Tate Britain Collection Display Rooms
21 September 2005 – 2 January 2006
An exhibition of the work of Roger Fenton (1819–1869), one of the most important nineteenth-century photographers, opens at Tate Britain on 21 September. The exhibition features over ninety photographs surveying all aspects of his short but groundbreaking career. Tate Britain is the only European venue for the exhibition, which has been on a tour of major US venues.
Born in 1819, Fenton set aside his law studies in the early 1840s to become a painter. After studying with Charles Lucy, a member of the Royal Academy, he moved to Paris to become a pupil of the Romantic painter Paul Delaroche. In 1851, however, he ceased his painting studies and took to the newly invented process of photography. While Fenton’s photography career lasted little more than a decade, his work features some of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the medium, a fact reflected by the scope of his influence
This exhibition covers the extraordinary breadth of Fenton’s work. In 1852 he made what are believed to be the first photographs of Russia and the Kremlin. In 1853 the British Museum invited him to document some of their collections. In the first few years of his career he helped to found the Photographic Society (which later became the Royal Photographic Society) and his landscape and architectural views came to the attention of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
With Albert’s help, Fenton travelled to Balaclava (in present-day southern Ukraine) to document the Crimean War. The exhibition includes portraits of generals, such as General Bosquet 1855, as well as the striking individuals who populated the region, as in Group of Croat Chiefs 1855. But he also photographed the soldiers who bore the brunt of the fighting, and their ravaged faces demonstrate the war’s true toll and the chaos and bleakness of the front.
On his return, Fenton travelled throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, making ambitious studies of the countryside, cathedrals and country houses. He photographed historic sites such as Lindisfarne Priory, Holy Isle, as well as numerous cathedrals, such as Ely, Salisbury, and Lichfield, and country houses such as Harewood House. While several of Fenton’s photographs on display are distinguished by their evocative depictions of light, atmosphere, and place, others demonstrate his deep appreciation of the solidity, permanence, and integrity of English architecture.
As his career progressed, Fenton pushed himself to tackle ever greater challenges, striving to overcome technical difficulties in his photographs of clouds and the landscape or the interiors of darkly-lit cathedrals.. Some of his last compositions, as demonstrated by The Queen’s Target, No. 56 1860 and The Long Walk, Windsor 1860 are radically simplified and daringly bold.
For reasons still unknown, Fenton sold all of his equipment and negatives at an auction in November 1862 and resigned from the Royal Photographic Society. He died seven years later at the age of 50.
The curators of the exhibition are Sarah Greenough, curator and head of the department of photographs, National Gallery of Art, Washington; Malcolm Daniel, curator in charge, department of photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Gordon Baldwin, associate curator at The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Christine Riding is the curator at Tate Britain.