A few months ago I had again the pleasure of spending a day at the Hulton archive in West London, the former Hulton Picture Library, long since a part of Getty Images. There I was introduced by Sarah McDonald, the curator of the archive, to a series, unfamiliar to me, of panoramic views of the Thames by Victor Albert Prout, a photographer I’d heard of but only barely. A single picture from the Thames series is reproduced in the first volume of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s the Photobook: A History[i], for example. I’d seen that and vaguely remembered having done so and it was easy to find again. But I liked the pictures in the Hulton Archive very much and kept them both in mind and on my iPhone. So I was pleased recently when the British Photographic History blog carried a small announcement that Joan Osmond, a direct descendant of Victor Prout, had produced a biographic volume[ii] which would shed more light on the little-known author of this fine series of pictures.
The Thames From London to Oxford in Forty Photographs was published by Virtue and Company in London in 1862. There was a second issue with only thirty-six images. A number of odd pictures exist which clearly relate to the series but were not included in the edition, among them the illustrated picture from a lot offered but unsold at Christie’s New York in 2002[iii], which itself seems to be perhaps the one Mrs. Osmond describes as “recently come to light in Australia[iv]“. A number of private and institutional holdings exist with variant collections, and Mrs. Osmond has published a partial list of these. I was surprised that she makes no mention of the Getty holdings, but then she makes no claim to the completeness of her listing.
There was apparently a time when it was possible to think that these pictures might be by Roger Fenton. Mrs. Osmond has unearthed a piquant correspondence between Roger Hannavy, Gail Buckland, and Roger Pratt from 1974, in which the authorship of Prout is definitely established. This is in part because a Mrs. Eleanor Andrews gave a set of forty of the prints to the Royal Photographic Society in 1973. Mrs. Andrews was Mrs. Osmond’s mother, and her dry account is simply this: “In the autumn [of 2010] I went to Bradford to the National Media Museum to see if their album was the one my mother had given away (without telling any of us) and, as I expected, it was[v].” Out of such lasting family resentments are things like biographies made.
It has to be admitted in the first place that the Thames views are by far the most successful pictures by Prout to have survived. A series on Westminster Abbey and another on some jollities at Mar Lodge, Braemar, in 1863 are decent in their way but not scintillating. A number of cartes-de-visite and theatrical studies make up the rest of the Prout oeuvre from Britain and these hardly step out of the middle rank. The public clearly thought so, for Victor Prout in spite of some periods of success, had a restless commercial career and appeared a number of times in the bankruptcy courts. In Australia (for Prout emigrated there like his father, although both came back after a time) he still found great success elusive – his work is traceable but hardly distinguished.
That might lead to a question in its own right. How does a photographer rise above his own level to produce something once in a while of greater merit? For the Thames From London to Oxford really is a very good series of pictures. Parr and Badger put it this way: ”While their possible technique is of interest, what is much more important is how good they are as pictures. … Thanks to the incessant horizontality of its banks, a river is an ideal subject for the panoramic photograph, yet although the picture form is there ‘naturally’, so to speak, Prout still had to make the best of it. And it can be concluded that he did, usually managing to find a vertical element just where he needed it to counteract the ruthless horizontal[vi].” Parr and Badger go on to use the expression “consistently attractive” to describe these pictures and they are.
Some of the clues are in Joan Osmond’s new book. For if Victor Prout is a notch below the greatest photographers by genius or by subject matter, he presents a very powerful study in links and connections. His great-uncle was Samuel Prout, a fine watercolour artist of whom Ruskin was a considerable fan. “Sometimes I tire of Turner, but never of Prout” Ruskin is supposed to have said[vii]. His father was John Skinner Prout, a landscape painter who emigrated to Australia when Victor was a child. It does seem that landscape is the stuff that Victor Prout knew best.
