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.

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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.

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Posted in History Of Photography, Scottish History, William Henry Fox Talbot and tagged , , , , , .