In the early 1850s, Benjamin Brecknell Turner (1815–1894) photographed picturesque, quintessentially English scenes: ruined abbeys and castles, thatched barns and half-timbered houses, crumbling cottages, ancient oak trees and woodland paths. His poetic images reveal the rough-hewn beauty of rustic subjects and the moral worth of tradition, nature, and rural life and labor. Nearly all of the works are drawn from one magnificent album, Photographic Views from Nature, assembled by the artist in 1854 or 1855 and passed down in his family until it was acquired by London's Victoria and Albert Museum in 1982.
Turner, who was born in London in 1815 and entered the family candle and saddle soap business at the age of sixteen, first took up photography in 1849, when the medium was barely a decade old. Like many early practitioners, he was a "gentleman amateur" for whom photography was a passion, not a profession, so he made only a few prints of each image. Photographic Views from Nature constitutes the richest group of Turner's rare surviving prints.
The album opens with two views of the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton's vast iron-and-glass pavilion built for the "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations" in 1851—the first world's fair. Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, 1852, Transept shows the building after its six million visitors had left and its thousands of exhibits had been removed—an empty, enormous modern greenhouse built around an ancient elm. Two lacy networks—tree branches and iron trusses—form a visual metaphor for nature and industry, tradition and modernity, all issues central to the artist's work.
Most of Turner's photographs eschew the modern, urban world in favor of country scenes and historic subjects. The artist described his approach to picture-making by way of a Washington Irving text he chose to accompany his photograph in The Photographic Album for the Year 1855: "England does not abound in grand and sublime prospects, but rather in little home-scenes of rural repose and sheltered quiet. Every antique farm-house and moss grown cottage is a picture." Many of Turner's best photographs, such as Foldyard, Bredicot Court (1852–54) and Hedgerow Trees, Clerkenleap (1852–54), were made quite close to home, at his picturesquely rundown farm near the village of Bredicot and in other nearby Worcestershire towns.
Other photographs in the album represent historic architecture—Hawkhurst Church mirrored in a pond, a windmill at Kempsey, Ludlow Castle, and a gateway at Peterborough Cathedral, and others. Among the most striking are a series of dramatic photographs made in 1852–54 at Whitby Abbey, a thirteenth-century Benedictine cloister in Yorkshire the gaunt remains of which sit atop a cliff high above the town. Turner depicted the abbey in a progression beginning from a distant point to the very heart of the ruined structure, evoking all the connotations such sites inspired in the Romantic era—the echo of history, the reminder of mortality, and the inexorable reclaiming of man's constructions by nature.
The exhibition is made possible by The Hite Foundation.
The exhibition is organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum.