Before attempting to pull together the various strands of the argument, it is necessary to round out the picture on the subject of photographic verisimilitude.
Outside Quakerism, the debate very soon passed beyond an initial naive enthusiasm. John Ruskin concluded in 1851, in The Stones of Venice, that photography could not be art because the process was purely mechanical. This was echoed by Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, in her 1857 Quarterly Review article on 'Photography,' in which she gave her view that photography, in its lack of the power of selection, could not be considered as an art form, and that it was dependent on the observer's subjective interpretation; in portraiture, she wrote, 'What indeed are nine-tenths of those facial maps called photographic portraits, but accurate landmarks and measurements for loving eyes and memories to deck with beauty and animate with expression, in perfect certainty, that the ground-plan is founded upon fact?' (1) Essentially, these writers were accepting the verisimilitude of photography, but arguing that verisimilitude of this kind was simply not enough. Disdéri, on the other hand, cast doubt on photographic verisimilitude, giving the opinion that photography was an implicitly theatrical medium, the process itself liable to show us 'the actor where we believed we put the man, the theatrical action where we attempted to place the natural action'. (2)
At a later date P.H. Emerson would advance beyond these positions: in relation to portraiture specifically he wrote that 'nearly all portrait photographs are . . . unlike the people they represent' (3): never mind retouching, burnishing and vignetting, the portrait lens itself gave false drawing of the planes and false tonality. Still later Lewis Hine was to aphorise that 'while photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.' (4)
The Quaker view—if considered bare of any theological overlay—seems to have been much that of Lamartine, who wrote in 1858 that 'Photography plagiarizes nature by means of optics.' (5) Beyond that already considered, there is further evidence that Quakers saw photography as objectively truthful. For example Samuel Tuke, writing in 1860 of the obligations of a biographer, makes the analogy that a physiognomist would obtain greater utility from a photograph than from an oil painting; (6) Sir Alfred Pease, describing Friends of his father's generation, noted that 'When photography was introduced many allowed themselves to be photographed, thinking no doubt that such likenesses would not flatter but be correct and truthful images.' (7)
The key figure in this debate, of course, is Francis Frith, and his 1859 paper on 'The Art of Photography', outlined to Friends in January that year (8). For Frith, one of photography's 'chief peculiarities' as a pictorial art was its 'essential truthfulness', though he qualified this by suggesting that this was more correctly descriptive of outline than of perspective, light and shade. Indeed, he acknowledged that for some people photography was too truthful: 'We are aware that ladies, of uncertain age, have discovered and pronounced that "those photographic machines are as false and deceitful as the rest of mankind; that the portraits which Mr. So-and-so took of them were no more like them than nothing at all--their own sisters would not have known them!"'. (9)
For Frith, truthfulness was photography's 'greatest charm'; and, truth being a divine quality, it is 'quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people.' (10) But, as art, photography was at a disadvantage: though art and photography insisted on the truth and nothing but the truth, the two parted company with art's further insistence on the whole truth. (11) This is very much in line with the views of Ruskin and Eastlake. (12)
Pertinent to the truthfulness of a photographic portrait, of course, are the issues of colouring and retouching. As Heighway wrote in his 1876 Practical Portrait Photography, 'Are the artistic and truthful qualities of a portrait enhanced or not by retouching? . . . Too often they are not only added to, but entirely obliterated.' (13) It is difficult to form a conclusion here, though, because by far the greater number of Quaker photographic portraits seen, in the course of the research, were photo-mechanically reproduced in one manner or another, and in monochrome. Of original photographs seen, the number of tinted images runs to single figures only, probably all of them being collodion positives (but note that Gandy's 1869 advertisement offered a colouring service). Three prints, only, seen at Friends' House Library show obvious marks of some sort of retouching, in all cases to emphasise hair or beards that do not show sufficient contrast; given that the treatment appears to be to the print, rather than the negative, they are probably a non-contemporary attempt to salvage a fading image, rather than conventional retouching. (14) It is unfortunate in this context, but conclusions cannot really be drawn, on either tinting or retouching.
The objective of this dissertation, has been to explore attitudes to portraiture among Quakers of the period; to consider the context for these attitudes; to consider the degree to which attitudes changed, the manner of the change, and the extent to which the change is attributable to the rise of photography.
