Henrietta Ross (1815-94): photographer

After a great many years of neglect, photographic historians are gradually uncovering and sharing the individual histories of early women photographers whose lives and work have been languishing in the shadows. As yesterday marked the 125th anniversary of the death of Henrietta Ross (1815-94), this seemed a good occasion to write a little about her life and photographic activities. Some of this has appeared in my 2004 article on Horatio Ross, and Henrietta will be treated in more detail if I ever manage to finish writing Horatio’s biography, but in the meantime I have put together this brief sketch in the hope that it interest some readers.

Henrietta Macrae was born on 17 April 1815 in Demerara, an island off the north east coast of Brazil which was ceded to Great Britain under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty. Her father, Colin Macrae (1779–1854), had helped broker the treaty, which was signed in London on 13 August 1814. Colin hailed from the West Highlands: his parents were Farquhar Macrae of Inverinate, and Mary, daughter of Alexander Mackenzie of Davochmaluack. As head of the Inverinate branch of the family he had a rightful claim to be recognized as Chief of the Clan Macrae. Like many young Scotsmen he sailed abroad to seek his fortune, finding work as a merchant and planter in Demerara.  He became a colonel in the colonial militia and was also appointed to the colonial legislation. His status is indicated by his marriage in 1805 to Charlotte Gertrude, daughter of John Cornelius Vandenheuvel, Dutch Governor of Demerara from 1765 to 1770.

They resided at Cumingsburg, in the capital Stabroek (later renamed Georgetown) where they raised a large family of eleven sons and daughters, many of whom went on to take prominent positions in the colonies. Some of their time was spent in New Haven, Connecticut. Colin Macrae published a short tract, Suggestion of a Plan for the Effectual Abolition of Slavery in all of the British West India Colonies in 1830 and soon after returned with his family to Scotland, where he divided his time between Edinburgh, Perth and Nairn. Henrietta was in her late teens when she met her future husband, Horatio Ross (1801-86), who was then MP for Aberdeen Burghs and one of the more remarkable men of his age.

Ross’s accomplishments were extraordinary. His father Hercules – like Colin MacRae – had left Scotland as a young man to seek his fortune overseas. Through a blend of enterprising trade and marine activities bordering on piracy, Hercules Ross made a fortune in Jamaica, where he succeeded in winning the friendship of the young Captain Horatio Nelson, then a naval lieutenant. Hercules Ross returned to Scotland on his own 32-gun frigate, a wealthy man, and married Henrietta Parish, a beautiful heiress whose portrait was painted by Raeburn. They settled near Montrose on the east coast of Scotland and set about building Rossie Castle.

Rossie Castle

They had four daughters before a son was born in December 1801. Nelson agreed to be godfather to Ross’s son – hence the name Horatio. Hercules Ross was an enthusiast for the volunteer movement, and after an embarrassing scene when five year old Horatio ran away at the sound of guns on the lawn at Rossie, he had his valet fire guns daily over the head of his son. Horatio developed an interest in shooting and turned out to be a brilliant marksman. His feats with a gun became the thing of legend and he was reckoned the best pistol shot in the British Empire. In 1821 he joined the army but grew bored with barrack life and resigned in 1826. He was then able to devote himself fully to the sporting and shooting activities which were his joy, among the most notable of which include the first ever recorded steeplechase, a 97 mile non-stop walking competition and some astounding feats of marksmanship with both pistols and rifles. Some of these were documented in my article, ‘The Delight of their Existence’: the photography of Horatio Ross of Rossie (1801–86) Studies in Photography (2006) and will be treated at greater length in my biography of Horatio Ross, which I hope to complete one day.

Perhaps in need of a greater focus for his talents he stood as a Reform candidate for Aberdeen burghs and was returned in 1831. His contributions to parliamentary debate reflect his interests in rural affairs – he spoke forcefully on matters such as game laws and hemp tax, but was also appointed to a commission of inquiry into child labour in factories. Other members included Robert Peel, who became Prime Minister a few years later and remained a friend. Ross was well-connected and moved among high social circles. He dined with Thomas Carlyle in London, corresponded with leading peers of the realm, and took part in adventurous sporting activities with aristocratic gentry from both Scotland and England.

