ROBINSON, Henry Peach

b. 9 July 1830; d. 21 February 1901

Henry Peach Robinson was a pioneer of pictorialist photography, earned the term "the King of photographic picture-making", and was certainly one of the greatest photographers of his time. He was very influential until the time of Peter Henry Emerson, who introduced naturalistic photography.

He was greatly influenced by the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, and numerous references to him appear in his writings. At 19 he practised as an artist, and exhibited an oil painting at the Royal Academy of Art, in 1852. That same year he began taking photographs, and five years later decided to make a living out it, and opened a studio in Leamington Spa, selling portraits. He later established another studio in Kent.

The picture shown here is "Seascape at night", produced in 1870.

In 1850 he was introduced to photography, being given instruction on the calotype process by Hugh Diamond, and he also learned how to use collodion. In fact, it was Diamond who most influenced his life and encouraged him to become proficient in photography.

In 1857 he abandoned book-selling to become a professional photographer. His first advertisement, dated January 1857, gives details of the "going rate" at the time. A portrait up to whole plate (8" by 6") cost 10/6 (just over fifty pence), 15/- (75p) if two sitters were in the same photograph. Additional services included tinting the hands and face, which doubled the cost of the portrait. The last paragraph contains some remarks on dress: "Dark Silks and Satins are most suitable for Ladies' Dresses, Black Velvet is somewhat objectionable. White and Light Blue should be avoided if possible."

One of his novelties was the vignetting of prints; there remain some quite appealing examples of his portraiture using this technique.

Others, particularly the Lady of Shallot (1882), Autumn (1863) are in the Pre-Raphaelite style, which had greatly impressed him in the 1850s.

The limitations of photography caused him to perfect the idea of combination printing, for which he is particularly remembered; it is possible that he was first introduced to this technique by Oscar Rejlander, one of his friends. The technical difficulty of portraying sky as well as subject on the same negative caused him to accumulate a stock of negatives of the sky, to be incorporated into his pictures.

Perhaps the most famous of his pictures is Fading Away (1858), a composition of five negatives, in which he depicts a girl dying of consumption (which we know as tuberculosis), and the despair of the other members of the family. This was a controversial photograph, and some felt that the subject was not suitable for photography. One critic said that Robinson had cashed in on "the most painful sentiments which it is the lot of human beings to experience." It would seem that it was perfectly in order for painters to paint pictures on such themes, but not for photographers to do so. However, the picture captured the imagination of Prince Albert, who bought a copy and issued an order for every composite portrait Robinson produced subsequently.

Fading Away is a composition of five negatives. If one examines a large copy of a print closely one can see the "joins", particularly the triangle of grey with no detail in it. One has to remember, of course, that these were contact prints - there were no means of enlarging at that time.

Already at this period there were shades of the conflict between the art and science of photography. The Secretary of the Society and Editor of the Journal, Sir William Crookes, is quoted in Robinson's autobiography: "The secretary at that time was an unsympathetic chemist and all he could see in the picture in what he thought was a ''join,' an imaginary enormity which afforded a text on which he waxed eloquent." It is clear that many who admired "Fading Away" had no idea that it was a combination print and when, in 1860, Robinson outlined his methods at a meeting of the Photographic Society of Scotland, he was greeted with howls of protest from people who seemed to feel that they had been deceived. There was much discussion about what one correspondent referred to as "Patchwork", rather than composition, and Robinson began to conclude that perhaps it might be better in future not to divulge the secrets of his craft, but leave people to enjoy the finished product!

However, in "Pictorial Effect in Photography" (1867), a major literary work, Robinson wrote:

"Any dodge, trick and conjuration of any kind is open to the photographer's use.... It is his imperative duty to avoid the mean, the base and the ugly, and to aim to elevate his subject.... and to correct the unpicturesque....A great deal can be done and very beautiful pictures made, by a mixture of the real and the artificial in a picture."

At a time when the Photographic Society seemed unduly obsessed with the scientific aspects of photography, Robinson was stressing the need to "see" a picture - advice which still holds good today:

"However much a man might love beautiful scenery, his love for it would be greatly enhanced if he looked at it with the eye of an artist, and knew why it was beautiful. A new world is open to him who has learnt to distinguish and feel the effect of the beautiful and subtle harmonies that nature presents in all her varied aspects. Men usually see little of what is before their eyes unless they are trained to use them in a special manner."

Some of his observations make sound advice today. Here is a comment on "rules" of composition:

"I must warn you against a too close study of art to the exclusion of nature and the suppression of original thought.... Art rules should be a guide only to the study of nature, and not a set of fetters to confine the ideas or to depress the faculty of original interpretation in the artist, whether he be painter or photographer.... The object (of rules) is to train his mind so that he may select with ease, and, when he does select, know why one aspect of a subject is better than another."

One of his most ambitious pictures was "Bringing Home the May", a large print (40 by 15 inches) composed from nine negatives. Again, this shows the same frieze-like qualities of the Pre-Raphaelite school.

Perhaps the most famous is "When Day's Work is done." (See HERE for the picture and some details). The gentleman in the picture had appeared one day for a carte-de-visite, and Robinson earmarked him for this project. He then searched for a suitable old lady. Both were photographed in his studio separately and at different times, and then assembled. The print itself, which measures 20" by 24"(50cm. by 61cm.) is made up from five negatives.

One of his most bitter critics was Emerson, who despised contrived photography, of which "Red Riding Hood" would be a typical example. There was a fairly heated series of interchanges between Robinson and Emerson. Reviewing in "Amateur Photographer" Robinson's print entitled "Merry Fisher Maidens" , Emerson wrote: This is an inane, flat, vapid piece of work, bigger and more worthless than ever. Its composition is childish and its sentiment puerile." Robinson, reviewing Emerson's controversial book "Natural Photography for Students" was equally caustic: "...we cannot help feeling that his system is pernicious, and excusing bad photography by calling it art... we feel it to be the imperative duty of a journal like our own to produce a disinfectant, and stop the disorder..."

In 1862 Robinson was elected to serve on the Council of the Photographic Society, and continued to serve on that body until 1891 when, frustrated by the failure of the Society to recognise the artistic dimensions of photography, he resigned (whilst still its Vice-President) and formed the Linked Ring, a brotherhood that was to be very influential in photographic circles for the next twenty years. In 1900 the rift was healed when the (by now Royal) Photographic Society awarded him an Honorary Fellowship - its highest award - in recognition of his services to photography and to the Society.

He is buried in Ben Hall Road Cemetery, Tunbridge Wells.  He designed and carved the headstone of his grave.

Though Robinson is particularly known for his combination printing, he also produced a number of pictorial photographs of woodland and other scenes.

Purely as a light incidental comment, Robinson married in 1859, his wife recalling in later years that when they were married, she had been told in no unequivocal terms that it must be "photography first, wife afterwards", so she may have the distinction of being the first recorded photographic widow!



© Robert Leggat, 1999.