Skinner Prout was not just any landscape specialist. Back from Australia in 1850 he had exhibited a diorama of his travels at the Western Literary Institute in Leicester Square. Joan Osmond quotes the Art Journal: “A series of views from sketches made in Australia by Mr. Prout…. They comprise the principal points of attraction in the Colony and show the peculiar features of its landscape scenery which in some instances is very characteristic and beautiful. The views of the penal settlements exhibit the peculiarities of convict life in all its distressing forms, and the anecdotes with which the lecturer enlivens his local information tend towards the clearer comprehension of the same phase of society[viii].“ The diorama may seem lame entertainment now, with our all-singing, all dancing fully interactive immersive entertainment – although I like the idea of the whole auditorium turning slowly as a single operative cranked a handle to make the spectators face a new part of the picture, or a part already seen differently lit. But you only need to cast your mind back to the popularity of slide shows as late as the 1960s to get some idea of how successful a diorama might be. The most famous diorama man, at least to modern audiences versed in the history of photography, was Daguerre himself. His circular building in London remains between Regent’s Park, the Euston Road and Albany Street, and the showy lettering announcing it is still legible on a high pediment in Park Square East. There is an excellent description of the working of the London Diorama in John Timbs’ Curiosities of London[ix].
Skinner Prout had to perform his diorama, a cross between a master-of-ceremonies and a voice-over, twice a day and it ran for six months in Leicester Square. From 1852 he reprised it at an address of considerable significance: 309 Regent Street. This was the address of the Royal Polytechnic Institute (founded 1838) which contained a number of interesting attributes, including a suite of photographic studios originally set up by Daguerre’s licensee Richard Beard. Again, Skinner Prout had to be physically present at every performance. A colleague of Skinner Prout’s there was a cousin, Samuel Prout Newcombe. And he’s another interesting connection.
By the census of 1861, three Newcombe brothers were earning their livings as professional photographers[x]. It’s not such a famous name any more, but the Newcombes were close to the centre of the boom in photography in the London of the 1850s. Samuel Prout Newcombe owned a chain of photographic portrait studios, and also owned several branches of the London School of Photography, including the headquarters which were at that very same 309 Regent Street address as the Polytechnic. His brother, Charles Newcombe was first assisted by and then a partner of Victor Prout’s brother Edgar, who eventually bought out [Charles] Newcombe’s share in their Regent Street studio.
The Prouts and the Newcombes, a numerous clan of largely Kentish Town, Camden Town and Islington minor entrepreneurs, were intimately connected by family and by financial links, and they were right at the core of the boom that took place when Richard Beard’s patent on the daguerreotype ran out in 1849. That release, plus Eugène Disdéri’s invention of the multiple-lens camera which allowed the full exploitation of the carte-de-visite format (from 1854, a little later in England), plus Frederick Scott Archer’s collodion process of 1851 together made all the difference between photography remaining an interesting operation for amateur gentlemen and becoming the roaring world-wide trade that it did. To quote David Simkin again: “At the time of the 1851 census, less than a dozen inhabitants of London described themselves as professional photographers (described variously on census returns as ‘Photographer’, ‘Photographic Artist’, ‘Daguerreotype Artist’ and ‘Talbotype Artist’). By 1855, there were over a hundred establishments in London producing photographic likenesses. An analysis of the 1861 census returns for London revealed that there were 284 persons working as photographic artists in the capital[xi].” Many of these were up and down Regent Street (indeed the street now called Glasshouse Street is said to be so named because of the large number of daylight studios built on the roofs in this period to satisfy the burgeoning demand mainly for portraiture.) Right in the eye of that hurricane, taking risks and learning new tricks that they hoped would sell, were a cluster of Prout and Newcombe cousins, allying with each other or separating as the vagaries of family history and trade dictated.
Victor Prout was 15 when he assisted his father in working the diorama in Leicester Square. Between then and his early twenties, photography looked like a business in which it might be easy to succeed (although we know that dozens in fact failed). If one had no artistic talent he might get by on technical improvements of one kind or another, or might simply move to territories less overcrowded with photographic establishments than Regent Street. Victor Prout did both of those things.
Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, contemplating the curious shape of Victor Prout’s Thames pictures, said this: “The origins of photography lie in the world of the diorama, a cross between art and spectacle where the world was depicted in what today would be called a ‘wide-screen’ manner. Many panoramas were created simply by photographing consecutive images and joining them together, but there were also attempts to make cameras that would produce wide-vision images using a lens that swung round and ‘scanned’ progressive sections of the picture plane…It is not certain whether Prout used one of the ‘Pantoscope’ panoramic cameras patented by John Johnson and John Harrison that same year  but they were not ‘joined’ panoramas. They display the kind of perspective that that suggests that they were taken with a swinging lens – that is to say, a genuine panoramic camera[xii].”