Although now in his early thirties, he had still not found a wife. Although it was later said that he sought a wealthy heiress, the woman with whom he fell in love was far from that. Henrietta Macrae was in her late teens when they met.  She married Ross in Nairn on 26 December 1833. They had five sons: Horatio, Edward, Hercules, Colin and Robert Peel.

Having left politics in 1835, Ross was in possession of a little more leisure time when photography was invented four years later and unsurprisingly was one of the first in Scotland to take it up. Beginning with daguerreotypes, he switched to the calotype process, but continued to concentrate on landscape photography. Naturally, he was fond of hunting scenes, and took numerous photographs of deer both living and dead. Some of these photos were used by his friend Sir Edwin Landseer as an aid for painting. Henrietta appears in one of his earliest known images, an 1848 daguerreotype entitled ‘Craigdarroch’ which show her with a rifle in the (clearly posed) act of shooting a stag.

Many of Horatio’s photographs are labelled Glen Dibidale, which was the site of a lodge in the Ross-shire highlands at which they spent much of their time. Some years ago I acquired Henrietta’s own Bible, which was signed and inscribed while she was staying. The Bible is of interest because it contains many marginal notes and pasted in scraps, giving some idea of Henrietta’s own spiritual inclinations.

mde

Queen Victoria’s residence on Deeside had made this part of the country increasingly popular, but Ross had already been shooting deer here for over two decades. Horatio and Henrietta Ross joined the royal household for a shooting party at Mar in October 1850; Her Majesty noted in her diary that ‘Mrs Ross is a very pretty ladylike person, & an excellent shot herself, but without any ‘prétention’. Her husband, no longer a young man, is considered the best deer stalker & best shot in Scotland.’ (Journal entry for 5 October 1850.)

As well as being an excellent shot, Henrietta soon began to try her hand at photography. Her husband did a great deal to promote Scottish photography and in 1856 Ross helped found the Photographic Society of Scotland (PSS). This gave a great boost to photographic activity in the country, bringing photographers together for meetings and talks, allowing them to discuss methods and arrange for annual exhibitions. Although she was not a member of the Society, Henrietta displayed her work at some of the PSS exhibitions, as the comments below indicate:

‘Mrs Ross of Rossie’s works are not alone in showing that photography has been most succesfully pursued by the fair sex.’ Scotsman 21st December 1857

‘Mr and Mrs Horatio Ross also exhibit a considerable number of well chosen river and burn scenes. To portray running water properly by the camera – more particularly falls – is a difficult matter; indeed, the latter cannot be accomplished with any degree of success – the rapid motion of the descending and broken water giving a blurred appearance to the picture. In No.348, ‘Highland Burn and Waterfall’ by Mrs H. Ross, may be observed what we regard as a great improvement when a better cannot be offered. The falling water is touched by the pencil, which gives it much better effect, and throws a spiritedness into the photograph which it would otherwise lack.’ – Caledonian Mercury, 25th December 1857

Regarding another photograph on waxed paper, Cat. No. 350 ‘Highland Burn’ – probably the same image of that title that Henrietta exhibited at The British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting at Aberdeen in 1859  (cat 161, waxed paper) – critics noted its ‘pleasing landscape… sugar-white stones on the heathery brae… gleam on the water

Henrietta Ross, ‘A Photographer in his Studio’ (1858)

At the third exhibition in December 1858 Henrietta Ross had on show a fine portrait of her husband entitled A Photographer in His Studio, depicting Ross in the act of preparing a collodion plate. Apart from its clever composition, making use of the overlapping ‘V’-shape of tripod legs, deer antlers and a funnel, the picture is also of interest for demonstrating the sheer size of a contemporary camera. This image was later designated a self-portrait by Horatio Ross, although there are grounds for disputing this.

Henrietta’s sons inherited their parents’ shooting skills. Edward was the best, winning the Queens Prize at Wimbledon in 1860 and taking a prominent role in the development of the National Rifle Association. Colin and Hercules also joined their father at shooting competitions during the 1860s. The youngest son Peel took less interest in shooting and entered the Church, being ordained a priest of the Church of England in . He was Rector of Drayton Bassett from until when he retired to Inverness and took up residence at Druim, a short distance from where his parents lived at Rossie Lodge on the banks of the River Ness.

