Radical Whimsy: Victorian Women and the Art of Photocollage

Peruse the pages of two late 19th-century photocollage albums from the Getty collection—an untitled album and the Westmorland Album—to learn about the women who made them and how and why they did so.

By The J. Paul Getty Museum

More than half a century before the Cubists purportedly set off an artistic revolution by adding collage to their canvases, Victorian women were flouting artistic and social conventions by cutting up pictures and pasting them into elaborate scenes of their own creation. In the process, these women threw the meaning of photography and their own societal roles into question.

[Necklace with lockets and a lock] from the Westmorland Album, Attributed to Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough, or Eva Macdonald, 1864–1874, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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[Woman at a Toy Counter] from an untitled album (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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[Collage album cover] from an untitled album (Front cover), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Behind this unassuming cover of the first album are 36 elaborate compositions. Unfortunately, we don’t know the name of the artist who made them. Most Victorian collagists saw little reason to sign their names to their works. As private objects, the albums remained at home and were not highly valued as works of art. Their makers would never have expected them to end up in a museum.

[Woman Playing Cards] from an untitled album (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Creators and Their Craftiness

The albums were almost exclusively created by women of the British “Upper Ten Thousand”—the aristocracy and the landed gentry—England’s landowning class. 

Making such albums was deemed an acceptable pastime akin to needlework, learning a foreign language, or playing a musical instrument. Here a woman could display her wit and artistic talents within domestic parameters.

When not entertaining company, a woman might spend idle hours in the drawing room of her country home snipping up photographic portraits of family, friends, and celebrities. She would then paste them into amusing and sometimes fantastical new contexts.

The collagist dictated who would inhabit her scenes and how they would be depicted. She controlled her created world poking fun at individuals and society.

Decades later, from the 1910s through the 1940s, the Cubists, Surrealists, and Dadists would also mix photography with painted and drawn elements to create improbable compositions filled with irony, absurdity, and critiques against society.

In this scene, a young woman plays cards at a table. Switch out the cards for a pot of glue, some photographs, a pair of scissors, a pen, and an ink well, and this scene could easily depict a session of photocollaging.

[Princesses Alice, Louise, Helena, and Princes Leopold, Arthur, and Alfred] from an untitled album (1880s–1890s) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Collagists took their photographic materials primarily from cartes-de-visite—small portraits measuring 3 ½ x 2 1/8 inches, roughly the size of playing cards. Patented by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, the carte-de-visite was easily and inexpensively printed.

By the 1860s, cartomania had taken hold and it had become customary to exchange cartes-de-visite on social calls. People also collected cards of the royal family, actors, and politicians.

This page includes six slightly-trimmed carte-de-visite portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s children: Princesses Alice, Louise, and Helena, and Princes Leopold, Arthur, and Alfred.

[Cartes-de-visite of the Earl and Countess of Westmorland, Lord Ashley, and Lady Harriet Ashley] (1864-1874) by Attributed to Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough or Eva MacdonaldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Special albums were created to house cartes-de-visite. They often appeared in the same album as full-page collages and might be accompanied by painted ornamentation as in this page from the Westmorland Album.

The second album in the Getty collection—the Westmorland Albumwas given its title at some point because the portraits of the Earl and Countess of Westmorland appear on its first page of photographs.

Recently, curators at the Art Institute of Chicago identified the likely creators of this second album. The initials “VAY” found on the well-preserved red leather album cover and in the watercolor design on the opening page suggest that Victoria Alexandrina Hare, Countess of Yarborough (1840–?), assembled the album and made some of the collages. At least two of the collages were created by the countess’ niece Eva Macdonald (1846/50–1930).

[The Westmorland album: cartes-de-visite and photo collages], John Jabez Edwin Mayall, Samuel Lock & George Carpe Whitfield, William Southwell, et al, Attributed to Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough, or Eva Macdonald, 1864–1874, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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[Opening page] from the Westmorland Album, Attributed to Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough, or Eva Macdonald, 1864–1874, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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[Lord and Lady Yarborough leading a hunt], from the Westmorland Album (1864–1874) by Attributed to Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough, or Eva MacdonaldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Countess of Yarborough was the goddaughter and namesake of Queen Victoria. In this photocollage, she and her first husband, Charles Anderson-Pelham (1835–1875), the Earl of Yarborough, lead a hunt most likely at Brocklesby Park, their estate in Lincolnshire.

