When viewed together, the imagery of photocollages adds up to a collective social self-portrait of the Victorian aristocracy at leisure. In many of these compositions, men and women are depicted on the London streets, playing tennis, rollerskating, or attending the theater, the opera, the circus, or church. Additionally, a large number of pages feature amusements and games enjoyed by the upper classes, particularly women, including archery, croquet, lawn tennis, and cards.
Croquet, for example, had recently emerged as an amusing pastime, which, as it was originally played on the lawns of country estates, implicitly signaled wealth and land ownership. Most of all, though, croquet provided ample time for men and women to mingle while participating in a sanctioned activity; would-be couples might spend hours “searching” for a ball that had been knocked into the underbrush. Poems, stories, and articles of the day explicitly linked croquet and flirtation. A spoof on the history of the game noted that “its practice sometimes leads to matrimony; more often to serious flirtation; and is, generally, a very fair excuse for an hour or two’s trifling on a hot summer’s afternoon.” Constance Sackville-West, in her album, staged an entire croquet scene with groupings of figures relaxing on a verdant lawn, seemingly just as interested in the conversations at hand as in the game.
Much of the source material for collage images can be found in the shared cultural values and visual references of upper-class Victorian England. Animals had long been used to morally instructive ends in fables and fairy tales, but during the heyday of photocollage, it would have been impossible for those in elite society to avoid the new ideas about man’s connection to the family of apes put into circulation by Charles Darwin. Absurd imagery was not unusual in the context of Victorian visual culture, especially in children’s literature such as Edward Lear’s Nonsense books. Newly popular fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen captured the English imagination in the 1850s and 1860s. In Andersen’s stories, transformations abound, from a mermaid changing into a human, to an ugly duckling growing into an elegant swan.
Of course, the nonsense and dreamscapes of Lewis Carroll (himself an amateur photographer) provided another source for some of the more fantastical photocollages found in albums. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated with drawings by Punch’s Tenniel, was published in late 1865.
Constance Sackville-West or Amy Augusta Frederica Annabella Cochrane-Baillie. Untitled page from the Sackville-West Album, 1867/73. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.
Elizabeth Pleydell-Bouverie and Jane Pleydell-Bouverie or Ellen Pleydell-Bouverie and Janet Pleydell-Bouverie. Untitled page from the Bouverie Album, 1872/77. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.