A flurry of Frith photographs

The Holy Bible, illustrated with photographs by Francis Frith, 1861

This month I’ll be speaking at the University of Oxford’s seminar series ‘The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature’, with a talk entitled ‘Pick & Mix: the non-linear Bible as modern artists visualise it’. I’ll be exploring a few artists discussed in my recent journal articles, but also introducing some thoughts on Francis Frith. Frith’s albumen prints were the first to illustrate a Bible in 1861, as seen above. In many ways, what he did with photographs of Palestine anticipated the range and breadth of new, modern ways to visualise the Bible. I’ve called this a pick & mix approach, not to be derogatory, but to argue that for him and for others something positive is going on with respect to the interpretation of the Bible in visual culture – the recasting of its language and stories as essentially non-linear. Here, I expand on what this meant in Frith’s case.

Frith travelled to Egypt and Palestine three times between 1856 and 1860; during and immediately after the trips, he published at least eight titled works, including this and a following two-volume ‘Queen’s Bible’ – the first photographically illustrated Bibles. These were undoubtedly at the more formal, exclusive end of his commercial printing enterprises, which also included serial travel books, sets of stereoviews, illuminated visual presentations, and card- and glass-mounted views sold separately. Frith delighted in the immersive effects of photography – his were not the typical wall-mounted print set for exhibition in societies. In his hands photography had different work to do, conjuring up the travel experience and imaginatively engaging the viewer to transport them to another world.

More than this, Frith was a Quaker (later a minister), and the idea of transport had a lot to do with seeing and experiencing something true – in this case, with a lens on the landscape of Egypt and Palestine, it was exposure to its meta-truth as read in the Bible. Frith’s Bibles are inserted with topographical views of particular places (such as Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem) on separate pages. They interrupt the seamless verbal script, offering a conceptual junction with the real world. It isn’t simply a case of illustrating the text, it’s the alignment of another space with, alongside, through, the text. It’s a new epistemological venture. Truthfulness as it might be read has now a spatial dimension as something that might be inhabited. Frith found that the photographic image made immediate, spiritual claims on the viewer:

We can scarcely avoid moralizing in connection with this subject; since truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people. … We protest there is, in this new spiritual quality of Art, a charm of wonderful freshness and power, which is quite independent of general or artistic effect, and which appeals instinctively to our readiest sympathies. 

Francis Frith writing in ‘The Art of Photography’ in 1859 (emphasis original).

Such a charm of wonderful freshness and power becomes, in contemplating biblical sites, a matter closely related to faith. The past is realised in order to enliven a theological imagination. The reader-viewer may well connect with the romanticism of the picturesque view, may indeed connect with the factual visual information pertaining to ancient biblical sites, but the trump card was really that they might connect with the living truth of God’s activity in the world (as much present as past). The facingness of the world exerts its non-linearity on biblical reading here. And in so doing, Frith I think sees in miniature the effect of big screen photographic representation – that catapulting of realistic spectacle and immersion which has rendered the Bible extra-textual in so much of our modern visual culture.

More at the seminar… And for those that can’t, some of these ideas are being worked into an essay for an edited volume, to be published with Routledge later this year (Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice).

Christmas card reflection

The Wilton Diptych, c.1395-9; The Gift, 2007

This year once again I’m delighted that one of my Advent images, Joseph’s Angel, is being used by Bishop Martin as a Christmas card for the Chichester Diocese. It was originally produced as part of several annual designs, which were initially for personal use, but subsequently became prompts for mini-research projects. Here I reproduce the ideas I explored for another card, The Gift, in 2007. In this card, the opportunity to plumb deeper pictorial traditions comes to the surface, as it was explicitly modelled on the medieval Wilton Diptych, held in the National Gallery’s collection. What follows is a mini-essay I wrote and produced as a miniature booklet at the time, one of my earliest ventures in self-publishing.

A Visual Analysis

John Drury in his analysis draws out the physicality of the Wilton Diptych in terms of ‘treasure’ (in Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings, 2002).  My Christmas card is designed in terms of the ‘gift’.  ‘Treasure’, in the meaning of the Greek gospels (the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure), comes from the Greek thesaurus.  It specifies a casket or strong-box for valuables – so suggests a container for other riches.  ‘Gift’ in our understanding of Christmas presents, also suggests a wrapped container with a present inside.  The connotations of both are of something intimately received and delighted in.  