Drawing on contemporary testimony—particularly that of Thomas Clarkson—it has been shown that at the start of the period Friends generally deplored both painting and portraiture, objecting to ostentatious display, and considering that portraiture encouraged pride and self-conceit. This was not unique to painting and portraiture, but formed one aspect of the widely held Quaker testimony to plainness of speech, behaviour and apparel. Furthermore the Quaker discipline, by which London Yearly Meeting maintained control over British Quakerism, was systematic and effective, and included provision for the disownment of Friends who failed to adhere to Quaker testimonies or who married out of the Society. This in turn reinforced the distinctiveness of Friends as a 'peculiar people', inward-looking and to a degree inbred.
William Backhouse, with evidence of retouching (courtesy of Friends House Library)
By the 1830s there were already a significant minority of Friends who were rejecting Quaker austerity. Although undoubtedly personal affluence will have been a contributory factor, this does not counteract the tenor of the argument, because a degree of affluence was increasingly a characteristic of Friends generally. It has been shown that some Quakers (such as Hannah Chapman Backhouse, Sarah Stickney Ellis, the Fox sisters) were taking up painting for their own amusement, and some were even attempting portraits (Samuel Lucas). The particular influence has been noted, through the way she brought up her children (who themselves were to be influential in British Quakerism), of Catherine Gurney; also of Amelia Opie and Benjamin West.
Also, in the 1830s, attempts were made to formulate a 'Quaker aesthetic': Bernard Barton's was in a private letter, but Luke Howard's 1835 essay was published in a Quaker periodical. That change was in the air was shown by the lively debate on 'The Fine Arts', initiated by Samuel Tuke's contribution to The Friend at the end of 1844.
In British Quakerism the years 1859 and 1860 marked a cultural watershed. The Query on plainness was dropped, as was disownment for marrying out. Influential among Quakers was Mary Ann Schimmelpenninck, whose Principles of Beauty, published that year. More directly influential were the two 1859 prize-winning essays, in particular John Stevenson Rowntree's Quakerism, Past and Present, pleading for Quakers to embrace the aesthetic. For the present writer, the Friends' Quarterly Examiner declaration that 'He that dishonoureth the creature dishonoureth the Creator' (p. 24) marks a symbolic full stop at the end of the protracted debate.
The dissertation has described how, while painting in oils was not acceptable at the start of the period, Quakers found pencil drawing and even watercolour painting increasingly acceptable when used, specifically, to illustrate the beauties of nature. For this purpose Bootham School appointed a drawing master in 1835, and the narrowly-conceived Ackworth Society of Arts was founded in 1836. It has been noted that Quakers were also particularly attracted to the observational sciences.
In the context of portraiture, it has been noted that the creation of silhouettes became quite widely acceptable among British Friends from the late 18th century; as shadow portraits, they were in a sense created directly by nature. (15) The acceptance of silhouettes may well have contributed to the later acceptance of photography, but no direct evidence has been found to support this view.
The two main Quaker periodicals of the Victorian era both commenced publication in the 1840s, and for the period under review reveal a fascinating tension between conservative and liberalising trends within British Quakerism. The Friend included advertisements for engraved portraits right from the start of publication, but The British Friend was still taking issue with portraiture as late as the 1860s. Even here, though, the by then wide acceptance of photography broke through such resistance as remained.
It has been shown that some Friends took an active interest in photography from the outset, and that Francis Frith was far from being the only significant early photographer who was associated with Friends (Richard Dykes Alexander was a member of the Society; John Dillwyn Llewelyn had Quaker ancestry, and had close ties with Quakers). There was a notable degree of interest in photography at the Quaker schools (Bootham, Ackworth, Croydon).
The Friend regularly reported on photography during this period, and took it for granted that its readers would be interested. Francis Frith was clearly viewed as the conduit between Quakerism and photography, and his views on photographic verisimilitude received general acceptance.
The early interest in photography shown at Bootham school was doubtless awakened by their science master William Pumphrey, who left the school to become the second professional photographer in York. Pumphrey did not advertise in the Quaker press, but others of this profession did, and the number of professional photographers who appear to have been Quakers has been one of the most notable surprises of the research (the other was the extent of interest in photography generally, shown in the columns and advertising of The Friend). No fewer than eleven individuals, representing ten studios, have been identified, all known to have been in business prior to 1870 (Robert Thomas Morgan Allan, John Charles Constable, Samuel Fry, Charles Alfred Gandy, T.B. Latchmore, Samuel Francis May, Alfred Pumphrey, William Pumphrey, Charles F. Ravis, Lambert Weston, & Sidney Cooper Weston).
