William, Earl Of Craven, &Amp; The Art Of Photography

by Matt Damsker


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By Noel Chanan. Published by Halsgrove; 2006; 240 pages. ISBN Nos. 1-84114-491-6; 978-1-84114-491-7. Halsgrove House, Lower Moor Way, Tiverton, Devon EX16 6SS; phone: 01884 243242; fax: 01884 243325; email: sales@halsgrove.com ; Website: http://www.halsgrove.com . Hardback, priced at 34.99 pounds (currently around $65).

Virtually unknown until the discovery in 1998 and 1999 of his large-scale photographs and an album of his photographic experiments, William, 2nd Earl of Craven, quickly took his place among the 19th-century British pioneers of the medium. Now, author, filmmaker and photographer Noel Chanan has delivered this deeply researched biography of Craven, replete with lovingly reproduced plates of his vintage sepia-toned images. The result is an important work of scholarship, handsomely bound and sure to take its place as a definitive study of Craven.

Being an independently wealthy member of the nobility, Craven was not motivated by financial need, and so he rarely exhibited, preferring to develop his artistry in the privacy of his estate, Ashdown Park, west of London. His leisurely approach seems well reflected by his output, which focused to a great extent upon his family, his homestead, the surrounding wealth of nature, especially the winter and summer trees of Ashdown, and even some self-portraiture. Craven also collected his contemporaries, including wet-plate photography pioneer Frederick Scott Archer, Roger Fenton and Gustave Le Gray. Indeed, Craven's photographs match up well with those of such well-known masters. As Chanan suggests, Craven's expertise with wet-collodion printing was likely a direct result of his contact with Archer, and the details of Craven's technique are exhaustively documented here.

Ultimately, though, it is the photographic evidence itself that marks Craven as an early master, conveying everything from the architectural loveliness of Ashdown to starkly contrasted views of magnificent trees that connect strongly with the emerging romanticism of the mid-1800s. If anything, Craven's deeply educated eye, so mindful of the techniques and traditions of painting, lent his photographs a powerful pictorial dimension, and so there is a universe of palpable mood and careful composition in these vintage images. For his scholarly devotion to Craven's quietly buried treasure, the photography world owes Chanan a debt of gratitude that will doubtless be repaid for years to come.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.