At the time it was made, the diptych would have been exclusively enjoyed by one person, King Richard II.  He would have held it as a precious object, opening the box on its middle hinge to reveal the glowing gold and blue interior.  Essentially, it functioned as ‘a portable altarpiece which could be closed like a book and set up on the altars of different churches and chapels – it was intended for private religious devotion’ (Dillian Gordon, writing for the National Gallery).  Gifts at Christmas, if given in the spirit of the wise men, are similarly devotional offerings – they don’t simply meet a need, or fulfill obligation, rather they remind us of another way of living, of another way of loving.

The subject of the painting is designed to encourage such spiritual attentiveness, being as it is a very picture of devotion on the part of the king himself.  The picture shows earth and heaven facing each other – on the left hand side, Richard kneels, attended by Saint Edmund, Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint John the Baptist; and on the right the Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ attended by a host of angels.  There is a very definite separation of space, whose formality acts on our interpretation of what is going on.  It is just such a language of precise arrangement and correlation that I have tried to impose on my Christmas card. 

Within the ‘frame’ of the Christmas present depicted, my image is split into four, each part hosting various figures.  Drury makes the observation that in the diptych, all eyes on the left look to the right, whereas in heaven, there is a greater containment in some mutual gazes as well as others directed towards earth.  My card creates a criss-crossing of gazes, an interaction between angels and humans that is altogether more involved.  Mary acknowledges the kings, who both present their gifts and acknowledge the angels, who in turn look down on events and capture the gaze of a shepherd.  Joseph by his expression could also be acknowledging everyone.

The exchanges are further added to by a consideration of boundaries.  In the diptych, the figures on the left are contained within the frame, and on the right are crowded into it, some not quite making it.  In my card, those figures who have appeared on the scene, as it were, stepping in from the outside are the kings and the angels, whose outlines overlap the notional division suggested by the ribbon.  They are larger than the other figures, and bring either gifts or a fanfare of announcement.  They break into the world of the other pairing, the holy family and the shepherd, whose figures are smaller, more self-contained and stationary.

In terms of background, pattern plays an important part in the diptych, showing a ‘quiet pattern of buds’ on the left, against a ‘bolder and more vibrant pattern, like open leaves or petals’ on the right (Drury).  Similarly, flowers on the ground make a fuller, more decorative setting on the right than the bare earth on the left.  Whilst I have not exaggerated the use of pattern to distinguish between worlds, the markings of the wrapping paper are stronger on the lower panels of my depicted Christmas present than on those above.  This is a simple denotation for ‘groundedness’ which then finds something of a release in the placing of the shepherd on the spiral of ribbon.  Here is an abstracted means of lifting a figure both physically and as a reflection of the character’s worship upon the appearance of the angels (at a slight remove from the events below).  

The echo of this dimension is also found in the lighter colouring of both angels and sheep.  As with the diptych, the angels’ realm is one of concord where similarity of uniform and face (in the medieval tradition of portrait by type rather than studies from life) present overwhelming harmony and affirmation of their thrice-repeated proclamation.  Their white robes dominate the image, and as I’ve always thought the animals to be significant witnesses of the Christmas story too, they also pick up this reflection.  In the diptych, the prominent animal in the arms of John the Baptist, a lamb, serves a symbolic function in reminding the viewer that Christ was also referred to as the Lamb of God, whose white purity is celebrated in the book of Revelation.

The heart of the diptych links this picture of Christ as a lamb with Christ as triumphant Son of God, since the gesture of the infant is to direct the flag with the red cross to be passed over to the lamb.  Here another symbol predominant in painting at the time signifies Christ’s resurrection after death which performed a reconciliation between earth and heaven on account of his perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.  As Drury observes of the diptych, ‘his crossings-over had joined the worlds together’.  In my image, there is also a red cross which acts in the same manner to both symbolise and effect a joining of worlds.  The message is made clearer in the writing on the gift tag which quotes John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son.’

In the case of the diptych, it is likely that the flag carries multiple meanings as well as that highlighted by Drury, referring to the banner of Saint George, patron saint of England, and also to the kingdom of England as represented in the tiny depiction of an island within the flag’s orb.  The presentation of the flag might well refer to the blessing and/or devotion of Richard’s kingdom from/to the Virgin Mary.  As also noted by the presence of the king’s personal emblem on the robes of the angels (the white hart brooch), there is a very definite affinity between heaven and earth, sacred and secular.  In my card, there is this sense of intermingling since the characters of the nativity are photos of plastic models – mass-produced slightly kitsch figurines employed in the depiction of that most holy night.

