Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 (3 stars)

This article is from 2017

Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea, 1855

Roger Fenton, Council of War, 6 June 1855. / Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Fascinating exhibition of some of Britain's earliest war photography

The Crimean War of 1853–56 was the first British conflict which was significantly documented in photographs. Victorian Britain was abuzz with the possibilities of the new art form and in sending Roger Fenton and his cameras to the Crimea, publisher Thomas Agnew & Sons knew there would be an appetite for what he brought back.

The photographs were then taken on a 26-venue tour and, by the following March, had been seen by an estimated 2 million people. Queen Victoria, who was interested both in photography and in the Crimea, purchased this set for her son, the Prince of Wales, who had been following the war avidly.

It's easy to forget that, in 1855, photography was still in its infancy. If the photographs of groups of soldiers and officers look stiff and posed, it's because the long exposure time meant that subjects had to hold completely still for several minutes. It would be some years before 'action' photography was possible. However, a number of pictures feature regiments which took part in the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade: the story had caught the imagination of people at home and these were likely to attract particular attention.

The world Fenton photographed still seems distant to us in these small, sepia images. There are Croats, Ottomans, French, a feisty-looking vivandiere (women who accompanied the French troops to serve food and drink), rows of white tents in stony desert terrain and ships in the harbour at Balaklava.

Some of these pictures were used as source material for Thomas Barker's major group painting of the generals and officers in the Crimea, reproductions of which were then made for the mass market. In the 1850s, prints were still more vivid than photographs and could be produced on a larger scale. But Fenton's work spoke of the change that was coming.

The Queen's Gallery, until 26 Nov, £6.30 (£3.20–£5.70).

Shadows of War: Roger Fenton's Photographs of the Crimea, 1855

  • 3 stars

The Crimean War was one of the most disastrously ill-conceived conflicts ever undertaken, combining as it did its major players' boneheaded pursuit of imperial prestige, with all the efficiencies of modern technology. It was one of the first wars to be given extensive photographic documentation, and Roger Fenton was one…