Horatio and Henrietta celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary in December 1883. Ross was now 82 but still succeeded in shooting a stag on his 83rdbirthday the following year. He was out for the Glorious Twelfth in 1884 but that was the last time. His health gradually declined, and he spent his last few months arranging his photographic negatives at Rossie Lodge before dying here in September 1886.

Henrietta left Inverness for the other end of the country, moving down to Portsmouth to be near her eldest son Horatio Jr, who worked in the Bank of England in Portsmouth. She took a house at in Southsea where she died on 17 October 1894.

There is much more to be written about Henrietta, some of which I may do another day – this has been cobbled together somewhat in haste, as most of my boxes of research notes on Ross are inaccessible following the house move. Commemorative dates are always a good spur for writing something, however, and if I can raise a little more awareness of Henrietta Ross then this raggedy little blogpost will have done some good.

Hot off the press….

I’m pleased to report my recent appointment as editor of Photographica World, the journal of the Photographic Collectors’ Club of Great Britain (PCCGB). In taking on this post I am following in the footsteps of Michael Pritchard who edited the journal from its foundation in 1977 through to 2002, when the editorship passed to John Marriage, in whose capable hands it has remained for the last sixteen years. Photographica World is a 60-page magazine, printed in colour and published three times a year. It is dedicated to the history of cameras and photographic culture, publishing original research, feature articles, book reviews and correspondence.

Some recent issues of ‘Photographica World’

The PCCGB has members across the UK, Europe, America, Asia and Australasia, including vintage camera and photographic collectors, museum curators, photohistorians, academics, publishers, professional photographers and dealers, as well as many others with diverse interests in the history of photographic culture and technology. Every year the PCCGB hosts an international camera fair in London – this year’s Photographica will be on Sunday 20th May. Maybe I’ll see some of you there?

 

Carte-de-visite of the week #13 Belle Bilton

This carte-de-visite was taken in the late 1880s and shows the Countess of Clancarty (1867-1906) – a singer, actress and music-hall entertainer better known under her stage-name of Belle Bilton. It shows her in costume and was taken in the Ebury Street studios of fashionable London photographers W. & D. Downey, opened in 1872 by William Downey (1829-1915) while his brother Daniel managed their studio in Newcastle. The Downeys took many portraits of Queen Victoria and the royal family, as well as aristocrats, society beauties and famous actresses. Belle was photographed by Downey several times, and also sat for other society photographers such as Alexander Bassano.

Background and Stage Career

Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton was born in 1867, the daughter of Sergeant John George Bilton of the Royal Engineers. Under the stage name of Belle Bilton she made her name as a music hall entertainer at the Alhambra and the Empire and other venues. Sometimes she appeared with her sister – an advert for a performance at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly in 1886 shows the ‘Sisters Bilton’ on the billing.

Lord Dunlo

Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty, using a stereoscopic camera around 1864, three years before the birth of his son.

At the Corinthian Club towards the end of April or beginning of May 1889, Belle met a young aristocrat – William, Viscount Dunlo, son of Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty and heir to the title. Like Belle, Lord Dunlo was twenty years old, and the couple quickly fell for one another: they were married soon after, at Hampstead Registry Office, on 10 July 1889. The groom’s father was not impressed at his son’s choice of bride, and William had already incurred the Earl’s displeasure due to his lack of enthusiasm for the army career that had been planned for him. As it had already been decided that William would benefit from foreign travel in the company of a sober and morally-minded mentor, his scandalous marriage to a music hall entertainer proved the last straw: the Earl forced his newly-wedded son to sail for Australia immediately under threat of losing his inheritance. A divorce case – which in those days depended upon proving adultery – was at once initiated, with the Earl determined to use every means in his power to blacken Belle’s name and have the union dissolved with his family’s honour intact.

The Trial

Over the next few months evidence was gathered, while Belle – in the absence of her husband – continued to socialise and pursue her stage career. In April 1890 she played the title role in the ‘burlesque extravaganza’ Venus at the Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. The trial opened in July 1890 with Sir James Hannen sitting as judge, Sir Charles Russell prosecuting, and the solicitor general Frank Lockwood QC representing Belle. The adultery trial had been preceded by a separate court case in which Belle was implicated in forgery; although the matter was quite independent of her marriage to Lord Dunlo, it was clearly intended to blacken her character – an objective that was largely thwarted by her being found innocent.

