Photography as applied to flowers: Mr Stevens’ ‘prize picture’
Updated: Mar 31, 2023
'Gloire de Dijon Roses from a prize photograph by Mr Henry Stevens', from 'The Gardeners' Chronicle', February 10, 1883
After a day’s gardening, I like nothing more than to sit down with a cup of coffee and flick through the latest issue of The English Garden or Gardens Illustrated – their fabulous photographs showing me what my own efforts have, sadly, not usually quite achieved! And, like other keen gardeners, I use my smart phone to record my garden’s progress throughout the year, as well as photographing the many gardens I visit.
And yet, over the millennia of human artistic endeavour, the story of photography is still a relatively young one. As detailed in my blog The Early Amateur Photographers - and the beginnings of 'garden photography', it was during the 1830s that (pre-digital) photography first arose. By 1850, it was still seen as "a curiosity and a marvel" while, only some 10 years later, it had become widely accepted as a means of recording information and making pictures. While all this was happening, the horticultural press and the publishing world in general were mostly using images from woodcuts to illustrate their pages but, as photography advanced, ‘engravings from photographs’ began to be used. Looking more like line drawings, these were of variable quality and it was not until the early 1880s that quality photographic images appeared.
This now brings me to the photograph above of a floral arrangement entitled, Gloire de Dijon Roses, by Mr Henry Stevens (1843-1925) of King Street, Covent Garden in London. Published in The Gardeners’ Chronicle of 10th February, 1883, it's a particularly significant one in the improvement of images in the 19th century horticultural press - and had already been awarded a medal by the Photographic Society of Great Britain.
Mr Henry Stevens' "prize-winning" photograph
I first came across this photograph while researching garden photography for my MA Garden History dissertation a few years ago at the RHS Lindley Library in London, looking for published photographs by Ellen Willmott [subject of a future post]. During my time at the Lindley, poring over volumes of various Victorian horticultural publications, I found that this particular issue of The Gardeners’ Chronicle contained one of the original copies of Stevens' photograph (full page size) given away by the magazine to its readers - and I've wanted to research this in more detail ever since.
Stevens' photograph was not printed on the page, but was rather an actual photographic print loosely inserted amongst its pages next to an accompanying editorial entitled 'Floral Photography'. This issue, priced at the normal rate of 5 pence, but 7 pence for those subscribers who wanted to receive the photograph in a ‘postal tube’, was truly a first for the horticultural press – this notice appearing on its front page:
A few months earlier, The Gardeners’ Chronicle had reported on the lack of success in photographing flowers without the necessary half-tints and gradations of shadow and colour [albeit still in shades of black and white]. However, as they advised their readers, Stevens had "overcome most of those difficulties, and produced photographs which, as faithful representations of flowers, exceed anything of the kind we have seen", and they could soon judge for themselves when they published "a special reproduction… of one of Mr Steven’s prize pictures" in a few weeks' time. The Gardeners’ Chronicle was also confident their readers would agree "as to the marvellous fidelity of the photograph" – and, as this issue was something of a publishing coup, they planned a higher print run than usual.
'The Gardeners' Chronicle', January 13, 1883, advertising their publication of Stevens' photograph in a few weeks time
In a follow-up article, a week after publication of Stevens' photograph, The Gardeners’ Chronicle reported that their publication of the Woodburytype reproduction had "excited attention, not only from the excellence of the reproduction, but from the fact that this is the first occasion upon which anything of the kind has been attempted on the same scale as to numbers”. And, just a few months later (in May 1883), they reported that Stevens, whose photograph had been “universally acknowledged to be the finest of their kind yet produced”, had now prepared several sets of photographs for sale. The first set would consist of 6 selected prints, of large size and “mounted in the best style” at a cost of 5 guineas, or 3 guineas unmounted.
Woodbury Type Process
The Gardeners’ Chronicle editorial, explained to its readers the importance of Stevens’ photograph as a “specimen of photography applied to mechanical printing”. Before this, photographs used as illustrations in books and magazines were generally engravings from photographs - meaning that the quality of the reproduction was usually down to the skill of an individual engraver. But the advent of mechanical printing changed all that. As the editorial pointed out, in the early days of photography “it was the dream of far-seeing minds to utilise in the printing press the marvellous reproduction of Nature, which Daguerre in France, and Fox-Talbot in this country discovered in their researches…”.
And, although the horticultural press was a little late to the party, superior images of lush gardens and plant portraits began to greatly add to both the communication of information, and the appeal of the written descriptions they accompanied. Stevens’ photograph, Gloire de Dijon Roses, was just the beginning for the horticultural press.
While explaining in length the science behind the process, the editorial also discussed the “taste of Mr Henry Stevens, in the selection of flower subjects upon which to exercise a latent artistic perception of composition and chiaro-scuro, has been rewarded by a medal of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, at whose exhibition last year this picture, together with many other floral subjects, formed one of the chief points of attraction”. Chiaro-scuro referring to the use of ‘strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition’ – or, as The Gardeners Chronicle remarked about this particular photograph, “the artistic play of light and shade, which always leads the eye back to the principal object – the Roses themselves; the idea of colour so strongly suggested when contrasted with the white of the marble pedestal, and in a background well chosen, the partial relief of which acts as a foil to the... Roses”.
