Photography as applied to flowers: Mr Stevens’ ‘prize picture’

After a day’s gardening, I like nothing more than to sit down with a cup of coffee and flick through the latest issue of The English Garden or Gardens Illustrated – their fabulous photographs showing me what my own efforts have, usually, not quite achieved!  And I now use my smart phone to record my garden’s progress throughout the year, as well as photographing the many gardens I visit annually.

Digital photography is, of course, something we all now take for granted, but it was only in the 1830s that ‘photography’ first began when Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), the so-called ‘father of photography’, began to produce images of the garden and grounds at his estate, Lacock Abbey, in Wiltshire.  The Garden in early art photography, an article in the November 2010 edition of Gardens Illustrated, provides a good background on how ‘the garden had a significant presence in early photography during the Victorian era’ – here

By 1850, photography was still seen as a curiosity and a marvel, but only ten years later this new technology was widely accepted as a means of recording information and making pictures.  A new breed of professional photographers began to specialise, and there were several who concentrated on landscapes.  One or two became well known, and were sought out by the aristocracy and country house owners to produce images of their estates and gardens, just as those in the 17th and 18th centuries had commissioned paintings.  (An example is photographer Roger Fenton (1819-1859), who produced a set of photographs of Sir Charles Barry’s Italianate terrace and gardens at Harewood House commissioned by Louisa, Countess Harewood – 7 of them are still on show at Harewood.)

During the 19th century, the horticultural press (like the publishing world generally) used images from woodcuts but, as photography advanced, ‘engravings from photographs’ began to be used.  These often looked more like line drawings and were of variable quality, and it was not until the early 1880s that quality photographic images began to appear.  The 10th February issue of the Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1883 was truly a first for the horticultural press – this notice appearing on its front page:

6A Blog pic 1 (2).jpg

The issue was priced at the normal rate of 5 pence, but 7 pence was charged for those subscribers who wanted to receive the photograph in a ‘postal tube’. While researching garden photography a few years ago, I found this issue of the Gardeners’ Chronicle at RHS Lindley Library still contained one of the original copies of the photograph (full page size).  It was not printed on the page, but was rather an actual photographic print loosely inserted amongst its pages next to an accompanying article, Floral Photography, here.   The photograph is of a floral arrangement entitled Gloire de Dijon Roses by a Mr Henry Stevens (1843-1925) of King Street, Covent Garden (fig 2). 

fig. 2

fig. 2

The Gardeners’ Chronicle had previously reported on the lack of success in photographing flowers without the necessary half-tints and gradations of shadow and colour.  However, they now reported that Stevens had ‘overcome most of those difficulties, and produced photographs which, as faithful representations of flowers, exceed anything of the kind we have seen’. They also advised readers that they would have an opportunity to judge for themselves as, in a few weeks’ time, they would publish ‘a special reproduction… of one of Mr Steven’s prize pictures’. The Gardeners’ Chronicle thought their readers would agree ‘as to the marvellous fidelity of the photograph’ – and, as this issue was something of a publishing coup, they planned a higher print run than usual. 

Stevens was already an award-winning photographer, having received the highest award for such photographs at an exhibition of the Photographic Society, and could perhaps be considered an early ‘garden photographer’ – the British Journal of Photography of October 13, 1883 reporting that: ‘…it is difficult in the present stage of photography to hit upon a speciality.  The feat has, however, been performed by Mr Henry Stevens, who has made the photographing of flowers his special study and ‘hobby’…’. 

Stevens’ photograph was reproduced by the Woodbury Type Process which was seen as a breakthrough for ‘the mechanical printing of pictures produced from a photograph, containing all gradations of light and shade…’.  If you’re interested in the technicalities of this process, see here. 

The publication of this photograph was, however, just the beginning and gradually the horticultural press began to include better quality photographic images.  This improvement eventually led to the appearance of Country Life magazine in 1897 – its impact being more visual than literary. Full of images of country houses, more importantly Country Life contained more photographs of gardens than any other publication, often taken by the growing ranks of specialised garden photographers.  

Photographs in the horticultural press at this time were, of course, still black and white.  Colour images did not appear for some years, but that’s another story… 

In the meantime, back to looking longingly at the images in today’s gardening magazines, and wishing I could achieve something similar in my own garden. 

There is little published on the beginnings of what might be termed ‘garden photography’, but the Gardens Illustrated article mentioned provides a good overview, and the article Potted History: Photographers in the Garden is worth a read – here.  Today, garden photography is a much more recognised speciality, and The Professional Garden Photographers’ Association has its own website, here.  For information on photography generally, I recommend The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, edited by Robin Lenman, my copy dated 2005.