Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (Psalm 23:4)

Roger Fenton, Self-Portrait (Budapest)

Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869) was a renowned British photographer, perhaps best known for his evocative images of the Crimean War.

Born in 1819, in Lancashire, Fenton was the fourth of seventeen children (by his father’s two consecutive wives). He came from a good background with his grandfather having been a wealthy cotton manufacturer and banker, and his father having been a banker and an MP. In 1838 Fenton went to the University of Oxford where he graduated in 1840 with a First Class BA (in the typical English, Greek and Latin). In 1841, he began to read law but did not qualify as a solicitor until 1847, partly because of his growing interest in painting. It is thought, or feasible, that Fenton even studied in the Paris studio of Paul Delaroche in 1842.

Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833, National Gallery)

The following year, Fenton married Grace Elizabeth Maynard in Yorkshire and must have returned to Paris soon after as he was registered as a copyist in the Louvre in 1844. By 1847 Fenton had returned to London where he continued to study painting and between 1849 – 1851 he exhibited paintings in the annual RA exhibitions. It was at this time that Fenton visited the internationally acclaimed Great Exhibition where he was struck by the photography display. Soon after he returned to Paris once more where he learned about the calotype process of photography.

Within a year Fenton had exhibited photographs in Britain, in the ‘Exhibition of Recent Specimens of Photography’ organised by the Society of Arts in 1852. This exhibition was the first dedicated solely to photography, and rather than focus on commercial aspects of portrait photography there was an emphasis instead on the artistic potential and content of photographs (names such as Henry Fox Talbot also exhibited and the likes of Rossetti are also recorded as attending). Following this exhibition, Fenton began to travel spending time in Russia. By 1853 Fenton was publicising and promoting the need for a photographic society which Fenton founded, and later became patronised by Prince Albert and was rebranded as the Royal Photographic Society which still exists today.

Fenton, Group of the 47th Regiment in winter dress, ready for the trenches (1855)

It was also in the year 1853, that Fenton first travelled to the Crimean peninsula on commission to return the war between England, France, and Turkey, against Russia. Taking more than three hundred photographs during his time in the Crimea Fenton’s resulting images are fascinating. Rather than being Goya-esque in their brutality, or exhibiting heroic daring-do such as David’s  portrait of Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801,Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison) Fenton’s works are calm, respectful, tender. Generally speaking he avoided photographing the dead or wounded focusing instead upon the battle sties, the encampments and the men involved (Fenton’s Injured Zouave, Crimea (1855) is an exception to this, although even that has a tender dignity to it). It is the sum of these three hundred plus war photographs that established Fenton’s impressive reputation.

Fenton, Injured Zouave, Crimea (1855)

The Crimean War was one of the first conflicts to use modern technologies (ranging from explosive naval shells, railways, and telegraphs) as well as being one of the first to be extensively documented through reports, correspondence and photography. Fenton’s contribution to this record is invaluable. The war produced major figure heads, such as Florence Nightingale, and major reforms in nursing. It also inspired the well known ‘Charge of the Light Brigade‘ by Tennyson (1854). Kipling’s poem ‘The Last of the Light Brigade’ (1891) was a poetic attempt to rouse the British public from their apathy and make them support the veterans of the Crimean War in their old age.

From the first to the last, the war was plagued by mismanagement and medical failures, resulting in unnecessary losses of British soldiers. Unlike Fernton’s tranquil and dignified record of the war, Tennyson’s reveals more of the brutality: ‘Cannon to right of them, /Cannon to left of them, / Cannon in front of them / Volley’d and thunder’d’…’into the valley of Death’

As is often the case in warfare, the roots of the Crimean War pivot around territory, in particular over the Holy Land which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire at that time. The gradual decline of the Ottoman Empire and the reluctance of Britain and France to permit Russia in increasing their ownership of the Crimean Peninsula territory finally bubbled over into war. The Crimea is largely regarded as a series of international confusions, egos, and butchery which lasted from October 1853 until February 1856: or as Tennyson wrote ‘into the jaws of Death’ and ‘into the mouth of Hell’ went the soldiers.

Fenton’s assistance Marcus Sparling aboard his heavy photographic van full of equipment , Crimea (1855)

Fenton sailed aboard HMS Hecla in February 1854, landed at Balaklava on 8th March and remained there until 22nd June. One train of thought is that Fenton’s photographs would counteract the growing unpopularity and concern by the British public which had been cultivated by the pejorative reportage of The Times (Fenton’s own work would appear in the Illustrated London News). By 1855, fifteen hundred people protested against the war and it must be assumed that the prime minister’s resignation was down to the war. The succeeding prime minister Lord Palmerston was pro-war and so it continued.

