by Gerald Boerner
Robert Howlett was one of the leading British photographers of the mid-19th century. He was dedicated to developing the photographic process, moving from the albumin sensitized glass plates to the use of the wet collodion plate process for his images. He was commissioned by Prince Albert to document the new frescos in the palace, documented the Crimean War and the building of the Great Eastern steamship. His contributions to the art and science of photography were cut short by his untimely death due to Typhus at the age of twenty-seven. GLB
“All gardening is landscape painting.”
— William Kent
“An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.”
— Tony Hillerman
“But I’ll try to immerse myself in as many of the formal characteristics of site as possible in the landscape.”
— Richard Serra
“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.”
— John Ciardi
“Even on a personal note, my dressing table downstairs is crowded with things, like a mini landscape. It’s a city with buildings and towers and roads. There’s a pool and a little park. When I move something around it becomes a different tableau.”
— Tony Custis
“Because the competitive landscape of the web is such that the site which looks and works best gets the most traffic, developers and designers put a premium on the presentation of that content and let structural markup take a back seat.”
— Mike Davidson
“Having photographed the landscape for a number of years and specifically working with trees and in the forest I found, without consciously thinking about it, that it was a great learning experience for me in terms of organizing elements.”
— John Sexton
“A garden is a complex of aesthetic and plastic intentions; and the plant is, to a landscape artist, not only a plant – rare, unusual, ordinary or doomed to disappearance – but it is also a color, a shape, a volume or an arabesque in itself.”
— Roberto Burle Marx
Block quotes 2, 3, and 4 as well as the photos were obtained from an article at http://www.photohistories.com (see citation in the references section) by Graham Harrison and David White. Please visit this site to obtain the complete article.
This posting is intended for the educational use of photographers and photography students and complies with the “educational fair use” provisions of copyright law. For readers who might wish to reuse some of these images should check out their compliance with copyright limitations that might apply to that use.
Robert Howlett (1831 – 1858)
Robert Howlett, born in Theberton, Suffolk, was a pioneering British photographer whose pictures are widely exhibited in major galleries. Howlett produced portraits of Crimean War heroes, genre scenes and landscapes. His photographs include the iconic picture of Isambard Kingdom Brunel which was part of a commission by The Times (or Illustrated Times) to document the construction of the world’s largest steamship, the SS Great Eastern. (Photo from David White at http://www.photohistories.com)
He exhibited at the London Photographic Society and published “On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation.” He worked in partnership with Joseph Cundall at "The Photographic Institution" at New Bond Street, London.
Howlett made photographic studies for the artist William Powell Frith’s painting of The Derby Day which was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art.
Howlett was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to photograph the frescoes in the new drawing-room at Buckingham Palace, make copies of the paintings by Raphael and make a series of portraits called ‘Crimean Heroes’ which was exhibited in 1857 the Photographic Society of London’s annual exhibition.
Howlett died in 1858, aged 27. The cause of death was probably as a result of over-exposure to the arsenic and mercury used in the photographic process. The Illustrated Times praised him as "one of the most skillful photographers of the day".
Life and Work
Robert Howlett was the second of four sons of Reverend Robert Howlett and Harriet Harsant. Two brothers died in infancy and his younger brother Thomas became a farmer. Robert was born in Theberton, Suffolk and the family had moved to Longham, Norfolk by the time he was 9 years old. Robert’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Harsant, a surgeon, owned telescopes, microscopes, electrical machines, implements and instruments. Robert built his own microscope. Circa 1845, the parsonage in Longham had an electrical telegraph link to the local Manor House, this was only eight years after Samuel Morse filed his telegraphy patent in America. Thomas Harsant died in 1852 and left Robert £1000 plus his “turning lathe and all the apparatus and tools belonging thereto.” Robert was thus able to immediately move to London. He rose to prominence while working for the Photographic Institution at 168 New Bond Street, London, which was a leading establishment for the commercial promotion of photography through exhibitions, publications, and commissions. Although the Photographic Institution was established in 1853 by Joseph Cundall and Phillip Delamotte, it is believed that Howlett replaced Delamotte, who became professor of drawing at King’s College London.
VENTILATION ? WHAT VENTILATION ?
