Roger Fenron is one of those photographers who’s name keeps popping up when you are reading about the history of photography, and like I’ll say many other times – his name featuring on this weekly classic photographers blog has been long overdue.
Roger Fenton was born on the 28th of March 1819 in Crimble Hall which back then was within the parish of Bury, Lancashire.. His grandfather was a wealthy cotton manufacturer and banker, his father a banker and Member of Parliament. Fenton was the fourth of seven children by his father’s first marriage. His father had 10 more children by his second wife.
In 1838 Fenton went to the University of Oxford where he graduated in 1840 with a “first class” Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1841, he began to read law at University College, evidently sporadically as he did not qualify as a solicitor until 1847, partly because he had become interested in learning to be a painter.
In Yorkshire in 1843 Fenton married Grace Elizabeth Maynard, presumably after his first sojourn in Paris (his passport was issued in 1842) where he may briefly have studied painting in the studio of Paul Delaroche. By 1847 Fenton had returned to London where he continued to study painting under the tutelage of the history painter Charles Lucy, who became his friend and with whom, starting in 1850, he served on the board of the North London School of Drawing and Modelling. In 1849, 1850, and 1851 he exhibited paintings in the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy.
Fenton visited the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in London in 1851 and was impressed by the photography on display there. He visited Paris to learn the waxed paper calotype process, most likely from Gustave Le Gray. By 1852 he had photographs exhibited in England, and travelled to Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and also photographed views and architecture around Britain. In 1853 Fenton became the founder and first Secretary of the Photographic Society. It later became the Royal Photographic Society under the patronage of Prince Albert.
It is likely that in autumn 1854, as the war grabbed the attention of the British public, that some powerful friends and patrons – among them Prince Albert and Duke of Newcastle, secretary of state for war – urged Fenton to go the Crimea to record the happenings, which he did from the 8th of march untill the 22nd of June. Fenton took Marcus Sparling as his photographic assistant, a servant known as William and a large horse-drawn van full of equipment.
Due to the size and cumbersome nature of his photographic equipment, Fenton was limited in his choice of motifs. Because the photographic material of his time needed long exposures, he was only able to produce pictures of stationary objects, mostly posed pictures; he avoided making pictures of dead, injured or mutilated soldiers. But he also photographed the landscape, including an area near to where the Charge of the Light Brigade – made famous in Tennyson’s poem – took place. In letters home soldiers had called the original valley “The Valley of Death”, and Tennyson’s poem used the same phrase, so when in September 1855 Thomas Agnew put the picture on show, as one of a series of eleven collectively titled Panorama of the Plateau of Sebastopol in Eleven Parts in a London exhibition, he took the troops’—and Tennyson’s—epithet, expanded it as The Valley of the Shadow of Death with its deliberate evocation of Psalm 23, and assigned it to the piece; it is not the location of the famous charge, which took place in a long, broad valley several miles to the south-east.
Despite summer high temperatures, breaking several ribs in a fall, suffering from cholera and also becoming depressed at the carnage he witnessed at Sebastopol, in all Fenton managed to make over 350 usable large format negatives. An exhibition of 312 prints was soon on show in London and at various places across the nation in the months that followed. Fenton also showed them to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and also to Emperor Napoleon III in Paris. Nevertheless, sales were not as good as expected.
Undaunted, by the lack of commercial success for his Crimean photographs, Fenton remained driven with great energy to perfect his art and to record meaningful and artistic images. He travelled widely over Britain to record landscapes and still life images, but as time moved on, photography was becoming more accessible. Many, with sufficient knowledge and also the hunger to develop business sought to profit from selling quick portraits to common people – and later the grubbiness of pornography reared its ugly head. It is likely that Fenton, from a wealthy background, disdained ‘trade’ photographers, but nevertheless still wanted to profit from the art by taking exclusive images and selling them at good prices. He thus fell into conflict with many of his peers who genuinely needed to make money from photography and were willing to ‘cheapen their art’ (as Fenton saw it), and also with the Photographic Society, who believed that no photographer should soil himself with the ‘sin’ of exploiting his talent commercially in any manner.
In 1862 the organizing committee for the International Exhibition in London announced its plans to place photography, not with the other fine arts as had been done in the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition only five years earlier, but in the section reserved for machinery, tools, and instruments – photography was considered a craft, for tradesmen. For Fenton and many of his colleagues, this was conclusive proof of photography’s diminished status, and the pioneers drifted away. In 1863, Fenton sold his equipment and returned to the law as a barrister on the Northern Circuit.
He died 2 August 1869 at his home in Potter’s Bar, Hertfordshire after a week-long illness – he was only 50 yrs old. His wife died in 1886. Their graves were destroyed in 1969 when the Potter’s Bar church where they were buried was deconsecrated and demolished.
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