Published  07/04/2010

Book review: Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage. By Elizabeth Siegel

Paste-Pot Parlour Games Prior to Picasso

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage
By Elizabeth Siegel
Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2009

Reviewed by CINDI Di MARZO

Published to accompany a travelling exhibit originating at the Art Institute of Chicago in fall 2009, Playing with Pictures presents the first masters of photocollage, well-to-do Victorians, mainly women. With plenty of free time and cultivated artistic skills, they created aesthetically pleasing and intellectually suggestive album pages. Victorian collagists also had numerous social occasions at which to showcase their work, and sufficient motivation and wit to use their albums for social climbing.1 At a time when industrialisation threatened tradition-bound Victorian culture, upper-class women reinforced their status by making peace with the enemy; appropriating a new technology (photography) into depictions of fashionable life. So doing, they reasserted themselves as elite consumers by countering the increasingly mass-market potential of commercial photography. Their works combine printed images with the handmade: watercolour backdrops decorated with visual representations of wealth (stately country homes, jewellery, crests, travel), ideals (often expressed in the language of flowers), sophistication (literature, music and the stage) and sports and games (hunting, cricket, cards) to which this relentlessly leisured class turned to alleviate boredom.

Catalogue author Elizabeth Siegel, associate curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, reminds readers that collage has been understood as a 20th-century art, marking its birth in 1912 with Picasso's addition of printed imagery to a still life. Subsequently, other avant-garde artists joined him, discovering an intriguing form of surrealism. The deceptive touch of veracity lent by photos and printed words to painted works subverts notions of reality, an effect actively sought by surrealists and a powerful expression of modernity. Victorian photocollagists may not have had Photoshop, but they were resourceful. Some also shared with Picasso and his peers a concern for geometric patterning, on their part intuitive. Siegel and catalogue essayists carefully downplay the notion that Victorian photocollagists perceived themselves as fine artists or early feminists. Rather, albums figured as glue in an eroding society, as well as tools for securing and advancing social position.

The first to do so, the exhibit considers Victorian photocollage as more than a quaint pastime, tying it to the rapidly transforming social, cultural, political and economic climate in Victorian England. Many of the exhibited pages allude to Victorian tastes and interests. Some actively disarm fears. When photocollage emerged as a wide practice in the 1860s and 1870s, photographic technology was rough, and aesthetic standards conventional. An advance in technology resulted in the availability of inexpensive, small-format portraits, cartes de visite. These revealed little of the subjects' characters and placed them in generic settings. Yet people throughout the social strata developed a mania for cartes. Credited to French photographer André Disdéri, the process involved using a camera with four lenses to capture as many as eight poses that could be printed together, trimmed and glued to card mounts. The resulting “cardomania” sparked a thirst for portraits not only of friends and family, but also of royalty (Queen Victoria was quite collectible), politicians and performers. Always eager for novel forms of diversion, fashionable men and women enjoyed pondering the significance of images collaged into albums, while hostesses pinned their social hopes on connections with personages in their albums, known to them or otherwise.

Currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Playing with Pictures is displayed in a small space in the museum's 19th-century galleries. Drawn from collections in the US, Europe and Australia, 40 framed album pages on the walls dialogue with 11 albums shown in cases. (Open pages will be changed once on a date specified on case text.) The majority of pages can be digitally accessed; computer monitors offer a virtual experience that is, sadly, lacking. The experience of perusing albums by turning pages is integral to understanding the form, and the intent of album makers. Fortunately, the 200-page catalogue is designed as an old-fashioned album, providing the vicarious (not virtual) joy of examining Victorian photocollagists' handiwork.2 Reproducing 40 black-and-white and 140 colour illustrations, the unjacketed volume's horizontal orientation encourages lap-viewing. No doubt many visitors to the show will want a copy and be tempted to purchase it, as well as a new gift book, The Marvelous Album of Madame B, based on a recent acquisition by the Art Institute of Chicago.3

Exhibit curator Siegel, Patrizia Di Bello and Marta Weiss contribute insightful texts to the volume, which closes with biographies of album creators compiled by Siegel and University of Chicago graduate student Miranda Hofelt. Although attribution of particular albums (many collaborative efforts) and pages within attributed albums remains cloudy, these biographical sketches add flesh and bone to the names that are known and will add much to readers' grasp of life for Victorian women of the nobility and landed gentry.

In Siegel's essay, Society Cutups, she relates the transformation of albums of watercolours and verse to frames for photocollages; development of “cartomania”; prevailing social and cultural mores; nuts-and-bolts of album-making; common motifs (children, fans, umbrellas, crests, stamps, playing cards); themes (fairy tales by the Grimm brothers and Andersen, Lewis Carroll's recently published Alice in Wonderland, Edward Lear's nonsense tales); and subtexts (spoofs of Darwinism, social power plays, gossip). Illustrations in this section directly connect such influences; for instance, a page from the Bouverie Album (1872/77) mirroring Sir John Tenniel's drawing for Carroll's chapter Advice from a Caterpillar and a page from the M.A. Burnip Album (c1860s) inspired by Eleanor Vere Boyle's painting of Andersen's Thumbelina printed in an 1872 collection.