What are Trumps? from the Westmorland Album (December 1868) by Eva MacdonaldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Two collages in this album bear the signature of Eva Macdonald, the young niece of Lady Yarborough. These compositions commemorate the people Macdonald encountered and the social events that took place during her visits to Brocklesby Park.

Macdonald would go on to exhibit paintings at the Royal Academy’s annual exhibitions in the 1880s and 1890s and to publish novels and short stories in the early 1900s.

Macdonald’s photographic likeness is found in the form of a gambling chip at the bottom left of the collage. Her signature and the date of the image encircle the portrait.

In this collage, five cartes-de-visite are fanned out like a hand of playing cards. 

Through Macdonald’s imagination, the people in Lord and Lady Yarborough’s circle—Mr. Christopher Lykes, the Duchess of St. Albans, Captain Elmhirst, the Honorable Oliver Montagu, and Mr. Guest—become pieces in a game of gambling, flirtation, and social status.

[Man Sitting on a Pool Table] from an untitled album (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Setting the Scene

Using pen, ink, and wash (watered-down ink applied with a brush), the artist of the anonymous album drew and painted a sumptuously decorated billiards room complete with floral wallpaper, an elaborately designed rug, and hardwood floors.

She expertly cut out the male figure from a larger photograph and integrated him into her scene.

Victorian collagists did not concern themselves with assuring that the photographs seamlessly blended into their drawn settings. By placing the images in new contexts, they unapologetically undermined photography’s reputation for being truthful.

Collagists often transformed photographs into other forms of art. In this case, a second photographic portrait of a younger man becomes a painting leaning upon the mantle.

Do you see the photo album sitting atop the cushioned stool in the foreground? Albums served as conversation pieces—another tool in the hostess’s arsenal for entertainment.

[Man and woman in a living room] from an untitled album (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

A young aristocratic woman’s lessons and activities revolved around the important mission of finding a well-suited husband of high social status. These albums served as a portfolio of sorts that an eligible woman could show a suitor.

An album also facilitated flirtation and courting in that it offered a young man and woman an excuse to sit close to each other on the sofa as they turned the pages of the album.

One could imagine that the woman standing at the threshold is about to greet her gentleman caller.

Books of poetry or smaller photo albums wait at the foot of the settee in which he sits.

At times, the collagists incorporated photographic elements beyond just the figures. The plant stand, bear rug, settee, and books were extracted—along with the man—from a single photograph.

Outside the Home

Victorian collagists moved beyond their domestic interiors at times to create settings out-of-doors that extended to broader societal events such as Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee—her 50th anniversary as monarch.

[Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee] from an untitled album, Unknown maker, after 1887, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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General "Chinese" Gordon, Murdered by the Followers of the Wadi at Khartoum from an untitled album (after 1885) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Here the artist strays even further afield from the domestic realm to depict a composite setting in Khartoum, Sudan, a place she most likely never experienced herself. Relying on her imagination and news reports, she created a Eurocentric view of the 1884–1885 Siege of Khartoum.

The sole photographic figure on the left is Major-General Charles George Gordon (1833–1885), also known as “Chinese Gordon” for suppressing the Taiping Rebellion.

Later in 1884 the British Government sent Gordon on a mission to Khartoum, where trouble was brewing for Egypt, a de facto British protectorate. With little financial or personnel support, Gordon was tasked with evacuating loyal soldiers and civilians threatened by a revolt led by the Nubian leader, Muhammad Ahmad. Ahmad who had declared himself the Madhi—”the Rightly-Guided one” in Islamic tradition—demanded the Egyptians give up control of Sudan.

General "Chinese" Gordon, Murdered by the Followers of the Wadi at Khartoum from an untitled album (after 1885) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Gordon faces twelve people and five camels—a group compiled from multiple photographs. These men, women, and children may represent citizens of Khartoum whom the major-general intended to protect.

Notice the compass in Gordon’s hand. Using his engineering skills, he devised a plan to dig a system of trenches to defend the south of the city. 

He also placed a flotilla of gunboats (reinforced steamboats) along the banks of the Blue and White Nile rivers seen in the background. Perhaps the dozen people stand in for the Khartoumians who carried out the hard labor.

When the situation declined further, Gordon disobeyed the British government’s command to return home. After holding up against the Mahdi-led rebels for over a year, Khartoum fell and Gordon was killed. 