(Excerpt from David White at http://www.photohistories.com)
Always keen to try the latest advances in photography Robert Howlett had embraced the wet-plate collodion process invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. Combining printable negatives with fine definition, the system overcame the commercial disadvantages of the two seminal processes of photography: the soft painterliness of Fox Talbot’s Callotype and the unprintability of the Daguerreotype.
Image quality was impressive, but the collodion process was no easier to use than its predecessors, and could be a toxic nightmare.
Before embarking on an exposure the collodion photographer would coat one side of a glass plate with a sticky liquid of guncotton (cotton dissolved in nitric and sulphuric acid) itself dissolved in ether and alcohol. The plate would then be sensitised in a bath of silver nitrate.
After the exposure the negative required development in a solution of ferrous sulphate, alcohol and acetic acid. Fixing was in a solution of sodium thiosulphate, or sodium cyanide.
As is the way with a wet-plate method, Howlett would have had ten minutes to coat his glass plate with this explosive mixture, make his exposure and commence development. His working days would have been spent bustling between enormous cameras and a portable darkroom tent – probably one of the tents he himself designed and marketed.
However, darkroom tents in the 1850s were little more than a large hood and cape. With no ventilation the noxious, flammable vapours released by the processing mixtures had nowhere to go other than the lungs of the photographer.
If Robert wasn’t going to burn himself out from overwork there was the distinct possibility that he would blow himself up. Then there were the toxic fumes; for if Robert didn’t adequately wash his glass plates (to remove the acids before fixing in sodium cyanide), he would find himself inhaling hydrogen cyanide gas.
By 1856 Howlett was mentioned in the photographic press. He sent prints to the annual exhibitions of photographic societies in London, Manchester, and Norwich. These included landscape studies, In the Valley of the River Mole, Mickleham, and Box Hill, Surrey, which are presumed to have been taken in 1855.
(Photo from David White at http://www.photohistories.com)
He exhibited at the London Photographic Society and in 1856 published a booklet “On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation.” He also designed and sold ‘dark room tents’ and worked in partnership with Joseph Cundall at "The Photographic Institution" at 168 New Bond Street, London.
(Excerpt from David White at http://www.photohistories.com)
By 1856 Robert was flying. He was exhibiting at the Photographic Society and working on commissions from the painter William Powell Frith, and from Prince Albert, no less, who asked him to photograph the frescoes in the new drawing room at Buckingham Palace. He also received a royal commission to copy the works of Raphael.
Then there were the portraits of notable painters and the landscapes, and the stereographs. How he found the time to produce the booklet On the Various Methods of Printing Photographic Pictures upon Paper, with Suggestions for Their Preservation that same year, we may never know.
Crimean Heroes and Trophies: an etching copied from
photographs by Howlett and Cundall commissioned
by Queen Victoria published on the cover of The
Illustrated London News, April 12th 1856.
The heroes carry Byzantine paintings looted
from a church in Sebastopol.
(Photo from David White at http://www.photohistories.com)
CRIMEAN HEROES AND TROPHIES
Prestigious and well paid as Robert’s work must have been, he had probably not realised how photography could be used to alter public opinion. Perhaps it was his next assignment that did that.
Howlett and Cundall were commissioned by Queen Victoria to photograph soldiers returning from the Crimean War, a war that was showcasing some of the worst military and logistical incompetence of the British Army.
As expected Cundall shot studio portraits, but Robert Howlett took his huge camera down to the naval dockyards and the veteran’s hospital at Woolwich. Here are some of his first experiments in environmental portraiture. In the summer months of 1856 Cundall and Howlett set up a temporary studio in Aldershot where many of the troops had assembled on their return to England.
“These unsung heroes etched the Crimean War into British history with a brutal example of the futility of war, and a show of human endurance against all the odds,” iphotocentral tells us, adding for print collectors, “If other English Crimean War images are scarce, Cundall and Howlett’s photographs are very rare.”
Titled Crimean Heroes and Trophies and presented as an album and an exhibition, the commission was Queen Victoria’s response to reports in The Times of disaster in the region, and to the personal stories of suffering supported in part by the first ever photographs from a war zone then filtering back from the Black Sea. These would have included Roger Fenton’s Crimean images of 1855.
