April 14, 2016 by bbutler1969
I’m one of those “power patrons” who visit their local library at least once a week to borrow scores of books each year. I breeze in after work, toting at least one bag with me that’s filled with checkouts to return, then load it up again with reserves to haul home that take me well past the standard 42-book mark that power patrons borrow in one month alone.
Not long ago, I rushed in to pull a much-anticipated book from the part of the reserve shelf that’s become my very own: Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage.
This book by Elizabeth Siegel, with additional essays by Patrizia Di Bello and Marta Weiss, and contributions by Miranda Hofelt, is a catalogue of an exhibition that made the rounds of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in 2009 and 2010. It contains an extraordinary phenomenon of the Victorian era that not only might be hidden in special collections, but also can inspire a new craft idea you might like to join me in pursuing.
During this historic period, people couldn’t get enough of posing for and exchanging photographs. Some very creative types carefully cut around the desired portions of cartes de visite, those little portrait photographs measuring just over two by three inches, and pasted them in elaborate watercolor scenes that they painted. Alexandra, Princess of Wales was a particular devotee of the photocollage, creating some especially clever examples during the early years of her marriage to the future Edward VII, between 1866 and 1869. Banker and railway magnate Sir Edward Charles Blount also played with pictures, showing that photocollage wasn’t just women’s work.
While some photocollages depict traditional scenes, like fashionably dressed people seated in a theater box, standing on the deck of a ship, playing tennis and practicing archery, others are more fanciful. One photograph is pasted on a drawn envelope in place of Penny Red and Penny Blue stamps. Another series of snaps adorn a watercolor of a fan. Trimmed photographs of children emerge from the centers of watercolor blossoms and peek around the foliage. A head shot of one staid man is pasted on a figure drawn walking on a tightrope. And then there are those terrific tableau vivants, in which costumed Victorians arranged themselves into living pictures depicting moments from history, literature and works of art for entertainment.
Playing with Pictures presents collages from 15 albums in the collections of the George Eastman House, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, the Royal Photograph Collection at Windsor Castle, and the J. Paul Getty Museum.
For more on Victorian photocollage, see The Marvelous Album of Madame B: Being the Handiwork of a Victorian Lady of Considerable Talent, by Elizabeth Siegel and Martha Packer. “Madame B” was Blanche Fournier, the wife of a French diplomat who was posted in Stockholm from 1862 to 1872 and later in Rome. The album is now at the Art Institute of Chicago; you can see an online version of it here.
“Women’s Work: Albums and Their Makers – The Art of Victorian Photocollage” was a lecture given in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition. Click here to listen to it.