Simpson, Illustrating the Conditions of the Sick and Injured in Balaklava (April 24TH, 1855)

In truth the silence and stillness of Fenton’s photography may, in part, be down to a technological limitation. Julia Margaret Cameron’s photography is a reasonable comparison for this sense of stillness. albeit thematically different. Inevitably, the long exposures meant stationary figures or landscapes were preferable subjects for early photographs. The wonderful poses of Fenton’s soldiers photographs are exceptional as with the image of Assistant Surgeon Henry Wilkin, 11th Hussars: a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Fenton, Assistant Surgeon Henry Wilkin, 11th Hussars: a survivor of the Charge of the Light Brigade (1855)

The Charge of the Light Brigade featured in Fenton’s photography not just as a record of its survivors and cavalry men, but as a means of recording the effect upon the embattled landscape. Fenton’s resulting picture is deeply evocative. In letters home soldiers had referred to the original valley as ‘The Valley of Death’ and Tennyson soon colonised this psalmic reference for his poem, as did Thomas Agnew when exhibiting Fenton’s works in 1855. Agnew entitled an eleven piece series, collectively titled Panorama of the Plateau of Sebastopol in Eleven Parts, and made a conscious and effective quote of ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ from Psalm 23, and assigned it to the below piece:

Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, with cannonballs, Crimea (1855) – this is South-West of the actual location of the Charge of the Light Brigade but is eerily testament to warfare.

On 4-5th April 1855, Fenton wrote home to his wife, Grace (Fenton’s letters are available here):

In the morning I was up at the camp called on Capt Wilkinson & got him to take me to see the best views of the Town from his tent [ — ] we walked along a kind of common for half a mile coming towards the end upon a Russian cannon balls scattered about[.] Further on the balls lay thicker, but in coming to a ravine called the valley of death the sight passed all imagination [ — ] round shot & shell lay in a stream at the bottom of the hollow all the way down you could not walk without treading upon them [ — ] following the curve of the ravine towards the town we came to a cavern in which some soldiers were stationed as a picket [ — ] they had made a garden in front forming the borders of the beds with cannon balls [ — ] we had gone a little further down & were admiring the rugged outline of the rock & pondering out where the face had been smashed by the Russians fire when we were startled by a great crack in the rock in front of us & a cloud of dust followed by a second knock upon the opposite face of the ravine as the ball bounded across it & then a heap of stones & the ball rolled away together down the ravine [ — ] further progress in that direction was voted unadvisable[.]

The desolate and featureless landscape does not contain a single figure, and yet the cannonballs testify to the worst of mankind. The perfect circularity of the cannonballs is initially suggestive of rocks and only upon closer inspection does one recognise them for what they are. There is an ambiguity, a sense of confusion and absence in the image; the cannonballs simultaneously testifying to the bravery of the injured and dead soldiers as much as they do to the heroic, desperate bravery of the survivors. The noise of the battle and cannon fire has ceased, instead the natural world has started to reclaim the land. Fenton’s record of history is timeless, and the path which leads the viewer’s eye to the horizon provides hope and testimony of this timelessness. Perhaps Fenton is suggesting a Christian permanence, a kingdom beyond the here and now. He certainly seems to be suggesting the repetition and futility of war: like both the soldiers and Fenton, we walk through the valley.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (Psalm 23:4)

Despite the evocative nature of these prints, Fenton was not commercially successful. Nonetheless, post the Crimean War he continued to produce images and spent much time recording the landscapes of Britain. The latter years of Fenton’s career were less successful. Having avoided commercial photography for many years, partly due to snobbery, partly due to the High / Low art debate, and partly due to the ideals of the RPS, Fenton met with an unwelcome decision by the organising committee for the International Exhibition in London, 1862. The exhibition took a decisive yet pejorative action by placing photography alongside tradesmens’ crafts, e.g. machinery and tools. Photography’s status was publicly diminished. Fenton sold his equipment and returned to law. Seven years after this, Fenton passed away (1869). He was only fifty years old. Grace survived him, dying in 1886. Rather sadly, both graves were destroyed in 1969 when the Potter’s Bar church was deconsecrated and then demolished.

This final indignity is rather tragic, and yet we are fortunate enough to have many of Fenton’s photographs. Fenton excelled throughout the 1850s as a photographer of architecture, landscape, portraiture, still life, and tableau-vivant. But it is for his Crimean War reportage that he is best remembered, and these still remain a key piece of nineteenth century history.

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