Finally, it is the action of the king in the diptych which leads Drury to reaffirming its purpose as an object of devotion – his hands remain open, and he kneels.  In ownership of the object itself, Richard is to practice that same reverence and simplicity, so that without grasping or being acquisitive he enters into ‘a moment of happy seeing when the overwhelming beauty of the world beyond breaks into the present’.  It is the same with receiving God’s gift of his son, receiving the nativity story again and appreciating the ‘good news of great joy’.

Picturing the Peacock Arts Trail

Art work by Sheona Beaumont, painter Victoria Cleverly, and Lacock Primary School; St Cyriac’s Lacock.

From the 5th to the 13th October, I’ve been busy exhibiting and curating an exhibition in St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock, as part of the Peacock Arts Trail 2019. We’ve had a wonderful 10 days, with over 1,000 visitors to the building, and plenty of inspiring chats over a cuppa and cake. Joining me in exhibiting were local painter Victoria Cleverly, and the pupils of Lacock Primary School.

At our preview event, I unveiled my community project Wall of Remembrance. This is an 8-panel, 35-aperture photographic installation, displayed in the south transept at St Cyriac’s. Featuring lenticular photography (where the images appear to change as you walk past them), Wall of Remembrance commemorates the service and commitment shown by local servicemen and women during the First World War, as well as the love of the families who supported them. The piece is the culmination of a community project in Lacock that began in 2018, having been commissioned by the Green Café at St Cyriac’s Church, and supported by Wiltshire Scrapstore, initially as part of Lacock Remembers 2018. Local families were invited to contribute to the project by sharing their photographs, medals, clippings and other objects connected to war time.

These objects appear in the lenticular panels and include portraits of Major Charles Selwyn Awdry and Major Allen Llewellen Palmer, as well as of Matilda Talbot serving at the Red Cross Hospital in Corsham, and Ivy Gladstone at the Chippenham and Bowood Red Cross Hospitals. Other images include a Soldier’s Penny given to Ernest Leonard Stevens, an engraved communion cup presented to St Cyriac’s in memory of Basil William Ramsbottom, and a shell casing. The poppies in the images were made out of clay by the 1st Lacock Scout Group in 2018. 

My work also included the display of Scriptorium (first displayed in 2018). The complete text of the King James Bible text, with the exception of the Psalms, is transcribed onto Fabriano drawing paper with light, with one book per page. Cyanotypes are photographic prints produced without a camera, in this case with the superimposition of an acetate layer and a single peacock feather, over the sensitised paper. The vivid blue pigment forms as a result of iron compounds reacting to light – the process was originally adopted in the copying of architectural designs known as blueprints. I’m playing with ideas here of old and new copying of sacred texts – the scriptorium was where medieval manuscripts were copied onto parchment, and ‘script’ is also a programme in computer code for running or executing the display of public domain text.

Victoria’s thoughtful paintings with geometry, layers, and textures of natural form and detail (seen together with the artist above) were found in all corners of the church. It was wonderful to create spaces of accented contemplation, where a kind of slow looking worked between painting and architectural setting, and also brought organic shapes and subjects into view. The Lady Chapel at St Cyriac’s worked particularly well for this relationship with its wall and ceiling paintings featuring natural world designs in abundance. Other parts of the church such as the pulpit and the font received specific artistic interventions from the school pupils, who I’d invited to respond with ideas around the theme of unity. With Victoria’s help in class, the results are joyous and colourful, expressing hope and beauty through a world recycled and held together (with plastic and palm-prints), and a rainbow-like church seen in the pulpit above. Other paintings were displayed hanging between the pillars and also share exuberant multimedia designs from children aged between 6 and 9.

It’s been a privilege to share this space and its time with so many interested and enthusiastic people. To the parents and church members who helped with stewarding and cake – you’ve been amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without your help! It’s made the event feel special and connected to the community in new and exciting ways, so thank you. To the church PCC and the team at the Peacock Arts Trail, thank you too. I’ve really appreciated your professional support, with dedicated helpers and layers of expertise all working to make something magical happen – not just here but across the other trail venues. What a rich creative field in this corner of Wiltshire! Here’s to the next one in two years’ time…

How a Victorian vicar used photographs to explain the Bible

From the 37th edition of Revd Alexander Keith’s publication in 1859

Earlier this year, my first journal article from my doctoral thesis on the Bible in photography was published in History of Photography. The journal itself has been a prompt many a time for my research – its articles shine so many lights into the past, with deeply attentive and close looking into histories that haven’t yet been told. It is the authoritative journal for close, peer-reviewed, study in the subject. So I’m naturally delighted that this article was accepted for publication.