Eastern Evening News (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.2

It became apparent during the adultery trial that Belle was more sinned against than sinning, and the Earl and his associates came out looking worse, having instigated various machinations to make Belle look bad. As recent events have made all too clear, rich and powerful men can be responsible for all sorts of abuse to protect their interests. When Lord Dunlo declared he believed his wife to be innocent of the charges, the case collapsed, and he returned to live with Belle. Cut off from his father’s allowance, the couple were required to live off Belle’s earnings from the theatre – estimated at around £1,500 a year. Some felt that the publicity of the court case might actually help matters:

‘I dare say the photographs of Lady Dunlo (Miss Belle Bilton) are more marketable now than ever. I don’t know if this fascinating young lady has been paid liberal terms by Bassano and the other photographers to whom she has given sittings, but she certainly deserves to remunerated handsomely. She will sell like ripe cherries from now until her divorce trial comes off.’

London and Provincial Entr’acte (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.5.

The couple did not have long to wait. Belle’s father-in-law died less than a year after the trial, aged only 57. In May 1891 her husband became the 5th Earl of Clancarty, and Belle assumed the title of Countess of Clancarty. The couple had five children, including the 6th and 7th Earls of Clancarty.

Belle with her twin sons Richard and Henry, born Devember 1891. Photographed by Bassano ca. 1893-4. Reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sadly, Belle died of cancer on 31 December 1906 at Garbaldy Park, Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of only 39. Carte-de-visite portraits of her – both in theatrical costume and as herself – are fairly easy to find and so it is tempting to consider building up a collection of these. Belle’s short life is intriguing for anyone with an interest in late Victorian theatre, and there is something inspiring – and remarkably topical – about the story of how this young woman refused to be crushed by powerful men who sought to silence her.

 

Ministers of ‘the Black Art’

My newly-submitted thesis, alongside various items involved in its creation

 

Yesterday, on 5 March, I submitted my thesis, Ministers of ‘the Black Art’: the engagement of British clergy with photography, 1839-1914. As many of you know, I’ve been working on my Ph.D since September 2014, but my research into Victorian clergy-photographers stretches back many years prior to this. It was my original intention to write a book on the topic, but when publishers showed no interest and the opportunity arose to apply for doctoral studies, the project was turned into a Ph.D. The viva will follow in a couple of months and we’ll see how that goes, but in due course I expect to adapt the thesis for publication as a book.

Ministers of ‘the black Art’ looks at clergymen from all denominations – Anglican vicars, cathedral precentors, Catholic priests, monks, Methodist missionaries and so on – who were active photographers between 1839 and World War One, exploring the relationship between their religious background and culture, and their photographic work. This is a topic that has been overlooked by both photo-historians and church historians, largely because there are very few researchers who possess sufficient knowledge of both disciplines to make the connections. Having spent many years with my feet planted squarely in both camps, it seemed a good idea to attempt it myself.

Conceptual theories do not interest me, and so the thesis focuses on what people actually did on a grassroots level, looking at original photographic material – paper prints, glass negatives, lantern slides etc – and examining a wealth of printed and manuscript material from archives, museums and libraries all around the country: theological works, printed sermons, diaries, correspondence, exhibition catalogues, photographic society log books and ephemera. I managed to identify over 200 clergymen-photographers (and yes, it’s a shame that they’re all men – but inevitable given the period in question) and amassed a huge amount of information about their work. I think this project can contribute a great deal to our understanding of Victorian visual culture and I have really enjoyed the challenge of shaping my mass of handwritten notes (some written last century) into an ordered argument. It’s been hard work, and I won’t deny that finally submitting my thesis brings with it a sense of relief, unburdening and liberation. Time now to prepare for the viva, and also crack on with other projects. Further developments will be announced here….

Rev. Roderick C Macleod, 'Mitford Castle with Mrs Macleod'

Rev. Roderick C Macleod, ‘Mitford Castle with Mrs Macleod’

Heavitree’s Hispanic Corner: Richard Ford, calotypes and ‘the annals of the artists of spain’

Richard Ford’s grave in Heavitree. Photograph by the author.
Tucked away under a tree in the churchyard of St Michael’s, Heavitreee, by the edge of a path I once walked on a near-daily basis, lies the resting place of Richard Ford (1796-1858), Hispanicist, writer, art collector and historian. After spending several long sojourns in Spain in the early 1830s he moved to Exeter to be near his brother James Ford (1797-1877), later a Canon of Exeter Cathedral. After Richard bought Heavitree House in the summer of 1834, he filled it with books, antiques and artwork that he had brought back from Spain, and laid the gardens out using Moorish designs and artefacts.

