A new photography display at Tate Britain brings together Roger Fenton’s (1819–1869) richly detailed Orientalist images from the 1850s. A pioneer of British photography and one of the first war photographers, Fenton was best known for his work documenting the Crimean War. He also helped found the Photographic Society in 1853 (later the Royal Society of Photography) and was revered in his time, with admirers including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. With significant loans from the Wilson Centre for Photography, this display offers the chance to see the largest group of Fenton’s Orientalist works to have been shown together to date.
The photographs included show Fenton’s fascination with the Orientalist genre which he became familiar with whilst studying in Paris in the 1840s. At the time, the richly suggestive detail of costumes and scenery meant that this series of photographs were mistaken for accurate documentation of life in the Middle East when in fact they were artistic fantasies created in Fenton’s London studio.
Fenton worked closely with several London-based Orientalist painters to develop this style, including J.F. Lewis, Carl Haag and Frank Dillon. Dillon seems to have been closely involved in the creation of these images, and appears in a couple of them. In this display, viewers can see Fenton’s work displayed alongside a few examples of paintings by these contemporaries as well as in the context of photographers from the time who traveled to the Middle East. The display invites interesting comparisons between the style and the costume of these Orientalist studies of Morocco and the Middle East to Fenton’s own work, created in London.
Fenton was born in 1819 in Lancashire. His career as a photographer, though short, was varied in his work both in Britain and around Europe. In 1852 he made what are believed to be the first photographs of Russia and the Kremlin. Fenton was employed as the British Museum’s official photographer, the first photographer to ever hold such a position in any museum worldwide. Upon his return from the Crimea in 1855, Fenton travelled throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, making ambitious studies of the countryside, cathedrals and country houses. 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.
This display was curated by Ian Warrell, Curator (18th &19th century), Tate Britain and Polly Fleury at the Wilson Centre for Photography.