Decorated initial T

he Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition (1857), which included both Thomas Woolner’s bust of Tennyson and two photographic portraits of him, marks the point at which the new medium started to influence the poet’s public image.1 Judging by accounts from Tennyson’s friends and acquaintances, by the 1870s photography dominated the visual culture surrounding the poet. In 1867, after visiting Exeter Cathedral, Francis Palgrave described how they had to escape from admirers who had recognised Tennyson from photographs:

By this time the Poet's features had become everywhere and to every one familiar through photographs... Now, when we returned to the Inn in the Close it was strange how many people found they had left their umbrellas in our sitting-room: and finally a crowd having formed itself in front of the building we were conveyed out of the back-door on the way to the station.2

In 1871, while discussing his admiration for Laurence's early portrait, James Spedding commented to Emily Tennyson: 'I like to go back to the Days before the Beard, which makes rather a Dickens of A. T. in the Photographs - to my mind’ while Henry James, in 1877, commented: 'He is very swarthy & scraggy & strikes one at first as much less handsome than his photos: but gradually you see that it's a face of genius.’3 These comments suggest that from the later 1860s, traditional portraits and the poet himself were evaluated against photographs. Most scholarship about Tennyson and his important relationship to photography has concentrated on Julia Margaret Cameron, but she arguably had quite a minimal impact on Tennyson’s fame or the visual discourse surrounding him until after his death, arguably largely as a consequence of her rejection of commercial formats such as the carte de visite.4

Three photographs of Tennyson by Cameron.

The earliest recorded extant photographs of Tennyson date from the period between the publication of Maud and other poems and Idylls of the King. A drawing, based on a J. E. Mayall photograph of Tennyson, was engraved for a short-lived periodical, The National Magazine in 1856.5 No copies of the photograph are known to have survived but this may have been the image exhibited by Mayall at the Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in 1857, where it was accompanied by another portrait probably by the Manchester photographer James Mudd.6 Visitors took photographs of Tennyson and his family: Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) on his first meeting with Tennyson on September 26, 1857 and Oscar Reijlander at about the same time.7 Rejlander made further photographs in 1859, one of which was engraved and published in the Memoir (I, facing 438). William Jeffrey, a little known or researched practitioner, seems to have been adopted by the Tennyson family as their photographer of choice, appearing several times in Emily Tennyson’s diary and later described by Tennyson as ‘my good honest friend Jeffrey’.9 Joanne Lukitsh has shown how Jeffrey became Woolner’s principal photographer, exhibiting a series of photographs of his sculptures from 1859 - this is almost certainly how he became connected to Tennyson. Jeffrey exhibited a photograph of Woolner’s bust of Tennyson in 1859 and later exhibited this image alongside photographs of other sculptural busts at the International Exhibition of 1862.11

Four portraits of Tennyson by William Jeffrey, 1862-1865.

Mayall, Jeffrey, Mudd and Rejlander were all professional photographers who made images of Tennyson and his family with their consent. Further compliance and even intimacy is implied by the fact that Mayall and Rejlander were invited into the family home at Farringford. This behaviour is not consistent with a retiring poet who hated portraiture and avoided publicity, although in some ways this was an understandable response to a new medium: photographic portraiture was becoming widespread and was a novelty for many middle-class people. In addition, photography was receiving enthusiastic Royal endorsement: Prince Albert’s portrait at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition was the first time that a photograph of a member of the English Royal Family had been displayed publically and in 1862, Mayall published the Royal Album, which reputedly sold three to four million copies (Plunkett 61). Rejlander also had connections to the Royal Family as Queen Victoria purchased a copy of The Two Ways of Life for Prince Albert in 1857 (Jacobs 1188).

James Mudd’s popular portrait of Tennyson. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Of the early images, James Mudd’s portrait of Tennyson in a ‘wide-awake-hat’ published by Cundall and Downes seems to have been one of the most widely disseminated. A number of images can be associated with the same sitting although the most extant copies date from the early 1860s (see, for example, the National Portrait Gallery P34, x8005, and x13232). Two portraits of Tennyson, probably from the same group of images, were exhibited at the 1858 exhibition of the London Photographic Society, again attributed to George Downes.15 These images were certainly in carte de visite format by 1861 and probably earlier and were still being published decades later, for example in Haweis’s Poets in the Pulpit from 1880.

Photographs of Tennyson and Copyright

Portraits by John Jabez Edwin Mayall, from 1864, the 1870s, and 1883.

Copyright protection for photographs was introduced in 1862 as a means of curbing the rabid piracy of photographic carte de visites. The records of the registered photographs give a fascinating insight into the practitioners who sought to gain financially from selling Tennyson’s image. The list starts too late to capture the initial burst of interest in the poet and some of the images copyrighted in the early 1860s may well have been taken in the years before it was possible to gain legal protection. Two portraits of Tennyson by William Jeffrey were registered for copyright in August 1862, the first photographs copyrighted in British history (NA 1/1/1). Rejlander protected one of Tennyson and one of his son Lionel in June 1863: even what would appear to be a family photograph was clearly intended as a commercial product.18 Two images, probably from James Mudd’s photographs of 1857, were registered for copyright protection on 5 June 1863 by Cundall and Downes, confirming that the publisher was the legal owner of the image (NA 1/3/457). Five images were registered by Mayall in April 1864, three by Elliot and Fry in July 1865 and five more by Jeffrey in August 1865.20 Julia Margaret Cameron burst onto the scene in May 1864, she had registered 24 photographs of Tennyson and his family and three images based on the ‘May Queen’ by July 1866.21

After Cameron’s activity, there were no more photographs of Tennyson registered at the copyright and stationers office until October 1881. Cameron continued to photograph Tennyson throughout the 1860s and although some images are described by Cameron as ‘copyright’ and ‘registered’ she did not copyright her photographs at the stationers office after 1866 but exhibited portraits of Tennyson fairly regularly in the 1860s and 1870s.22 Cameron excepted, the almost total cessation of commercial photographic activity is striking. While it is tempting to see this as a product of the decline in Tennyson’s reputation it is also probably related to a contraction of interest in the carte de visite, enthusiasm for this novel format had waned by the mid 1860s (Plunkett 76).

Another plausible explanation for the dramatic decline in activity is that Tennyson became far more wary of giving permission for photographic portraits - this would not necessarily have included Cameron, who was Tennyson’s friend and neighbour. Tennyson seems to have become far more sensitive about his public image in the second half of the 1860s, no doubt a consequence of the cumulative circulation of various portraits resulting in scenes like his escape from admirers in Exeter. But this sensitivity was also a consequence of the activity of his publisher, who used Tennyson’s image in new and surprising ways - photography was part of this story but often as a mediating technology rather than the end product.

Last modified 12 April 2017