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Tennyson by Barraud c.1888

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‘I wish the public could compel Alfred by Act of Parliamanet to cut off his beard!’ wrote Emily in a letter to the sculptor Thomas Woolner in 1857.

In most accounts of Tennyson’s appearance he is described as tall, straight and dress in black with long, untidy hair and his characteristic beard, which he grew in about 1857 and kept for the rest of his life. His large, wideawake hat and cloak, which surrounded him even in warm weather, were an ever-present part of his public image.

The photograph taken by Herbert Rose Barraud (1845 - 1896) taken in about 1888 was published, in October of that year, in the book Men and Women of the Day no 10, accompanied by a brief biography. This describes how his grand proportions and features were significant of his descent from the ancient, honorable and noble Plantagenents, through his family the Tennyson D’Eyncourts.

Despite this lofty biography, Barraud’s image also shows Alfred’s frailties. Tennyson was short sighted from an early age and was sketched on several occasions reading with a book pressed close to his face. In the 1888 portrait, an eye glass hangs on a loop around his neck and he holds his spectacles above a closed book, as though the photographer has interrputed him at his reading.

The book is clearly visible as The Odyssey of Homer, a copy newly published in 1887 by Macmillan, translated by S Butcher and A Lang. Tennyson enjoyed reading Homer, often aloud to his wife Elizabeth in the evenings and to his sons to introduce them to literature. As well as this copy, Alfred’s library holds several copies of Homer’ s Odyssey including one in Greek published in 1843. Tennyson also referenced much of Homer’s work in his own writing, inlcuding in his poem Ulyssess. It is not known if the book in the photograph is Tennyson’s own copy.

The photograph was likely to have been taken at Barraud’s studio on Oxford Street, London. When this image was taken the carte-de-visite were out of fashion. By the 1880’s the fashion was for larger cards (24x19cm) called cabinet cards . A slightly different version of the image in the TRC collection is a copy of a cabinet card signed by Emily as a gift for a friend. Perhaps this was the family’s favoured image of Tennyson. It shows Tennyson without the book, spectacles and, most notably, without his hat.

The two images, in comparison, show how props were used to pose portrait photography. Sitters were often posed with hands resting on a table, in their lap or holding an object, such as a book. The question is, which of the two images came first? Without his hat, Tennyson looks smaller, older. The large, dark hat adds depth to the image and draws the eye to Tennyson’s face. Was it added for this reason or simply to reduce light reflections off his balding head?

The hat makes the portrait look like a posed studio portrait. Alfred would be unlikely to wear a hat indoors to read a book. Without the book, though, Tennyson looks uncomfortable and his hands sit awkwardly. With the book, he looks more relaxed. With the large, wideawake hat, the portrait is instantly recognisable as Tennyson.

Was this a conscious use of props to achieve the right image? Was there a photographer and customer discussion about which props to use?

Barraud’s photograph appears to have been one of the last photographic portraits of Tennyson. Shortly before these images was taken, Tennyson had accepted the Baronetcy and attended the House of Lords. At the end of 1888, he suffered badly with illness for several months. He was nearly the end of his career. In the same year, his friend Edward Lear died, leaving an unfinished collection of illustrations to Tennyson’s poems. A set of the illustrated poems was published in 1889 and Tennyson was still very much in the public eye.



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Last updated: 11 December 2014

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