‘Photographic and Prophetic Truth: Daguerreotypes, the Holy Land, and the Bible According to Reverend Alexander Keith’ (Vol 42, Number 4, 2018, also published here on my website) explores Keith’s bestseller publication and his use of engravings made from daguerreotypes to ‘prove’ that biblical prophecies about the landscape of Palestine had come true. Early ideas about photography’s ‘truth’ are commonly filtered through our modern understandings of science, objectivity, and experiment, which tend to present a blind spot when it comes to religion. Particularly in regard to Christianity and the Bible, religious reference is reduced to thematic illustration and (a nostalgic) art iconography. My essay presents an important challenge to reductionist simplifications of Christian thinking prevalent in early photography, revealing the intellectual sophistication of what is Keith’s photo-biblical apologetic. His highly articulate faith-based defence of photography’s superior documentary capacity reveals a more complex relation between science, visual culture, and religion than has typically been assumed.

For his book, Evidence of the Truth of the Christian Religion Derived from the Literal Fulfilment of Prophecy, Keith employed the services of his son George Keith to daguerreotype biblical sites on a tour of Palestine in 1844. The 18 engravings from daguerreotypes might look a bit dull, but they had the punch of truth-telling propaganda in their day: seeing was literally believing. This was more than armchair travel, more than seeing equating to the real experience of being there, because Keith linked the images to specific texts from the Prophets. In the above images, Ashdod (west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast) shows that ‘the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks. Zeph II-6’, and the Temple at Jerash (east of the Jordon, a city not readily identified from Old Testament references) reveals that ‘in all your dwelling places the cities shall be laid waste, and the high places shall be desolate, &c. Ezek VI-6’. Keith made the record of the photograph synonymous with the record of the prophets. No other Palestine-religious guide (and many would follow in the nineteenth century) would hold photography and the Bible so determinatively together.

Ordinarily, it’s not a complicated connection, though it’s often missed because of common understandings of the Bible-as-myth today. The Bible is a record first-and-foremost. Its declared intent is overwhelmingly documentary, it purports to be historical about the Israelites in the Old Testament, and about Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Though it certainly has more lyrical and poetic books or sections, it is not as a whole a mythical account of a religion’s origins, nor a theological treatise. This is its ‘scandal of particularity’, as it has been called by theologian Alan Richardson. Keith, however, takes this one step further, because it is the predictions of the prophets that he takes as literal record, their foresight about the landscape’s destruction. And for his purposes, it is helpfully specific in the text about what the desolation will look like. Writing at time when British interest in Palestine was expanding on the tide of the Empire’s wealth, it was a land increasingly present to readers of the Bible too, and of concern particularly to Zionists. Keith had such concern in mind with other publications, notably Narrative of a Mission of Inquiry to the Jews from the Church of Scotland (1842), which had first employed him in Palestine in 1839. What one was engaging with when one looked at photographs of the Holy Land was urgently related to religious convictions pressing through the literalness, and bound up with present feeling about who was entitled to the land (especially when it was so conveniently photographed as empty). It was nothing short of a symbolic reality: the Jewish Promised Land inviting ‘return’, as much image as word.

For writing about photography, I think it’s urgent work to recover such a religious conviction as Keith’s, or at least to give those who held it (he had thousands of readers at a time when over half the population went to church, his book running into over fifty editions) the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their intellectual capacity. We can attribute greater specificity to their intentionality, if not always circumspect to our eyes, in the name of a fairer, clearer, interpretation. If nothing else the biblical literacy of our ancestors in the West ought to be more fully reckoned with, and given its fine grain. In my article I expand on this through the idea of Keith’s telescoping across present feeling and original prophecy, and through photography’s quasi-supernatural promise as being made ‘without human hand’. If anyone reading this would like a hard copy of the article, let me know and I’d be happy to send you one.

Steiner’s light

Floating III, Sheona Beaumont, 2010

I’m in endurance mode with George Steiner’s Real Presences (1989). What pitted, articulate, ranging, poetic depth he brings to present-day understandings of the arts. At my sense of it, he says we need a reckoning with the undisputed ‘life of meaning in the text, in music, in art’ (p.50) because our world is doing away with having to face mystery, immediacy (even ‘the wholly personal hospitality we owe our own death’, p.50) in what is a society in thrall to positivist accounting for the humanities or cheap journalistic thrill. We’d rather write about the arts, and screen their effects, than face their ‘implosive powers within the echo chambers of the self’ (p.10).

