Think of British landscape photographs of the mid-to late-nineteenth century, and chances are you’re thinking of something that could have been photographed by Francis Bedford—even if it wasn’t. Much photography of the Victorian period that set out to represent Britain to itself shares a family resemblance, in terms of both content and style, a fact that Stephanie Spencer’s book on Bedford’s work brings into focus, albeit incidentally. Spencer’s claim is for the primacy of Bedford’s photographs—from the outset she identifies this landscape photographer as “the best in a field in which the British were acknowledged to excel” (1)—and she makes little space for other photographers who might lay claim to that title and whose popular appeal certainly matched Bedford’s. This seems like a lost opportunity, because the basic argument of the book defers not to what is idiosyncratic about Bedford’s work but rather what makes it usefully representative of the ways in which a national identity may be forged through its self-representations. That Francis Frith, a prolific landscape photographer and successful middle-class purveyor of foreign and domestic scenes in the form of albums and picture postcards, printed and published some of Bedford’s work, tells us that the establishment approved Bedford’s work. Similarly, Bedford’s fondness for photographing in North Wales might be usefully compared with that of Henry Peach Robinson; Roger Fenton’s architectural images give a broader context for Bedford’s interest in churches; and so on. Obviously, Spencer’s spotlight is on Bedford’s work, but the point of her book is that Bedford’s work provided a way of seeing Britain that was pervasive, persuasive, and authoritative. Spencer is almost certainly right; but for Victorian readers, as indeed for us, Bedford’s photographs reference not only their original landscapes, but also other photographs of similar views. The fact that much of Bedford’s work looks vaguely generic to a modern reader is the result of the successful conveyance of values, values largely shared among those photographers who, like Bedford, were invested in what being British, and more specifically, being English, might mean.
If this seems like a lot of weight for landscape photographs to carry, it is. Spencer’s energies are channeled in two rather different directions: first, she contextualizes the photographs chosen for discussion. Second, she offers specific readings of each image. In contextualizing the pictures, she is painstaking and informative, restoring to a modern reader much information that lends, if not light, then perhaps texture, to Bedford’s photographs of bridges, beaches, cottages, churches, and slate quarries. Details about, say, the political history of Wales, or the specifics of wealth enjoyed by the aristocratic, quarry-owning Penrhyn family, or the building of a road in Torquay and its relation to trade and development in the popular tourist region of Devon, are fully absorbing—once the reader stops trying to figure out how such information shapes our reading of the individual photographs.
Regarding that particular quandary, and in turning to the photographs themselves, Spencer finds herself in challenging territory. What is the relationship between the contextual stuff of politics and history, and these images that remain to us? To what extent are Bedford’s photographs complicit in a broader effort to convey a Britain that belonged to the Penrhyns rather than to the (invisible) quarry workers who might more truly have been said to shape the landscape? There’s little evidence of real wrestling with such questions here, though it’s likely that they were in fact the genesis of the book.
At times the documentary ambivalence of photography itself comes to the fore, as with Spencer’s lengthy discussion of Bedford’s photographs of restorations by G. G. Scott at Exeter Cathedral. Spencer gives us a rich heaping of context for understanding the potential significance of Bedford’s choice to show a (potentially idolatrous) reredos in a photograph of the cathedral’s interior. But what does the photograph tell us? “Bedford’s photograph provided documentary evidence in either support or denial of this claim [of idolatry]” (139), writes Spencer. In other words, what matters here is not what Bedford was saying with his decision to represent the reredos (or indeed whether he was saying anything at all), but what photography itself as a medium permitted: the image could be read, and used, in a variety of ways and to different ends.
Elsewhere, Spencer makes too strong a claim for a conscious intent that even a careful reading of the work can’t fully support. For example, she finds the absence of “local, adult laborers in most of his photographs,” to be evidence of Bedford’s deliberate response to perceptions about the difference between urban and rural workers (97), though there’s nothing to lend weight to that assumption. Similarly, she notes that in his photographs of churches, “Bedford emphasized shared history and beliefs in order to promote unity and cohesiveness” (133). At issue here is not the end result of the photographer’s creative decisions, but rather the degree to which Bedford consciously set out to achieve those ends.
