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Tennyson photographed by Mayall, 1864

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This was Tennyson’s favourite photograph of himself. It was taken by Mayall, probably at Tennyson’s home on the Isle of Wight in 1864. Mayall visited twice that year in April and October. Emily’s journal entry for 22nd October simply states ‘Mayall comes to photograph’.

JJE Mayall (1813 - 1919) was born near Manchester as Jabez Meal. After Travelling to America and making a name for himself as John Jabez Edwin Mayall, he returned to England and ran a studio on Regent Street, London. Mayall’s photographs of Queen Victoria’s royal family sold 60,000 carte-de-visite in the first week. Photographic portraits of the famous were becoming important features of the Victorian home. Mayall became one of the best known commercial photographers.

The 1864 image of Tennyson was widely used in publicising the poet and his work. That year, Tennyson’s Enoch Arden was published and proved popular. The image was published in Mayall’s Photographic Portraits of Eminent and Illustrious Persons.

Mayall also used this image and Tennyson’s popularity to publicise his own photographic work. In 1865, it was exhibited in the Dublin International Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures. Mayall exhibited a series of seven versions, varying in size from the carte-de-visite to life size, aptly called ‘heroic’. From one small negative, he had achieved enlargements that were identical in proportion with no loss of detail. The TRC collection includes a life-size version of this image, measuring 60 x 44cm - much larger than the 10 x 6 cm size of the carte-de-visite.

A week after the exhibition, Mayall returned to Farringford with a collection of photographs. Emily comments that Alfred’s portrait is very fine, as though seeing the image for the first time. She records on 15th November 1865,

‘It gained prize in Dublin. Mr Mayall’s father knew nothing of his having been here nor of the experiments in enlarging photographs which he had made….The father was delighted and all photographers admitted that the son had done a new thing in photography.’

This suggests that Mayall’s eldest son Edwin Mayall (1835 - 1872), also a photographer, was instrumental in the production of these images and was a large part of the family business until his death at the age of just 37. Most of their published images and advertisements are marked simply as ‘Mayall’, ‘Messers Mayall’ or ‘Mayall, photo studio’.

Emily’s comments raise the questions; did Tennyson see the photograph before it was exhibited? Did Tennyson have control of his image once the photographer took away the negative and it could be enlarged and coloured and re-printed and re-touched?

The photograph was exhibited again in March 1866 at Mayall’s rooms in Regent Street. This time coloured versions of the image were included. Mayall held a patent for an artificial ivory. This could be painted to appear very similar to the oil-painted miniatures of the early 19th century which photography had by now all but replaced.

Is it a reflection of Tennyson’s fame that Mayall chose him as the subject to exhibit his advances in photography? Was Tennyson, the reluctant sitter, the most saleable, recognisable image for the commercial photographer to use in this way?

The photograph appears to have had positive results for both the photographer and the poet. Tennyson’s favourite photograph of himself achieved good reactions from the popular press. The Athenaeum in 1865 described it,

‘We have never seen the Laureate’s noble face more nobly rendered than in these impressions’.

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Last updated: 11 December 2014

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