Cundall, it appears, shot the majority of the surviving Crimean portraits.
Nevertheless, it must have been when these photographs were being taken that Robert Howlett grasped the new medium’s extraordinary potential for influence; catching as it did the imagination of the rich and powerful, and of the public at large.
Howlett undertook the first of a number of commissions for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1856, working for the Photographic Institution. These included copying the works of Raphael for Prince Albert, and making a series of portraits of heroic soldiers from the Crimean War. These were first exhibited in 1857 as ‘Crimean Heroes’ at the Photographic Society of London’s annual exhibition. In 2004 Cundall and Howlett’s portraits of Crimean war veterans, were used by the Royal Mail for a set of six postage stamps to mark the 150th anniversary of the conflict.
Howlett’s studio portraits at ‘The Photographic Institute’ included eminent ‘fine artists’ such as William Powell Frith, Frederick Richard Pickersgill, John Callcott Horsley, and Thomas Webster which were among a larger group exhibited at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857.
Howlett was commissioned to make photographic studies of the crowd at the 1856 Epsom Derby for the painter William Powell Frith, who used them in 1858 for his painting of The Derby Day which was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art in 1959. The photographs were taken from the roof of a cab.
The Great Eastern
Howlett’s major work was the commission by The Times (or Illustrated Times) to document the construction of the worlds largest steamship the SS Great Eastern. His images were translated into engravings for The Illustrated Times. They reflected and stimulated the widespread interest in this feat of engineering.
This project included the well known portrait of the Great Eastern’s creator and engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, standing in front of the giant launching chains on the ‘checking drum’ braking mechanism at John Scott Russell’s Millwall shipyard. It was taken to celebrate the launch of the world’s largest steamship, in November 1857.
This image, which depicts Brunel in an industrial setting instead of a more traditional background for a portrait, has been described as one of the first examples of environmental portraiture.
THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED
(Excerpt and photo from David White at http://www.photohistories.com)
Five times larger than any vessel afloat, The Leviathan was beginning to loom on the north bank of the River Thames, at Milwall Dock. There was immense public interest in the enterprise.
The railway mania of the 1840’s gone, the great railway engineer was gambling his prestige on the success of a steamship that he believed would revolutionise long-distance travel.
This immense vessel, Brunel hoped, would carry passengers and cargo around the Cape and as far as Australia without refueling, but the press were sceptical about the venture, and were proved right. Throughout her existence the Great Eastern was plagued with problems. Brunel himself would not live past her maiden voyage.
Knowing the fate of the vessel, and of Brunel himself add poignancy to Howlett’s beautiful images of the shipbuilding. Cundall’s work appears more literal.
Robert, we can see, was looking for angles, shapes and views. He was playing with scale, typically including a navvy or three in his shots, the men dwarfed by the behemoth towering above them.
As Andrew Nathum, curator of the London Science Museum’s 2006 exhibition Isambard Kingdom Brunel – Fame and Fortune puts it, Howlett’s eye is noticeably different to Cundall’s, and exceptionally for the time, very modern.
This is Robert Howlett’s great achievement, the modernity of his eye. One hundred and fifty years ago Robert was looking at his subject the way a good, a very good, photographer would look today.
“He was so full of enthusiasm and excitement, that … he appeared to be running here and there and everywhere, and doing in one day as much as most men would accomplish in two or three.”
The Journal of the Photographic Society, December 21st, 1858.
Howlett died in 1858, aged 27, in lodgings at 10 Bedford Place, Campden Hill, shortly after returning from a trip to France to try out a new ‘wide angle lens’. The cause of death was probably as a result of over-exposure to the arsenic and mercury used in the Collodion photographic process that was invented by Frederick Scott Archer in about 1850. The Illustrated Times praised him as "one of the most skillful photographers of the day". However, the death certificate simply states ‘febris’ (fever), 20 days. Howlett had originally told a friend he had a cold. Typhus was also surmised as 1858 was the year of ‘The Great Stink.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Wikipedia: Robert Howlett…
Web Sites and Blogs:
Photo Histories: Robert Howlett and the Power of Photography…
Brainy Quote: Clarence John Laughlin…