Unsurprisingly, then, the book is at its most enjoyable and informative when it steers clear of speculation regarding what Bedford did or did not intend to suggest with his photographs, and when it focuses on giving the reader some broader historical understanding of the world in which the pictures originally made meaning. After an initial chapter on the photographer’s professional biography (his “setting,” as Spencer terms it), the study is organized around the specific sites of Bedford’s photographs, with pictures from Wales, Devon, and the midlands providing the body of work. A fifth chapter turns to Bedford’s fondness for ecclesiastical architecture, and a sixth, the most interesting and readable, to his photographs of the Middle East in 1862, when Bedford accompanied the Prince of Wales as “official photographer on a five-month tour of Egypt and the Holy Land” (151). Although Spencer finds the resulting pictures to be “almost completely atypical of his work as a whole” (151), they complement the larger argument of the book concerning photography’s role in nation-building, especially if the reader places them in conversation with other images of the region by photographers of the period (Fenton or Frith, for example). To that extent, perhaps, Bedford’s photographs of the Middle East might not be as “atypical” as supposed; indeed, as Spencer later notes, “the tour photographs do relate thematically to his other work in the exploration of what it meant in the mid-nineteenth century to be English” (168).
“What it meant . . . to be English” is arguably the focus of this study, but so broad and complex a question about the signifying practices of national identity isn’t easy to answer in any satisfying way. Bedford’s work, considered largely in isolation from that of his contemporaries, can only hint at some of the larger cultural conversations about, say, tourism, or class, or religious practice. Spencer’s real accomplishment, rather, is to inform the reader of some of the largely invisible historical inflections with which the images might have come into view for the Victorian reader. By painstakingly embedding Bedford’s work in local as well as national history—admittedly small, sometimes obscure, not always of obvious relevance—Spencer recuperates a sense of photography as a part of the culture that produces it, and not something that merely floats above it.
In the second chapter, “Wild North Wales,” for example, in addition to a brief discussion of the picturesque and William Gilpin’s contribution to the aesthetic goals of domestic tourism in the eighteenth century, Spencer notes the significance of nineteenth-century guidebooks to the creation of tourist sites, and implies that Bedford’s work can be understood as similarly prescriptive. By the time he began to take pictures in Wales it had already been “validated” as a tourist destination by Fenton and Frith. Bedford’s work, Spencer suggests, thus serves as an endorsement, a continuation of a conversation already underway regarding Romanticism, Anglo-Welsh relations, pastoral nostalgia, and the inroads of modern technology.
Chapter three, “The Healthful Devon Coast,” offers further insight into the culture of tourism by considering not only the significance of Devon as a region but the evolution of English seaside resorts generally. It’s helpful, and actually surprisingly unusual, that the book reproduces the images under discussion at exactly the right points: comments on the history of the bathing machine (“in use by 1735”) are accompanied by Bedford’s “Torquay, the Ladies’ Bathing Cove” (66); “Torquay, from the Rock Walks” sits above Spencer’s site-specific explanation of class-distinct behaviors and their regulation by traffic patterns (60).
In this chapter, more so than elsewhere, other critics have left their marks on the commentary and might perhaps have been more overtly drawn into the conversation. John Barrell’s insights into the invisibility of labor in certain kinds of paintings (and, by extension, photographs), for example, would have made a useful addition, especially since his work is cited in the bibliography but not in the notes. In the same vein, the notes themselves occasionally refer the reader to a secondary source—James Buzard, for example, note 88—but give no explanation as to what it is Buzard himself is actually quoting. This makes for an occasionally clouded understanding of the source material. That said, the bibliography is a useful addition to the shelves of any student of tourism and photographic representation, and, although Spencer largely avoids any discussion of fiction (aside from some reference to R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone (1869) in chapter three) this reader at least found herself writing “yes, George Eliot” and “cf. Brontë—Jane Eyre”) in the margins of chapter four, “The Pastoral Midlands.” In other words, the book is likely to be of use to readers interested in the “thick history” of all kinds of Victorian texts beyond the purely photographic. And if Spencer and Bedford tell us anything, it’s that there’s nothing “purely photographic” about photography.
Jennifer Green-Lewis is the author of books and articles on Victorian and Modernist photography and aesthetics. She is on the faculty at The George Washington University and at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English, where she teaches courses on nineteenth and early-twentieth-century literature and culture. Her most recent essay on photography can be found in the Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel (ed. Lisa Rodensky, 2013).