It turns out that Prout was more than a little inclined to invention. Mrs. Osmond reprints Patent B1009 of 8th April 1865[xiii], in which Prout protects his improvements in the matter of panoramic cameras. A clockwork timing mechanism seems neat but not necessarily essential. But Prout seems also to have worked on improving the shutter mechanism to control the exposure given to various parts of the plate, and notably to have turned his mind to a system of screens designed to allow the sky and the foreground to be exposed together without overexposure of the sky. The date is after the publication of the Thames pictures, but the patent makes it perfectly clear that Prout’s experience of panoramas had led him to certain advantages which he wanted to defend against others. The suggestion is less that of an artist wandering along the banks than of a commercial operator seeking to press home his Unique Selling Point.
Later, in Australia (he had accompanied his parents to Australia from 1840-1848, and returned there on his own account from 1866 – 1875, during the first part of which period he was associated with the Freeman Brothers photographic firm of Sydney), Victor Prout is credited with introducing both a type of enamelled photograph and the autotype to Australia[xiv]. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald announcing his arrival in Australia in 1866 said this of the Thames pictures: “the tranquil side-angle views were made with a special panoramic camera made for Prout by London opticians Ross & Co.[xv]“ It is hard to see who could have furnished that detail in Australia other than Prout himself. He even fiddled with that camera, it seems: the Photographic News some years later, in 1886, described the panoramic views made by Mr. Prout “by means of an instrument recently invented by that gentleman, the novel principle of which is that it travels on a central point, so that a much larger range of vision can be included than by ordinary photographic apparatus.” Again and again, in a career with notable variations between success and its opposite, a technical advance was not to be overlooked if it could lead to a commercial advantage. That last improvement, described only nearly ten years after Prout’s death, seems to be the nearest we will get to Parr & Badger’s conclusion from the prints themselves that Prout used a true panoramic camera.
So a picture is beginning to build up, of a man connected by family both to the old artistic trades, and to photography, the booming new upstart in the visual arts. A man quick to make business decisions and partnerships, and a man for whom success was perpetually just around the corner. Energetic, optimistic, technically bold, prepared to go where the money led, Victor Prout seems to me to have more of the enterprising, even pioneering spirit about him than we are used to associating with commercial photographers. That was then, of course. The whole business was a pioneering one then.
The river views are pioneering in their way. It turns out that Victor Prout devised a darkroom-punt and propelled himself about in that. It can be seen in many of the pictures, a curious vessel with a curved roof, like a shepherd’s hut with water where there are more usually wheels. That seems pretty original and daring. It recurs in enough of the pictures that it becomes almost a character in the journey up the Thames. It is often accompanied by a less idiosyncratic skiff which seems to have been the lighter, more manoeuvrable runabout on the trip. A number of people recur, too, and Joan Osmond had good fun trying to identify who they might be.
Yet the river views are only pioneering in one sense. The Thames has been an obvious subject for as long as London has been a city. Even the peregrination upriver, which became so popular a weekend outing in the last years of the nineteenth century, as recorded, for example, in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, was by no means a new thought when Victor Prout made it. Turner, that most watery of artists, was seemingly forever wandering up and down the Thames. Several of the great sketchbooks in the Turner bequest are on the river, incredibly light, fast sketches of the trip down river from London to the estuary, or upstream on occasion, too. And of course, the natural shape of Turner’s sketchbooks is a landscape format, not quite panoramic, but it fits the river very well.
Prout would not have known Turner’s sketches. But topographic views of the river scenery were not rare, and presumably he felt that they represented a market. A commission that came to nothing first suggested the notion to him: according to Mrs. Osmond, he was invited to provide the illustrations for a Thames book that was eventually published in 1859 with no contribution from him[xvi]. He must have been working on the river at the same time as Whistler, whose early beautiful Thames views date from 1859 (although, again, Whistler wasn’t able to publish them until 1871).
