Although Roger Fenton's photographic career lasted for only 11 years, he exerted a profound influence on the medium. Trained as a lawyer, he began to paint in the early 1840s, studying in Paris with Michel-Martin Drölling and later in London with Charles Lucy. But in 1851 he took up photography and produced a distinguished and varied body of work. He was a pivotal figure in the formation of the Photographic Society (later known as the Royal Photographic Society), garnering support from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He is best known for his 1855 photographs made during the Crimean War, among the first to document war. But he also made ambitious studies of English cathedrals, country houses, and landscapes as well as portraits of the royal family, a series of still lifes, and studies of figures in Asian costume.
When Fenton first began to make photographs, he generally posed figures in a fairly stiff, even anecdotal manner. But in 1854 he began to use figures to create a sense of tension at once intriguing and compelling. The Cloisters, Tintern Abbey shows this more dynamic approach. Fenton placed people in three groups, not interacting with one another but engaging in silent and solitary dialogue with their decaying surroundings. Tintern Abbey had, of course, inspired many artists and poets to reflect on both "the life of things"—as William Wordsworth wrote in his 1798 poem, "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey"—and on the transitory nature of life itself.
Inscription printed on mount, lower center verso: The Cloisters, Tintern Abbey Photographed & Published by R. Fenton, Oct. 1st, 1854
Marks and Labels
(Charles Isaacs Photographs, Malvern, PA): NGA purchase, 2004.