May Comes in April

Climate Change seems to be noticeably with us, with the hawthorn around the local footpath in blossom for a couple of weeks – and the generally early flowering of the May actually made the news headlines last week.

Gathering the may is an ancient British custom, when young men and women went off together into the woods in the early hours of the morning, ostensibly to cut branches of blossom, bringing these back to decorate the houses in the village to mark the coming of Spring. Doubtless there was much drinking of ale proffered in return for the gift of the boughs, and not a few maidens and masters nipping back to the woods, but Henry Peach Robinson made it a rather less raucous event in his carefully constructed rural idyll, ‘Bringing Home the May’, made in 1862.

Robinson was one of the first masters of the constructed image, although it was Oscar Rejlander who had led the way with his ‘Two Ways of Life‘ in 1857. This was a dramatic combination print made from 30 negatives, whereas Robinson’s ‘May’ made do with only nine (you can see them on-line in this pdf, and a thumbnail of the final print here.) While such feats are now made ridiculously simple with Photoshop, he had to do things the hard way, printing each negative in turn onto the same sheet of paper, although the fact that he would have exposed each negative for long enough to produce a visible image rather than developing the paper made registering the images rather simpler. Few photographers in those days developed paper, almost all images were made by printing out – and many photographers continued to work in this way well into the 20th century.

Robinson and other photographers worked by combination printing largely for technical reasons. The most common use of the technique was to add an interesting sky to a print. Until close to the end of the 19th century photographic emulsions were sensitive only to blue light, and areas of blue sky were far denser on the negative than they should be, resulting in very pale or ‘paper white’ skies. ‘Sky negatives’ were made by giving several stops less exposure than was needed for the rest of the image – and many photographers had their favourites with fine cloud formations and used them on a number of pictures.

Robinson often – it not always – sketched out in detail how he wanted his pictures to be before he made his exposures, and it was doubtless easier to set up smaller parts rather than an overall scene. The people in his pictures were actors, models or friends and it might well be possible to use one of them in different roles in the same image – as Rejlander had done in his picture. The actual country people didn’t suit the idyllic view he wanted to give of rural life, they were doubtless too coarse, dirty and often disfigured, although he did aim for a certain authenticity, noting that country girls could easily be persuaded to sell their clothes for a few shillings.

Another important reason for working from multiple negatives was quite simply size. Almost all nineteenth century photographs are contact prints. To make a print the size of his ‘Bringing Home the May‘, approximately 40 x15 inches, would have needed a camera that took a plate that size. It was easier to work with something rather smaller and build up the final result.

If you really want to know all there is to know about H P Robinson, you may like to download David Lawrence Coleman’s 2005 dissertation, ‘Pleasant Fictions: Henry Peach Robinson¬ís Composition Photography‘ from the University of Texas, which includes some well-chosen illustrations at the end of its very informative text.

Looking at his pictures – which he regarded essentially as art – I find it hard not to think of advertising photography. But then I get the same feeling about most of the constructed photography that has appeared in galleries over the last 30 or more years, although the advertising sometimes seems less false.

Crowning the Hayes Village May Queen, April 2008

Along with this image, Robinson exhibited another, entitled ‘May Queen’, which unfortunately I can’t locate on line. But other Victorian artists and writers took an interest in these traditional May festivities, and John Ruskin in 1881 established the May Queen ceremony at Whitelands College in Chelsea, the oldest recorded continuing May Queen event (Hayfield makes a claim to this, but despite an ancient tradition, it’s procession had to be revived in 1928, rather later than the start of processions at Brentham in 1906.) The Whitelands celebration survived the move of the college to East Putney and its incorporation into Roehampton University, although they now crown a ‘May Monarch’, alternating between sexes.

May Queen procession in Hayes, Kent, 2008

More pictures from last week’s Crowning of the Hayes Realms.

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