Picture

The house, sad to say, was demolished by the council after WWII and the site is now occupied by a housing estate. Photograph by the author.
In 1840 Richard Ford met the Scottish writer and art historian Sir William Stirling (later Stirling-Maxwell, and 9th Baronet of Pollok (1818-78), who had also travelled in Spain and shared Ford’s deep interest in Spanish art and artists. The two men began corresponding on the topic. Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) proved highly popular, and was reprinted in 1847, the year before Sir William’s four volume Annals of the Artists of Spain was published. This was the first scholarly history of Spanish art in English, and was chiefly responsible for making known the works of  El Greco, Goya, Velazquez, Ribera and Murillo. It was, moreover, the first book on art to be illustrated with photographs. The first three volumes featured texts by Stirling Maxwell, whilst the fourth was a supplement of illustrations printed in a limited edition of 50 copies for his circle of friends and family. Sir William had taken a camera lucida on his first trip to Spain and used this as a drawing aid, but it is possible that his inspiration for using the calotype process to illustrate his book came from seeing Talbot’s Sun Pictures of Scotland (1845) or the earlier Pencil of Nature (1844.) Hill & Adamson were also commissioned to produce calotype images for the volume, but – for various reasons – their work was not included.

Picture

One of the images from the fourth volume of ‘Annals of the Artists of Spain’ (London: John Ollivier, 1848)
There were 68 photographs in all, taken by Nicholas Henneman using Talbot’s calotype process. Henneman had entered Talbot’s service in 1826 but was later trained by him as a photographer and placed in charge of the printing establishment at Reading. Many of the Spanish photographs were made from the original paintings, which had to be photographed outdoors in the sunshine due to the long exposure times required. When this was impossible, existing engravings were used. Several artworks were borrowed from Richard Ford, who died of Bright’s Disease ten years later at Heavitree House on 31 August 1858.

Picture

Ford’s headstone, with the inscription ‘Rerum Hispaniae indagator acerrimus’ – Most keen investigator of all things Spanish. Photograph taken by author, in very bright sunshine!
A set of the Annals of the Artists of Spain was retained at Pollok House, Sir William’s mansion in Glasgow, and a place very familiar from my childhood: in addition to regular visits to the parkland surrounding the house, my parents often went to dinner dances there, and I got to see inside the house from time to time. I still have distinct memories of seeing prints by Goya and Piranesi around the walls. When I began working in the Special Collections Department of Glasgow University Library, the Stirling Maxwell collection of emblem books became a favourite haunt, second only to the early photographic collections. Sir William’s fascination with emblem literature led him to collaborate with Richard’s brother, Canon James Ford, on the book ‘Ut Pictura poesis,’ or An attempt to explain, in verse, the Emblemata Horatiana of Otho Vaenius (London, 1875.) The preface and epigrams were written by Ford, while Stirling-Maxwell provided bibliographical notes.
​The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid is currently running an exhibition about Sir William’s volume – but Copied by the Sun/Copiado por el sol: Talbotype Illustrations to the Annals of the Artists of Spain closes tomorrow, so you’ll need to hurry if you want to catch it! Otherwise, there’s a massive catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, and the following are also well worth reading if anyone wishes to learn more:

Hilary Macartney, ‘William Stirling and the Talbotype volume of the Annals of the Artists of Spain.
History of Photography 30:4 (2006) pp.291-308
‘The Reproduction of Spanish Art: Hill and Adamson’s calotypes and Sir William Stirling-Maxwell’s Annals of the Artists of Spain.’
Studies in Photography (2005), pp. 16-23.Gilbert, E.W. ‘

Richard Ford and His Hand-Book for Travellers in Spain
The Geographical Journal Vol. 106, No. 3/4 (Sep-Oct 1945), pp. 144-15
Radford, Cecily. ‘Richard Ford (1796-1858) and his Handbook for Travellers in Spain.’
Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 90, (1958) pp.146-166