Everything about the journalistic-academic burgeoning of commentary and reflection and endless publications about the arts, the tsunami of talking, the preoccupation with inflated argument is ‘bustling pretence’ (p.48), ‘caring mediocrity’ (p.23), a ‘narcotic’ against interpretation as lived and felt (p.49), articulating ‘an epistemology and ethics of spurious temporality’ and ‘novelty’ (p.26,27). When some interpretative mode-du-jour fails, ‘when the zero-point of trust and of felt meaning is reached’ it’s more a sign of general decay and overinflation in ‘the mushrooming of semantic-critical jargon’, not of reckoning with ‘real presence’ and the humane (p.49). Rather than shooting down such malaise (as Baudrillard would), Steiner asks ‘how can personal sensibility go upstream, to the living springs of ‘first being’?’ (p.40), and proceeds to elaborate what is a declaration for hermeneutics as imaginative, transforming, event; hermeneutics as ‘defining the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension’ (p.7); hermeneutics as ‘a shaping reciprocity between ourselves and that which the heart knows’ (p.9). Actual encounter with the arts precipitate this – for Steiner, especially music.

Amongst the hermeneutic approaches he discusses is the Jewish midrashic circling, retelling, and reimagining tradition towards Scripture. It deliberately brings the text into ‘palpable presentness’ (p.42), being ‘indeterminately synchronic with all individual and communal life’ (p.44). Not so the Christian (‘Catholic’) tradition, which works to extract fixity over and through the specific testimonies of Jesus and the disciples (so ‘dogma can be defined as hermeneutic punctuation, as the promulgation of semantic arrest’, p.44). It is these more legislative and systematic programmes of Christian theological interpretation which the humanities largely inherit today, combined with positivism and carried in the US by a wider non-canonical (‘democratic’), ahistorical ‘egalitarian ideal’ (p.32). But over and against each of these which might notionally stand for or accommodate theological-metaphysical interpretation, Steiner spends the bulk of the book (the 2nd of 3 chapters) elaborating on why modernism radically counters and annihilates such theological possibility.

Since the 1870s, Western consciousness has ‘moved house’ (p.94), effecting a fundamental break between word and world such that the ‘covenant of reference’ (p.96), or the ‘mystery of consonance’ (p.105) which supposes meaningfulness in representation/discourse is gone. Meaningfulness in language (or the linguistic, understood to describe all art) is, according to deconstructionism, a delusion, a ‘lazy dream’ (p.124) exhibiting ‘sclerotic remnants of religion, of metaphysics, of gross positivism’ (p.125). So the death of God, of the author, of intentionality, of logocentrism, etc. ‘Deconstruction dances in front of the ancient Ark. This dance is at once playful, …and instinct with sadness. For the dancers know that the Ark is empty’ (p.122). It feels like a devastating indictment, like Steiner himself accepts nihilism, from which there is no recovery. And yet, because the project is about the living, ever-returning, responsibility-inducing experience in front of art (where we feel ‘the talismanic quickening of our being’ p.63,64), in the final instance Steiner says the reckoning with deconstruction is limited by its theory, its dependence on logic to refute logic.

The full, indisputable freight of deconstructionism is not to be denied or denounced as untrue (within its own postulates, it is true), but it stands apart from the fact of the creative effort, and the fact of interpretative encounter with art. Steiner says he has never met an artist who is a deconstructionist. So with the serious encounter with art, to which everyone can testify at a kind of universally experienced level, even if not articulated through the privileged educational setting of high art. Both describe the human ‘wager on transcendence’ (p.214), the looking to meaning expressed and received beyond or above the immanent, manifest plane of our world. Whether the meaning is there or not, whatever the ‘style of designation’ for the otherness of encounter (p.211, which Steiner himself posits as the reception of an unknown guest knocking at the door), whether it exhibits confirmation or challenge or disruption to our sense of knowing, we enter into it. And it needs theological language, however foolish or embarrassing that is felt to be, to describe it. Steiner stands by this, though ends finally, melancholically, with uncertainty in the face of cultural rejection of the transcendent (which he says is understandable politically, morally, and linguistically) – will art, he wonders, become an archaeology when ‘the verticalities of reference to ‘higher things’… drain from speech’? Will general sentiment follow, or will it ‘aspire to religious fundamentalism and kitsch ideologies’? (p.230) It’s a supremely timely question.