Art History, Photography

Photography by Lady Eastlake

Elizabeth Rigby or as she is better known, Lady Eastlake, was a British author, art critic and art historian who made regular contributions for the literary and political periodical Quarterly Review. She is also famous for her significant role in the London art scene.

In 1842, she moved to Edinburgh with her mother and sister, there her literary career brought entry to an intellectual social circle among important figures such as Lord Jeffrey, Joh Murray and David Octavius Hill. She married Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, an artist, connoisseur and director of the National Gallery in London who in 1853 was also the first president of the Photographic Society. Elizabeth joined her husband in an active working and social life, entertaining artists and mixing with a wide range of well-known people. She and her husbands toured several European countries in search of new acquisitions for the gallery.

Elizabeth Eastlake by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (c1847)

Photography

In 1857 she published her much-scrutinised essay Photography, one of the earliest commentaries on it. In this essay Eastlake takes an exhaustive and synthetic journey through the history of this new procedure: the photography. In it she raises a series of considerations about photography that are still valid today.

Since she is a writer familiar with creative work (literature, art and photography), she questions the very widespread idea during the 19th century that there is a close relationship between manual dexterity and artistic ability. She affirms that the chief object at that moment was to investigate the connexion of photography and art, in other words, “to decide how far the sun may be considered an artist, and to what branch of imitation his powers are best adapted”.

Eastlake invites photography to avoid mechanical precision and rather play with the blurry, the flou, and picturesque by referring  to Sir William Newton, who once created a scandal in the Photographic Society by propounding that pictures taken slightly out of focus, with an uncertain and/or undefined forms, would be more artistically beautiful. And she will do it in the context of Pre-Raphaelite art, for instance Julia Margaret Cameron, in an attempt to go beyond imitation and to create her own poetics.

Despite crediting the sun, by the implication of the light itself, as the author of photographs Eastlakes distinguishes “merely mechanical” copying from picture making, considering the last as an art form.

This essay is one of the first histories of Photography as a medium and remains significant for its positioning of the new medium among the fine arts, however, it has been criticised lately for its gendered language, since it refers to sensitised paper as passive and feminine, and to light as the masculine agent that “etches” the images instantaneously.

Curiosities:

  • Aside from her essay Photography, she is well remembered for her scathing review of Jane Eyre, which she strongly disapproved.
  • She is also known for her attacks on John Ruskin, assumed to be linked to her role as confidante to his wife, Effie Gray.
  • Eastlakes also alludes in her essay Photography to the massification of the different practices related to photography, pointing to the consequent proletarianization of it.

References:

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