Born in the English enclave of Ludlow, Shropshire on July 9, 1830, Henry Peach Robinson was the eldest child of John and Eliza Robinson. His father was the Master of the National School of the Church of England. From an early age, the young Mr. Robinson had artistic inclinations, but sadly, Ludlow did not offer any formalized courses of study. Therefore, Mr. Robinson acquired his artistic education by working for several booksellers and printers throughout Ludlow, Leamington, and London.
From 1844-1856, Mr. Robinson created hundreds of sketches (pen and pencil), etchings, and watercolor paintings, but by the 1850s, the art of photography became his sole preoccupation. After learning the daguerreotype process from a colleague, he began experimenting with calotype and collodion processes. Hugh Welch Diamond, a British psychiatrist and successful photographer, took Mr. Robinson under his artistic wing. His mentor’s assistance proved invaluable in allowing him to polish his photographic methods, and these techniques were applied to commercial photography. Mr. Robinson opened his first studio in Leamington in January 1857.
Profoundly interested in the art of composition, Mr. Robinson sought to combine the fundamentals of painting into his photography. His desire to achieve realism in his photographs was not without controversy. Mr. Robinson's 1858 photograph entitled 'Fading Away' was a poignant depiction of a young woman who was succumbing to the savage effects of consumption. In producing this portrait, the photographer combined various manipulation techniques in which several negatives were printed together, which achieved the desired result that the collodion process could not. For Mr. Robinson, ensuring the aesthetic quality of the photograph was not in any way compromising the integrity of the image.
With 'Fading Away' and 'Lady of Shalott' (another interpretation of a dying female), Mr. Robinson revealed how photography could be used not merely to reproduce images but could also be applied to literary interpretation. He fervently maintained that photography was as aesthetic a form of creative expression as was painting and drawing, and sought to explore its untapped potential. However, Mr. Robinson eventually relented to the will of his detractors and confined his photographic vision to the interpretation of genre paintings and landscapes that celebrated the more genteel aspects of British society. His photographs won many awards, including Paris' prestigious International Gold Medal for the portrait, When the Day's Work is Done.
Elected to the Photographic Society of London in 1857, Mr. Robinson was eventually named its Vice President, but elected to withdraw his membership in 1891 after being censured for permitting George Davison’s late photographic entry to be included in the yearly exhibition. In addition to his studios, Mr. Robinson was also a prolific author, writing nine books and more than 150 scholarly articles. However, ill health, attributed to his frequent exposure to harsh chemicals, forced him to retire to the picturesque Kent town of Tunbridge Wells. The 'uncrowned king in photography' died on February 21, 1901 at the age of 70, leaving behind his wife Selina, three daughters, and two sons. Henry Peach Robinson's contributions to the aesthetics of photography, along with his text Pictorial Effect in Photography, continue to inspire and educate future generations.
1887 Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, Vol. XVIII (New York: E. & H. T. Anthony & Co.), pp. 361-362.
2008 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1202-1203.
1901 The Process Photogram, Vol. VIII (London: Dawbarn & Ward, Ltd.), p. 96.
1901 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Volume XXXVIII (New York: Edward L. Wilson), p. 150.
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