Following on from the last post, this is another image of a nun seated in her cloister garden, but this time with the soft pastel shades of romantic sentiment. Clearly a studio creation, I like how the prop artists have applied a few daubs of brown paint to try and link the autumn leaves at her feet with the tree on the painted background behind her. Blatant artifice aside, it is an exquisite image nonetheless and I was delighted to pick this up at a postcard fair earlier in the year.
Recently I came across this unusual carte-de-visite, showing a Bernardine nun at a French convent at Anglot, a small village between the rival cities of Bayonne and Biarritz. The convent was founded in the 1830s, some twenty years before Napoleon III drew attention to Biarritz by building the Empress Eugenie a summer residence there. It became a popular resort for holidays, and my grandparents had their honeymoon there back in the 1920s.
An aristocratic Australian, Lady Fairlie Cunninghame, wrote about the Bernardines at Anglot in the 1890s, noting: “Photography is another of their industries, and very good photographs of the sisters and the convent, done by themselves, can be bought here, as well as dolls, dressed in the habit of the order, and many other prettily made ornaments and bits of work.” [Brisbane Courier 21 June 1892.]
It is therefore possible that this photograph may have been taken by one of the nuns around this time. When I wrote my thesis on 19th century clergy-photographers – including monks and friars – I was always on the look-out for female religious, but never came across much evidence for this in the UK. Over in France, thanks to the massive devotional interest in the canonised Carmelite nun Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97), I know that her sister Céline took a camera into the convent when she became a nun in 1894, although as their mother was the prioress, it is possible that this was an unusual exception! Over the next few years Céline (Sister Genevieve of Saint Teresa) took numerous photographs both of her pious younger sister and of scenes of Carmelite life, although it is clear now that many of these were considerably retouched and/or doctored. (Sophia Deboick has written a very interesting thesis on this: Image, authenticity and the cult of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897-1959 (University of Liverpool, 2011).
The commercial use of photographic images by the nuns of Anglot raises some similar questions – to what extent were these images authentic snapshots of convent life, posed photographs intended to convey the picture of religious life that they wished to promote, or staged tableaux designed for commercial appeal? Who posed for the photographs, and was it a matter of personal choice or religious obedience? Presumably the photographs were developed inside the convent – one of the interesting things I wrote about in my thesis were the range of odd times and places in which monks managed to carry out their darkroom activities. I wonder how many of these photographs from the nuns of Anglot are still in circulation?
This week saw the publication of ‘Egyptology and Photography: Two Founding Fathers’ in Ancient Egypt magazine. This project had its roots in a visit I paid to the house of a family friend many years ago, when I caught sight of a painting hanging on their wall. The portrait was by Reinhold Lepsius, one of the children of the Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius.
I was – and remain – absolutely captivated by this portrait and was keen to learn more about the artist and his family. I had heard of Karl Lepsius and knew a little about his pioneering work in the field of Egyptology, but as I began reading more about his personal life and achievements, my attention was caught by references to his attempts to use photography in his seminal expedition to Egypt in 1842. Accounts of photography in the Middle East seemed to have overlooked this plan by Lepsius, largely because he returned without any photographs: the expedition’s findings were published in a monumental twelve volume work, Denkmaler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien (1849-58) which included nearly 900 plates, based on drawings and paintings undertaken on location. It is easy to see why Talbot wanted to support Lepsius, given his interest in Biblical archaeology, ancient languages and eastern antiquities. Research for the article brought back memories of the passion I used to have for the same topics – how I had travelled to Durham to visit the Gulbenkian Museum, to Oxford to gaze upon the Weld-Blundell prism, to Dublin to see the magnificent Book of Kells…and I felt humbled in a way, that my entire experience had come solely from museums and libraries. The hardships and dangers endured by Lepsius and other contemporary travellers makes for hair-raising reading at times.