Camille Silvy was a commercial photography pioneer whose business flourished in Victorian London for a bright ten year spell, aided by the patronage of the Queen herself.
Jack Watkins goes to the National Portrait Gallery to see Silvy’s first-ever career retrospective, marking the centenary of his death.
In the middle of the 19th century, the question of whether the infant medium of photography merited consideration as a fine art was a matter of hot debate. Roger Fenton, one of the greatest English practitioners, was in no doubt of its status – but the French emigré Camille Silvy didn’t share his viewpoint. Silvy rated traditional forms more highly, saying that ‘the artist and the poet unite and their work transmits to posterity the feeling that the heart dictated’. Photography, by contrast, was merely about ‘rapidly taking things in’, an aid to art in its ability to record details and new effects, but no more than that.
Present times allow us a looser definition of what constitutes art, and, over the decades, there have been enough geniuses of the camera whose creativity has far exceeded that of any number of journeyman painters. Silvy, though, was an unabashed technician, a skilful deployer and developer of various tricks of the trade that advanced the business of ‘drawing pictures with light’ at a still early period in its evolution. As the distinguished historian Mark Haworth-Booth, curator of the NPG exhibition, argues, ‘he was a digital manipulator of the medium avant la lettre’.
If Silvy’s work is recalled at all today, it is usually for his soft-lit landscape masterpiece, River Scene, France (La Vallée de l'Huisne), taken from a bridge over the River Huisne, at Nogent-le-Rotrou, between Chartres and Le Mans, in 1858. This was this image, Haworth-Booth explains, that, when he first saw it at the 1972 V&A exhibition From Today Art is Dead, forced him to revise his previous opinion that Victorian photography was just another branch of period bric-à-brac.
As a composition, River Scene, France is steeped in pictorialist landscape painting traditions. Tall trees cast reflections on the river as a couple launch a small rowing boat, while a group of people cluster above the banks in a meadow on the opposite side. The river disappears into more trees and fields – a rustic scene calculated to appeal to those dreaming of a retreat from the ever-increasing industrialisation of the 19th century.
A version rediscovered in 2004, however, has confirmed that the landscape was actually composed from two glass negative images, so as to overcome the drawbacks of the wet collodion processing method, which struggled to record sky and ground values satisfactorily in the same exposure. It enabled Silvy to draw in brooding clouds, burn out the foreground, and ‘create’ some cypress tress in the centre of the photo to enhance the impression of compositional balance.
River Scene also points to Silvy’s artistic training as a student. Born in 1834, to a wealthy family, he took up a diplomatic post in the French foreign office in 1853 and two years later was sent on a six month commission to Algeria, with orders to draw scenes and buildings that would attract emigration to France’s new colony. Quickly, he realised the limits of his drawing abilities and switched to photography, concentrating on recording archaeological and historical subjects.
The River Scene photograph was exhibited at the first ever Salon of Photography, held in Paris in the spring of 1859, and critics hailed Silvy as a rising star. But Paris in the 1850s was full of up-and-coming photographers and, recognising there would be less competition in London, Silvy bought a house and studio in Bayswater – rapidly transforming it into a mini factory of portrait photography, and playing a major role in the introduction of the carte-de-visite format to the city.
Cartes-de-visites were a new form of calling card, featuring small portrait images that, for a short time, became all the rage. They were cheap to produce, but Silvy’s studio was expressly aimed at the upper echelons of Victorian society, and sittings were expensive. Silvy dressed formally and exuded courtly charm. He even had a Queen’s Room set aside for the monarch, should she ever visit. She never did, but was sufficiently impressed by his work to reward him with a regular flow of sitters from the royal household, which in turn led to constant flow of custom from aristocrats, politicians and celebrities.
These images, which range from Prince Albert to the celebrated coloratura soprano, Adelina Patti, are fascinating enough, as are Silvy’s self-portraits. Along with the studio’s Day Books, they provide an insight into the life of a leading society photographer… at his peak, Silvy was handling a portrait every 12 minutes. Even more interesting, in aesthetic terms, are a series of studies he made of London twilight, sunlight and fog.
Studies on Light: Twilight is perhaps the first example of the intentional use of blur in photographic history. It’s a particularly atmospheric piece of work, with a spectral shape hovering in the background. The picture was taken along the pavement from Silvy’s studio on Porchester Terrace, near the gate of Wilkie Collins’s address on the same street, and must have been shot at around the time of the publication of the writer’s chilling novel, The Woman in White.
After ten years, during which time, says Haworth-Booth, Silvy had passed ‘like a comet’ over Second Empire Paris and High Victorian London, he retired from photography in 1869 at the age of 35. Having by this time returned to France, he rejoined the diplomatic service and served with distinction in the Franco-Prussian War the following year. He had been in poor health for some time, however, and, at the age of 40, he was diagnosed with manic depression (folie raisonnante) a delusional form of psychosis, and spent the remaining years of his life in psychiatric asylums before his death, aged 75, in 1910.
For this reason, his name and reputation fell into neglect. Fortunately, aided by descendents keen to keep alive a memory of his achievements, his legacy has slowly been rediscovered. Now we can say that Silvy was an early hero of photography, a man who reached new heights of studio professionalism, while gently edging the medium towards what, despite his personal protestations, would soon be genuinely regarded as a vehicle of artistic expression.
Camille Silvy, Photographer of Modern Life, runs to 24 October.
See www.npg.org.uk for more information