Picturing England

Historic England

The photographic collections of Historic England

Picturing England
Photographers have taken pictures of England's buildings and landscapes since the invention of the medium. They have made images of the traces of past societies as well as photographing the new buildings around them. They have done so for many reasons: to capture the picturesque; to make a living or create a souvenir; to promote or to condemn; to record what is disappearing or to reveal what is normally hidden. Collectively, these photographers, both famous and anonymous, have changed the way we see and understand the world around us.
The Historic England Archive
These striking photographs have been selected from the collections of the Historic England Archive, an unparalleled collection of 9 million images that document England's places from the 1850s to the present day.
The pioneers: before 1860
The invention of photography marked the beginning of a fundamental change in the way we record and understand the world around us. From it grew an expansion and democratisation of image-making and consumption. The story of the first 20 years of the medium is one of remarkable technological, artistic and commercial development, so that by 1860 the foundations of its future ubiquity had been laid. The picturesque remains of historic buildings were prominent subjects for early photographers, although new architecture, the construction of new feats of engineering and industrial sites were also recorded. 

The photography of industrial subjects, such as the Russell's Hall blast furnaces, was a rare but fascinating counterpoint to the picturesque historic sites favoured by many early photographers.

The rise of the mass market in photography
Photography became a popular phenomenon between the 1860s and the First World War. Commercial photographers enjoyed a steady source of income from portrait photography, but many branched out into topographical and landscape photography, particularly to serve growing numbers of tourists. One such photographer was James Valentine, an enterprising Scottish artist and portrait photographer, who expanded into the production of topographical views in the 1860s. By the 1880s his firm was advertising over 20,000 views of Great Britain and other countries.

The Oxford photographer Henry Taunt recorded the local area and the River Thames from the 1860s until his death in 1922.

Taunt & Co made over 60,000 images, many of which were marketed as souvenirs or used to illustrate Taunt's own guidebooks.

The amateur view
The development of photography as a commercial medium was matched by its growth as a popular hobby. Those who could afford the time and money to pursue photography could now demonstrate their wealth and social standing by taking pictures of family members outside their country houses and around their estates in a manner that echoed the portraiture of earlier times. Technological advances made photography accessible to a much wider spectrum of society. By 1905, a tenth of the British population was using a camera. The new amateur photographers tended to record much the same subjects as their wealthier predecessors: home, family and leisure time continued to dominate.

Although the social context changed over time, as did the shift from plate cameras to hand-held film cameras, the photographs taken by amateurs form a vital record, supplementing the more formal documentation of people and places by commercial and professional photographers.

The rise of the professional architectural photographer
The evolution of specialist architectural photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is associated with ideas of progress, modernisation and industrialisation. It coincided with extensive urban growth and redevelopment. Photography displayed grand new buildings and redeveloped older buildings as evidence of prestige. It demonstrated the confidence of growing businesses, the development of new building types, and the wealth and aesthetic tastes of the nouveau riche.  As camera technology progressed the style of architectural photography moved too, with the influence of avant-garde art theories and the arrival of Modernist architecture stimulating new ways of recording buildings and interior spaces.

New ways of looking at buildings and interior spaces were explored in England by the late 1920s.

Viewers were stimulated by shape, unconventional points of view and contrasting lighting. This approach often coincided with the photographing of Modernist buildings.

Recording the past
Great Britain was slow to create a state-sponsored programme to protect and record the historic environment. Concerned individuals and groups helped to fill the gap. The pressure they brought to bear encouraged the gradual evolution of nationwide programmes to record and care for historic monuments, and to build up the remarkable collections which now serve to document the nation's past. An early group was the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. It was formed in 1875 to record historic buildings threatened by development, and made copies of its photographs available to subscribers.

Gifted professionals and individual enthusiasts have drawn attention to building types not previously been considered for serious study.

The work of the architectural photographer Eric de Maré encouraged interest in functional buildings and structures such as bridges, canals, mills and warehouses.

The view from above
The first aerial photograph was taken from a balloon over Pairs in 1858, and the first in England in 1863. The First World War advanced photography and flight, and after the war commercial aerial photography and aerial photography as a tool in archaeological discovery and investigation emerged and blossomed. The wealth of aerial photography enables us to record buildings, sites and features from all periods across many areas, opening up new ways of looking at the relationships of features across landscapes and across time. The illustrative power of the aerial photograph has permanently shaped out understanding of both our present and our past.

In 1965 the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England established an aerial photography section. Historic England continues this programme, and regularly reveals significant new discoveries.

A photographic thread
While a single photograph may be valuable for any number of reasons, a series of images illustrating the same site or place at different dates can reveal additional meanings and provide new insights into the development of landscapes and the built environment. The value of an archive that brings together all this photography is beyond doubt. The following two photographs show how the Church of St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London once dominated its surroundings, and how this dominance has been diminished by its near neighbour, 30 St Mary Axe, formerly the Swiss Re Building and popularly known as The Gherkin.

The 1894 London Building Act restricted the height of buildings until regulations were relaxed in the 1950s.

Comment on this change of policy tends to emphasise the impact on distant views, but these two photographs reveal the localised effect.

Historic England
Credits: Story

All images from 'Picturing England: The photographic collections of Historic England' by Mike Evans, Gary Winter and Anne Woodward.
Historic England Archive


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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