At an early stage of research the author was advised that he was likely to have to draw on negative evidence, as he was likely to find little direct evidence relating to Quakers and photography. Whilst he has certainly, however, found a great deal of direct evidence, it is true that much of this is circumstantial, and the case for the degree to which changing attitudes to portraiture among British Friends can be attributed to the rise of photography needs largely to be inferred.
In the light of the developing views of a Quaker aesthetic, from the 1830s onwards, and especially in view of the revolutionary changes of the watershed years of 1859-60, it seems likely that change would have occurred sooner or later, with or without photography. However, it is also clear that Friends welcomed photography with open arms. One senses that the editor of the British Friend was as fierce in his resistance as he was because he already knew he was fighting a lost cause.
Evidence has been given for a real yearning for portraiture among Friends, as much as anything to provide mementoes to their loved ones (Bernard Barton's ecstatic response to discovering a portrait of his father; Joseph Pease submitting, like Robert Goodbody's grandmother, to having portraits made for their children). When photographic portraiture became practicable, not only was it possible to argue that there was no conceit or flattery, because photographic truth was incontestible, but also there was the sense that, like silhouettes, photographs were created directly from nature, without human intercession; the speed of the sitting (even a slow photographic sitting was far quicker than sitting for a painted portrait) was such that opportunities for vanity were seen as minimal.
What seems to have happened, then, is that photographic portraiture fell into the lap of a generally eager and ready Quaker public. Whilst changing attitudes to portraiture cannot be solely attributed to photography, it seems reasonable to conclude that photography enabled, facilitated, and expedited the change.
1. Eastlake (1857): 65.
2. Bann (1992): 25-46.
3. Emerson (1889): 101.
4. Hine (1909): 111.
5. quoted in Michaud (1998): 733.
6. Tuke (1860): vi.
7. Pease (1907): 22.
8. As already described (p. 76).
9. Frith (1859): 116. That this is no exaggeration can be borne out directly from independent Quaker testimony: Anne Ogden Boyce recorded, of Elizabeth Richardson, that 'One summer evening, when a party of young people were assembled at the sisters' house, the conversation turned on photography, and Elizabeth denounced in no measured terms the unflattering character of the presentments which that art, then in its infancy, had made of some of her relatives. "Do you call this thing a likeness of that nice-looking woman? why it is some ugly old witch!" was her unsparing criticism of one portrait.' Boyce (1889): 233-34.
10. Frith (1859): 117.
11. loc. cit. Michael Wigg has rightly shown how the gradual process of beginning to question photographic veracity may have contributed to Frith's reconsideration of Biblical infallibility—Wigg (1998): 6
12. Interestingly, as recently as the 1970s, in an article in Quaker Religious Thought, the question was mooted as to whether photographic veracity might not be a contributory factor to the prevalence of contemporary Quaker photographic art over Quaker paintings (Palmer 1972-73: 9).
13. Heighway (1876): 55-56; the work is generally positive about retouching, however.
14. None of the prints is precisely datable. Two are cartes de visite, normally regarded as too small to merit retouching; the third is a cabinet, and is therefore no earlier than 1866, which is both the date when the cabinet format was introduced and that when retouching in the negative became the norm in Britain (Linkman 1993: 77-79; Gernsheim 1988: 190). It is interesting to note that when retouching entered its second lease of life at this time certain apologists used verisimilitude as an argument in favour, arguing that since photography could itself be untruthful in some situations—as when red hair was rendered black in the finished print, or freckles reproduced as coarse black spots—retouching 'could legitimately be employed to rectify technical untruthfulness in order to achieve artistic verity' (Linkman 1993: 80).
15. This comes across particularly clearly in the 1843 welcome given to photography by the (non-Quaker) Mary Russell Mitford: 'It is not merely the likeness which is precious—but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing . . . the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed for ever!' (Gernsheim & Gernsheim 1971: 64).
© 2001–2023 Benjamin S. Beck