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The birth of war photography: Roger Fenton and the Crimean War 1

a photo of a small valley strewn with cannon balls

Roger Fenton, Valley of the Shadow of Death, 23 April 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace gives a welcome airing to the powerful  Crimean War photographs of Roger Fenton

One of Roger Fenton’s most famous photographs – an eerily empty valley in the Crimea strewn with cannonballs – brilliantly captured the aftermath of the charge of the heavy brigade at Balaclava and the brutality of the Crimean War.

When Fenton arrived in the Crimea in March 1855, the war that had been raging for 12 months and the major battles of the campaign had already been fought. And yet the images that he captured of exhausted troops and desolate landscapes would become some of the most significant visual accounts of conflict ever produced, giving birth to the genre of war photography.

But it was his photographs of people, the soldiers and generals engaged in the costly experiment of engaging Russia in the Crimea, that still resonate with us today.

The Crimean War saw Britain, France, Sardinia and the Ottomon Empire allied against Russia’s attempt to expand its influence into Ottoman territory. The impact of the war on the Victorian public was immense. Britain sent 98,000 men into the conflict, and thanks to improved communications and the presence of war correspondents, updates from the battlefield reached home in days rather than weeks.

a photo of a group of soldiers wearing gild braided uniforms, pill box hats and bearskiins

Roger Fenton, 8th Hussars Cooking Hut, 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

a sepia studio photo of a bearded man in a sheepskin coat

Roger Fenton, Lord Balgonie, 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

a black and white sepia toned photograph of a man sat on the front of cart bearing a photographic studio on the back

Roger Fenton, Photographic Van, 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

The advent of photography meant that these reports were no longer limited to unillustrated newspaper accounts or artistic depictions of battle, and the public was able to witness authentic images of war for the first time.

This was the dawn of photography and while Fox Talbot and John Herschel were laying the foundations, Fenton took their innovations to the Crimea where he set about capturing the lives of soldiers from his mobile, horse-drawn studio and dark room, which he had converted from a wine merchant’s van.

His photographs of camp life, in which whiskered rankers and generals look rather like Pre-Raphealite artists and poets, are now some of the most famous war photographs in the world.

Among those he captured in camp or in one of his makeshift studios was the bohemian looking Alexander Leslie-Melville, Lord Balgonie, whose sheepskins, astrakhan hat and rakishly slung cavalry sword seem to make him every inch the Victorian soldier adventurer. However the photo is today credited as being the first visual record of someone suffering from ‘shell shock’ and Balgonie later succumbed to his wounds – or as some describe it – ‘years of hard campaigning’.

Fenton also spent several weeks photographing the key figures of the war. One of his best-known portraits, The Council of War (June 1855), shows the three commanders of the Allied armies – Lord Raglan, Maréchal Pélissier and Omar Pasha – preparing for their successful assault on the Russian fortifications at Mamelon. Lord Raglan died on 28 June 1855, shortly after the image was taken.

a group photo of a group of soldiers in Victorian clothing in a camp scene

Roger Fenton, Colonel Doherty and the Officers of the 13th Light Dragoons, 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

a black and white photo of three men with moustaches and beards looking at a map on a round table

Roger Fenton, Council of War, 6 June 1855, 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

a sepia photo across a bay towards the sea

Roger Fenton, Balaklava from the Russian Church, Upper Harbour, and Church of Kadikoi in the distance, March 1855. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

In August 1855, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she had viewed some of Fenton’s work, commenting that the portrait was ‘one, most interesting, of poor Lord Raglan, Pélissier & Omar Pacha, sitting together on the morning, on which the Quarries were taken’.

There’s another royal connection to this royal collection. Queen Victoria and her family were photographed by Fenton when he was commissioned to produce portraits of the royal family in 1854. But for Victoria and Victorians in general Fenton’s Crimea images raised awareness of the conditions endured by soldiers at a time when the wounded began to arrive home.

Keen that her concern for the welfare of the troops was publicly known, she was the first British monarch to meet and support wounded soldiers in public, personally greeting troops at Buckingham Palace and during visits to hospitals. She also instituted the Victoria Cross at this time and it remains the highest award for gallantry in the British Armed Forces.

The Crimean War has also left us with a range of quintessentially British moments, people and objects from history including the Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightingale and the balaclava helmet.

This show, which rather incredibly is the first exhibition of Fenton’s Crimean works in London since 1856, lets us peer into the faces of the men and women who lived through these defining times.

a colourised photo of Queen Victoria and Albert seated next to each other

Roger Fenton, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

a large painting showing wounded soldiers meetig Queen Victoria and the Royal family

John Gilbert, The Queen Inspecting wounded Coldstream Guards in the Hall of Buckingham Palace, 22 February 1855, 1856. Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, November 9 2018 – April 28 2019, with Russia: Royalty & the Romanovs.

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The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is a permanent space dedicated to changing exhibitions of items from the Royal Collection, the wide-ranging collection of art and treasures held in trust by The Queen for the Nation. Changing exhibitions are accompanied by a display of Treasures from the Royal Collection. The…

One comment on “The birth of war photography: Roger Fenton and the Crimean War

  1. John Simons on

    To be able to see “The Valley of Death” as it was at the time of the renowned Charge of the Light Brigade is so evocative of the bravery and futility that comes with war.The photo of Lord Balgonie too….absolute masterpieces of their time!

    Reply

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