Tuesday 25 September 2007


From the work of Aesop and Aristophanes to that of Walt Disney and George Orwell, we have always delighted in anthropomorphism: endowing animals with the appearance or characteristics of human beings.

There are thousands of examples from across several thousand years, but the Victorians and Edwardians had a regular passion for anthropomorphic representations of animal life - in a variety of manifestations...

So, whilst Beatrix Potter was dressing up creatures of farm and hedgerow in period costume...

...across the Chanel, French caricaturist, Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (known as J J Grandville) was was busily drawing pictures of people wearing animal masks...

Back in England Walter Potter (no relation of Beatrix) was one of a number of taxidermists who were stuffing animals and arranging them as charming -- or, depending on your point of view, creepy! -- tableaux to be displayed as conversation-pieces on the Victorian mantelshelf.

These are just a few of the resonances that leaped to mind when I attended the book launch, this week, of Charlotte Corry's The Visitors: All Cliches Conserved and an accompanying exhibition of photographic curiosities.

Charlotte Cory is a true Renaissance Woman - novelist, journalist, travel writer, wood-cut artist and photographer - and her latest project is as diverting and disturbing as the nineteenth century obsessions which have inspired it.

Cory has taken the concept of anthropomorphism and in a dreamy - occasionally nightmarish - way has ingeniously combined it with the Victorian fanatical passion for the carte de visite: visiting card-sized photographic portraits that, from their introduction in France in 1854, became a phenomenal European and American craze.

What, Cory seems to ask, would have happened if the photographer's now long-forgotten subjects, so stiffly posed in front of painted balustrade and swagged curtain or seated on an antimacassered chair by potted aspidistra, had been not people but those faded, dusty, glass-eyed creatures from the taxidermists' mummy-vaults?

The results of her photographic experimentation are what might have ensued if the Reverend Charles Dodgson - a prolific amateur Victorian photographer - had set up his camera in that topsy-turvy realm of Wonderland, discovered by his intimate friend, Mr Lewis Carroll.

Charlotte Cory's book contains 64 witty examples of extraordinary portraiture. In sepia tones (with occasional spalshed of hand-tinting) there are pictures of clerical pugs, harp-playing parrots and dignified ducks...

Also captured are military bulldogs, naval woodpeckers, professorial owls and one decidely constipated-looking cat...

There are even instances of striking similarities between owners and their pets...

The Visitors: All Cliches Conserved is published at £14.99 by Dewi Lewis Publishing.

As the photographer (or, perhaps, photographic manipulator) observes:

Many millions of carte de visite were produced and are now so commonly discarded in junk shops that they are almost worthless. Can there be anything more poignant than a person got up in their best bib and tucker, preserved for a posterity that is no longer interested?

Yet there is something assuredly sadder than discarded photographs of forgotten faces and family pets: all those stuffed animals in museums, shot long ago not on glass plates but with guns, their very bodies preserved for posterity to gawk at. Where did this moth-eaten lion sniff his last antelope? How many of us have stood with our noses pressed to the glass eyeing these captured creatures.

Well, now, thanks to Ms Cory, they live again: not on veldt or in farmyard, but in the overstuffed faux-elegance of Victorian parlours and withdrawing rooms.

In addition to her album of anthropomorphic visitors, Charlotte Cory has produced a number of prints of her photographs which are displayed either in large, ornately gilded and authentically period frames or are else encased in authentic Victorian lockets, pendants and broaches; all of which can be viewed at Rebecca Hossack's Charlotte Street Gallery, where they remain in captivity until 14 October.

Image: Portrait of Charlotte Cory with her 'Tsar' and 'Tsarina', © David Weeks, 2007.

1 comment:

SharonM said...

Another tour de force Brian - let's hope you're getting some book writing done in between times! I do find these photos decidedly creepy.