Curator of photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Weiss wrote her PhD dissertation on the attraction of stage imagery for Victorian photocollagists.4 In The Page as Stage, her contribution to the catalogue, Weiss continues to examine Victorians' fascination with dramatic imagery. Weiss discusses the adaptation of “tableaux vivants”, or “living pictures” of costumed actors and models, with photocollagists casting friends and family as popular characters and scenes from literature and the stage. Weiss also points to the critical place of drawing rooms in social transactions. Album pages enacted drawing-room dramas, echoing those played out in actual drawing rooms. As a rule, viewing albums was part of the action.

Lecturer in history and theory of photography at Birkbeck College, University of London, Di Bello expands in her essay on the theses in her book Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts (Ashgate, 2007). Di Bello's “Photocollage, Fun and Flirtations” mixes exacting scholarship with remarkably entertaining narrative as she teases out nuances that might otherwise remain obscure for those of us who have not studied elite Victorian feminine culture. Victorians pursued skills in flirtation and witty repartee with a vengeance. Accomplishments in these areas earned access to prestigious balls and weekend parties. Not only did albums covertly and overtly comment on upper-class flirtations but became part of them. A page from the Lady Filmer Album (mid-1860s) exemplifies the ways in which a photocollagist could promote her interests. For this page, Filmer cut and pasted a photograph of herself, a known beauty, near an open album. Among other photographs, the Prince of Wales, with whom she maintained an active flirtation, gains central place. Relegated to the background, her husband, a mere baronet, takes the role of spectator. Di Bello says:

“Anyone viewing her album would have appreciated the significance of a visit from the Prince of Wales, especially for the wife of a baronet. The prince was a leader of fashionable society and a highly sought-after guest: A visit from him could help a hostess improve her social standing immeasurably, and a photograph taken during the visit served as lasting proof of the event.”5

As a leading social director, Filmer drew into her fold people who could elevate her and her husband. As such, she acted as spider spinning a web, a popular image in Victorian society and for photocollagists. For instance, the Berkeley Album (1866/71) and Jeffrey Amherst Album (c1870) have pages with heads cut from photographs pasted into webs. Sir Edward Charles Blount joins Amherst as a rare instance of male photocollagist. Images from the Blount Album (1860s/1880s) prove it to be a means of furthering his career as banker, financier and railway magnate. In her brief biography for Blount, Hofelt describes Blount's page, “Jockey Club”, in which he roasted his exclusive Parisian club by inserting men's heads into the calligraphy spelling out Jockey Club and replacing the notes of its song with other heads: “In using humor to form connections and music to convey harmony, Blount harnessed the potential of collage to forge the entrepreneurial networks that drove modern life.”6 Blount's bit of whimsy is but one example of album pages made in service to a personal aim that would be recognized and accepted by his social set. Another instance, broader in scope, is upper-class women playing with the notion of “cutting”, a term used for the deliberate disregard of a set member due to his or (more commonly) her own disregard of the set's shared behavioral code. By cutting and inserting photographs of people into albums, their creators turned the tables on a hurtful and socially harmful practice.

Tied together by a culture shared by their creators, all of the exhibited pages yet retain individual force: a watercolour jester strewing heads cut from compulsively collected cartes (Cator Album, 1866/77); heads held captive in a jar labelled “Mixed Pickes” parodying a popular parlour game (Westmoreland Album, 1864/70); bust-sized photos pasted atop watercolour pedestals mimicking museum displays (Sackville-West Album, 1867/73); and heads serving as numbers on a watercolour clock (Princess Alexandra Album, 1866/69, on loan from the Royal Photograph Collection at Windsor). Windows into large and small worlds, they are among the delights offered by Playing with Pictures. If Picasso's name is permanently attached to the birth of collage as an art form while the names of Victorian photocollagists stand in the wings, nevertheless their albums attract on many levels. Through shifts of scale, provocative grafting of animal and human anatomy, ego-enhancing (or puncturing) pastiche and even mocking disregard for convention achieved by their makers, album pages raise myriad questions. They also reveal that members of the aristocracy infused a serious social milieu under pressure with self-awareness and sly humour. Wielding scissors and paste-pot, upper-class Victorians collaged lasting visual portraits of an age.


1. Playing with Pictures opened at the Art Institute of Chicago (10 October 2009–3 January 2010), currently appears at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (2 February–9 May 2010), and finishes its tour at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto (5 June–5 September 2010).
2. The catalogue retails for US$45 (UK£35).
3. The Marvelous Album of Madame B: Being the Handiwork of a Victorian Lady of Considerable Talent by Elizabeth Siegel and Martha Packer (Scala, 2009).
4. Dressed Up and Pasted Down: Staged Photography in the Victorian Album (Princeton University, 2008).
5. Playing with Pictures, p49.
6. Ibid: p178.

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