as the rules and regulations of aristocratic society, theories of evolution, politics and political figures.

Playing with Pictures – Highlights of the Exhibition

When the albums were originally created they were not intended for public gaze, and many have not been publicly shown until now. This is a rare opportunity to explore the scrapbooks of personalities such as Blanche Fournier, creator of the Madame B Album, and Frances Elizabeth, Viscountess Jocelyn, creator of the Jocelyn Album.

Madame B in watercolorBlanche Fournier and the Madame B Album

Based on clues appearing throughout the scrapbook, Madame B has been identified as Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier (1831-1906), known as Blanche, second wife of the French diplomat Hugues-Marie-Henri Fournier (1821–1898).

The album, which shows Blanche to be an accomplished watercolorist, contains more than 140 pages of photographs and watercolors. It provides a record of her life and travels throughout Sweden, Italy, and France. The images are often surreal and playful, such as the untitled page showing a butterfly with human faces.

Diamond Shape with Nine Studio Portraits by Viscountess Jocelyn 1860Frances Elizabeth Jocelyn and the Jocelyn Album

Another album on display was created by Frances Elizabeth Jocelyn (1820-1880), an aristocrat who took up photography in the 1950s. Frances was the step-daughter of Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston (1784-1865). One of the pages in her album: Diamond Shape with Nine Studio Portraits of the Palmerston Family and a Painted Cherry Blossom Surround shows nine miniature photographic portraits of the Palmerston family, all taken by Frances at Broadlands, Lord Palmerston’s country home in Hampshire.

In 1862, Lady Jocelyn, a member of the Photographic Society of London, was awarded an “honorable mention for artistic effect in landscape photography” when she entered four photographic views of Broadlands at the International Exhibition in London. Lady Jocelyn’s photographs also appeared at the International Exhibition of 1865, held in Dublin.

Playing with Pictures – Exhibition Catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a 200-page catalog, by curator Elizabeth Siegel, featuring 140 color and 40 black and white illustrations. The publication examines the avant-garde nature, the themes and social meanings of photocollage, through essays by Elizabeth Siegel, Patrizia Di Bello, and Marta Weiss, together with additional contributions by Miranda Hofelt. The catalog is published by Yale University Press for The Art Institute of Chicago.

Playing with Pictures as on show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010, after which it will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto.

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