The twelve people opposite Gordon may instead be substitutes for the Mahdi rebels.

Made from the vantage point of a sitting room in England, this image reinforces a British citizen’s view of the events that took place far away and, in the process, secures the social and political position of this upper-class white woman and her family, who benefited from Britain’s global might.

General "Chinese" Gordon, Murdered by the Followers of the Wadi at Khartoum from an untitled album (after 1885) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Major-General Gordon was a popular figure with the British public and the legend of his dramatic death cemented his place as a hero in the eyes of many. This scene provides an unexpected serious side to an album filled primarily with lighter aspects of upper-class British life.

General "Chinese" Gordon, Murdered by the Followers of the Wadi at Khartoum from an untitled album (after 1885) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Artistically, this collage is radical. In the 1920s or 1930s, a Surrealist such as Salvador Dalí or a Dadaist such as Hannah Höch, would have envied this composition with its multiple perspectives, varied scales, and chaotic, dense montage of imagery.

[Woman in a room with hanging heads] from an untitled album [Woman in a room with hanging heads] from an untitled album (1880s–1890s) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Surreal Situations

A collage artist wielded great power through her choice of imagery and setting.

This particularly gory image illustrates a scene from Bluebeard, a folktale about a rich man who serially decapitated his new wives and hung their heads in a sealed underground room. 

Eventually, his still living wife “of the day” discovered the horrific remains of her predecessors and plotted to kill her husband.

In her selection of who to “decapitate,” the collagist may have been expressing her feelings about these family members and “friends.” In the process, she was regulating her social relationships.

[Mixed Pickles], from the Westmorland Album (1864–1874) by Attributed to Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough, or Eva MacdonaldThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This fantastical collage is a play on the parlor game, Mixed Pickles—a social activity that foreshadows the Surrealist drawing game of chance called Exquisite Corpse.

In Mixed Pickles words are written on bits of paper and tossed in a jar. They are randomly pulled out and players are challenged to make amusing sentences out of them.

Here the artist replaced the slivers of paper with colorful figures with montaged photographic heads. Lord Yarborough plunges a pickle fork into the bottle to retrieve some familiar characters . . . 

. . . his wife, Lady Yarborough, her brother-in-law Cuthbert Larking, and the popular socialite Lady Filmer. 

Through her reinterpretation of conventional photographic portraits in this whimsical parody, the artist (Lady Yarborough or an associate) transforms the truthfulness of the photographs into an imagined fantasy. 

She reminds her social circle of her and her husband’s role as welcoming hosts and matchmakers who have many a trick up their sleeve.

By mixing mechanically produced photographs with drawn and painted images, Victorian collagists created something entirely new. Anticipating a time when photography would be approached more fluidly, they played with scale and integrated multiple perspectives. They also added color with ink and watercolor in an era when photographic technology could not yet reproduce such hues.

[A Sculptor's Studio] from an untitled album (Front), From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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[Bird and Dog Fancier] from an untitled album [Bird and Dog Fancier] from an untitled album (1880s–1890s) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

These artists questioned the accepted view that photography told the truth by integrating cut-out pictures into imagined scenes or montaging several portraits of one person into a composition.

[Bird and Dog Fancier] from an untitled album [Bird and Dog Fancier] from an untitled album (1880s–1890s) by Unknown makerThe J. Paul Getty Museum

They didn’t worry about the awkward integration of photographs into their collages, relying instead on drawn elements to help unify the composition. They invited viewers to suspend disbelief.

[Woman at a Toy Counter] from an untitled album (Front)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Working within the constraints of societal conventions, these upper-class women collagists strengthened social ties, forged romances, and humorously entertained their circles. 

At the same time, they found empowerment in their compositions by creatively and subversively conveying their opinions and feelings about their world.

Credits: Story

© 2021 The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

For more on Victorian photocollages:

Geoffry Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum/Princeton Architectural Press, 2004)

Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art (Yale University Press, 2000)

Elizabeth Siegel, ed. Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2009)

Morgan Hamon, former graduate intern in the Department of Photographs, J. Paul Getty Museum talks about the anonymous photocollage album featured in this exhibition in this Facebook Live video

To cite these texts, please use: “Radical Whimsy: Victorian Women and the Art of Photocollage” published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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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