But the long thin format applied to the river was nothing new.
Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard’s lovely view of Battersea Reach is undated but the artist died in 1834, before Victor Prout was born.
So Prout may not have been wildly original. Yet he manages to find enough variety of composition never to become dull. His horizons are always neatly broken up, and the river is never merely a pale plane in the foreground. There is an anecdotal charm in the pictures beyond mere topographical grace; they look like a sequential narrative. As viewers, we want to be moving upstream with the artist.
Only one of the Thames views departs from the supple formula of the river view that Prout managed so well. In Kew Ait a pensive mid-Victorian gentleman sits on the gunwale of a trading barge aground in the middle of a wood. No sky, no dreamy river in the foreground, no tops of trees to animate the scene, no attractive villas or bridges to distract the eye. It’s just a boat going nowhere. Exposures were long then; surely this is Prout himself, hurrying in front of the camera and allowing himself just one moment of self-awareness in his headlong search for a place and a business and a medium to call his own. Poor Victor Prout, a boat going nowhere.
With these river views, Victor Prout so nearly made it. That they are charming and technically able no one disputes. That they surpass anything else the artist managed is an oddity, but they do. Mark Haworth-Booth wrote a whole book[xvii] about one of Camille Silvy’s river views and that led him many years later to write another book making quite large claims about the artist’s whole career. I don’t think we can without hyperbole place Victor Prout that high. Silvy was an industrial success far beyond Prout – selling, for example, 20,000 copies of a carte-de-visite of the soprano Adelina Patti. He was also a more varied and frankly more successful artist. But the parallels are there all the same: Silvy, too, was an improver/inventor of photographic processes, and he, too, found the going very hard at the end of the boom in cartes-de-visite towards the end of the 1860s. There is a sad personal parallel, too. Camille Silvy was prostrated at the end of his life by some kind of psychosis and spent many years locked under supervision. Victor Prout came back from Australia raving so badly from the madness known then as General Paralysis of the Insane (the tertiary stage of syphilis) that he had at one time on the voyage to be tied to the mast of his ship. He died in April 1877 at the Sussex Lunatic Asylum in Haywards Heath. In the Thames pictures he left one high quality series, the one of his life. It’s enough.
[i] Parr, Martin and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, published by Phaidon, London, 2004. Vol 1., p.67 and ill.
[ii] Osmond, Joan, Victor Albert Prout; A Mid-Victorian Photographer 1835 -1877, published by J& J Osmond, London, 2013
[iii] Christie’s New York: Tuesday, February 19, 2002 , Sale of Photographs, Lot 00607
[iv] Osmond, op cit, p. 87.
[v] Osmond, op cit, p. 14.
[vi] Parr & Badger , ad loc cit
[vii] Quoted by Joan Osmond at p. 22 from Lockett, Richard, Samuel Prout 1783-1852, p. 94
[viii] Osmond, op cit, p.31
[ix] John Timbs, Curiosities of London, first publ. 1855 by David Bogue. Cited in a later edition by Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, (London, 1868), where the relevant passage is at p. 307-8.
[x] I am indebted for this fact to Photohistory-sussex.co.uk. David Simkin’s amazing repository of facts about photography, which stretches far, far beyond the name in its original remit.
Cf Photohistory-sussex.co.uk/Hastings_Newcombe.html, [accessed 4 November 4, 2013], for full details on the Newcombe photographic clan.
[xi] Simkins, as above.
[xii] Parr and Badger, ad loc cit.
[xiii] Osmond op cit p. 235
[xiv] [Webb, David] The Database of 19th Century Photographers and Allied Trades in London: 1841-1900, accessed via the PhotoLondon website on 4 November 2013. http://www.photolondon.org.uk/pages/details.asp?pid=6308
[xv] Osmond, p.79.
[xvi] Mr. & Mrs. S.G. Hall, The Book of The Thames From its Rise to its Fall, Charlotte James Publishers, 1859. Osmond, op cit, p.65.
[xvii] Mark Haworth-Booth, Camille Silvy, ‘River Scene, France’, Getty Trust Publications, California, 1992