Masterworks of Photography
Highlights of Gloucester Cathedral, 1890
A Rare Collection Of Platinum
Print Photographs by
FREDERICK H. EVANS
|Andrew Smith Gallery will be displaying a rare collection of nineteenth century platinum print photographs of Gloucester Cathedral by the master of pictorial photography, Frederick H. Evans (1853-1943). Called by the great playwright, George Bernard Shaw, "the most artistic of photographers," Evans advocated "untouched realism" in an era when it was believed that only by elaborate manipulation of photographic negative and print could photography approximate fine art. Evans belonged to a group of photographers who described themselves as "Purist". He developed his negatives mechanically, and printed them, without retouching, by contact on platinum paper, which he chose for its ability to reproduce the rich tonal scale of the negative. These photographs are from a previously unknown collection of his earliest cathedral work.
Evan's greatest contribution to the history of photography was his interpretation of the majestic medieval cathedrals of England and France. On display at Andrew Smith Gallery are photographs from Evans' masterwork, the Albert Harrison album of Gloucester Cathedral. Printed in 1890 and 1891, the collection contains 40 unpublished platinum prints. The entire effect is one of stunning beauty and rarity. This it the first exhibition of this previously unknown work.
Frederick H. Evans, the foremost British photographer in the 1900s, was a bookseller and collector, known and respected by many of the famous artists, writers and critics living in England in the late nineteenth century. In an era when Darwinians were suggesting an absence of divine meaning in life, Evans believed the world was constructed on intelligible principles and there existed an order to creation. Through his early landscape and nature photography he attempted to show that the physical realm corresponded to the spiritual. Despite his elevated sensibilities, he delighted in photographing the lively pre-Christian "grotesques" that adorned Gothic Cathedrals. In this vein, he photographed the great illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley, as a beaked-nosed gargoyle. Evans collected Beardsley's perversely beautiful drawings and was instrumental in Beardsley being chosen to illustrate Le Morte d'Arthur. He also supported the "utterly fantastic" drawings of Odilon Redon, encouraging his fellow photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, to buy them.
Fascinated by views he saw under a microscope, he made "photomicrographs" of minute shells, the eye of a water beetle, and the spine of a sea urchin. In 1887 he received the Photographic Society's Medal of Honour for these artistic studies. At age forty-five, Evans sold his bookshop and took up photography full time to pursue his "life-long study of the beautiful."
Evan's greatest artistic achievement are his photographs of cathedrals. His intention was to make viewers feel as if they were actually inside the cathedrals when they looked at his photographs. To achieve this he sometimes spent as much as two weeks living in a cathedral studying the way light and shadow defined forms and created a spiritual atmosphere. He was tireless and fastidious in his work. Before he would photograph, care was taken to remove unsightly chairs and Victorian gas fixtures that clashed with the purity of the medieval carvings. Searching for relationships between light and dark, Evans strove to express the "Divine Plan" amid all the stone. His sensitivity to organic forms that had attracted him to the work of Beardsley and Redon, served him well. Never content with fragments of architectural and symbolic elements, he sought to capture the soul of the cathedral, believing that "the structural qualities of a Gothic cathedral are very closely allied to those organic principles which underlie the growth or cohesion of living things."
In the photograph Gloucester Cathedral. Cloisters, Interior of Lavatorium, Evans photographed the diminishing perspective of a narrow stone hallway illuminated by sunlight streaming through stained glass windows. The viewer's eye is drawn to the end of the hallway where two panes of stained glass are partially dissolved by light. Overhead, carved stone columns rise into an ornate and protective archway. Biographer Anne Hammond's description of Evans' photographs applies to this image: "From a richly decorated wall of niches and canopies representing the world of the senses, the arched doorway of spiritual transition opens on a seemingly endless recession of aisles lit from within. Throughout the length of the cathedral the viewer is led on a visual pilgrimage toward interior illumination."
In Gloucester Cathedral. Inforum, to East, values range from warm middle-greys to glowing white. On the right side of the photograph stone walls and buttresses curve like waves until they come to rest on the perpendicular wall on the left. Light floods in through windows on the right, illuminating the ledges of walls, while casting others in shadow. The play of dark and light of the architectural forms implies the ending of one spiritual state and the beginning of another. This extraordinary photograph recalls the words of art critic, John Ruskin: "the power of architecture may be said to depend on the quality of its shadow".
In 1900, Evans had a large one-man exhibition of his platinum photographs at the Royal Photographic Society. That same year he was elected to join the Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, a group of photographers who had seceded from the London Photographic Society. In 1903 he contributed a portfolio of cathedral photographs and an article to the fourth issue of Camera Work. He was the first English photographer invited by Stieglitz to contribute to the publication.
In 1905 he was commissioned by Country Life magazine to photograph French manor houses. In 1908-9 he made a series of landscapes for a memorial edition of the poems of George Meredith. His photographs were used in the 1914 edition of The Curves of Life by Theodore Andrea Cook, with whom Evans also collaborated on Twenty-Five Great Houses of France, 1916. In 1911 he produced a series of photographs of the interior of Westminster Abbey in London.