However, despite the photographer’s efforts to heighten the contrasts in a black and white photograph, for a modern audience nothing can replace the dazzling colour of the natural world. The photograph below showing Gloire de Dijon in all its gorgeous glory and, to my eyes, looking like crumpled silk.
'Gloire de Dijon'. Photograph courtesy 'Association Roses Anciennes en France'
But before I go on to discuss the Woodburytype process, here's another garden history connection that I so love which illustrates what an 'engraving from a photograph' looked like - before they were superseded by superior photomechanical images.
In February 1883 (coincidentally the same month as Stevens' photograph appeared), The Gardeners’ Chronicle published an article written by George Wilson describing how Henry Stevens and a friend, only referred to as Mr Rouch, made a chance visit to Wilson’s garden, Oakwood, in Wisley, Surrey. Mr Rouch, also a photographer, duly snapped Stevens in Oakwood’s ‘wild garden’ along with Wilson and his son. George Wilson (1822-1902) was an English industrial chemist and keen gardener who, later in life, moved to Wisley where he devoted himself to creating the garden that would later become the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society.
‘Mr Henry Stevens, Mr G F Wilson and Mr Wilson, Jun., in the Wild Garden at Oakwood, Wisley’. ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, February 10th 1883. An engraving from a photograph
So, here’s the technical bit: the mechanical printing process that produced Steven's photograph, Woodburytype, was named after Mr. W.B. Woodbury, an English photographer, who patented his invention in 1864. This process was seen as a breakthrough for "the mechanical printing of pictures produced from a photograph, containing all gradations of light and shade…".
It was the first successful photomechanical process that fully enabled the reproduction of the delicate ‘halftones’ in photographs. Therefore, a Woodburytype image is not actually a photograph, rather it’s an image (taken from a photograph) formed by a thin layer of coloured gelatin pressed upon a sheet of paper in a mould. If you’re interested in this fascinating process, please do have a look at the brief YouTube film from the George Eastman Museum which explains it far better than I can (see Further Reading/Viewing at the end of this post for details).
Henry J. Stevens (1843-1925)
So, who was Henry J. Stevens?
'Henry Stevens. From a photograph taken by himself in 1903'. Photograph licensed from lookandlearn.com
The dapper looking Stevens was already an award-winning photographer when his photograph of roses appeared in The Gardeners' Chronicle, having received the highest award for such photographs at an exhibition of the Photographic Society. And he could perhaps be considered an early ‘garden photographer’: the British Journal of Photography of October 13th, 1883 reporting that: "…it is difficult in the present stage of photography to hit upon a speciality. The feat has, however, been performed by Mr Henry Stevens, who has made the photographing of flowers his special study and ‘hobby’…".
However, photography was only a hobby. His day job was running the family firm - Stevens Auction House based in Covent Garden, London.
Advertisement for Stevens Auction House in ‘The Gardeners’ Chronicle’, January 6th, 1883
Founded in 1760, the auction house came to the Stevens family in the 1830s through Henry’s father, John Crace Stevens. Following his death in 1859, John's brother Samuel ran the business until Henry and his brother came of age - although they kept the name J C Stevens.
J C Stevens Auction House at Kings Street, Covent Gardens, London in 1835. From the cover of a sales catalogue
At the auction rooms at No. 38 King’s Street in Covent Garden a variety of goods and objects passed through their doors, but Stevens Auction House was chiefly known for the sale of objects of zoological or scientific interest – often selling many famous entomological collections, many of which contained much sought after rarities. Other items included ethnographic material and, as can be seen in their advertisement above, plants - often orchids, which attracted high prices.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Henry Stevens took out his first auctioneer’s licence in 1863 and, under his ownership, the auction house remained the major British clearing house for natural history collections for some years. A veritable “who’s who of scientists, collectors and curators who frequented the [Stevens] saleroom floor… made many an auction as much a social and scientific gathering as a commercial event”. The auction rooms continued after Henry's death until the 1940s.
J C Stevens Auction Room depicted in the painting, ‘After an Entomological Sale: Beati Possidentes’ by Edward Armitage RA, 1878. In this painting, Armitage shows himself at the Stevens Auction Rooms rejoicing over an acquisition for his collection of insects in the company of friends
Rosa ‘Gloire de Dijon’
Named by some “the glorious rose” of the 19th century, Gloire de Dijon was the first rose bred by French nurseryman, Henry Jacotot (1799-1883), from the rose growing area of Dijon in Burgundy, who named it in honour of the town. It's said to be a cross between a Tea Rose, the name of which is not known, and the old Bourbon ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. After developing this rose for several years, it was exhibited at a horticultural show in Dijon in 1852 and was awarded the Societe d’Horticulture de la Cote d’Or’s top prize.
'Gloire de Dijon' from 'The Amateur Gardener’s Rose Book' by Julius Hoffmann, 1905
According to the Association Roses Anciennes en France's website, Gloire de Dijon, once found in many a cottage garden, was famous “for the beauty of its flowers, their fragrance and its floridity”. It flowers recurrently, can reach a height of 12 ft, and has thick and heavy foliage, more like that of a Hybrid Tea. A charming old Rose but one that today is, they state, outclassed by more recent introductions.
‘Rose Gloire de Dijon on wall trellis’. Photograph from ‘The Rose Book’ by H.H. Thomas, 1913