Looking at the world as if it were a picture is a relatively recent phenomenon, yet nowadays, with the advent of smartphones and social media, the practice of producing pictures is embedded in our daily routine, and the term “picturesque” is more relevant than ever.
The Rievaulx Terrace at Duncombe Park in Yorkshire triggered my interest as it makes such a picturesque use of the exquisitely ruined Cistercian abbey nearby. Both sites are well recorded in a photo reportage I found in the Conway Library while digitising the box. The focus of the photo series, partly conducted for Country Life, are the temples, especially the rotunda, which gives us a trustworthy example of how the Rotunda in Stowe, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, should have looked like before Borra remodelled it. Of all 113 pictures, two are clearly outstanding; they were taken by Anthony Kersting.
Despite being described forty years ago as the foremost photographer of his generation, there are no publications dedicated to Anthony Kersting’s work. Although evaluating Kersting as the best photographer of his generation is a matter of personal judgement and every scholar or critic has his favourites, what is undeniable is the value of his contribution to the British photographic scene and his place alongside photographers like Yersbury, De Mare and especially Edwin Smith. Carefully selected and framed, their pictures poignantly explored another Britain, prizing evolution rather than revolution, variety, rootedness, and respect for landscape and vernacular architecture.
If we analyse Kersting’s pictures in detail, we can trace his painstaking and meticulous approach to framing architecture. Looking at the negatives, the brightly centre-lit abbey stands out immediately as the protagonist of the composition. The horizon is high in the picture – above the centre line – which places emphasis on the nature of the landscape. Indeed, the vantage point chosen by the photographer perfectly positions the viewer to enjoy the content of each plane of the image. Our sight of the distant hills might have been blocked by the foliage that dominates both sides of the photographs but, as it is, this position gives us an all-encompassing view, as in Claude Lorrain’s paintings. The abbey, like the two temples, stands perfectly vertical, framed between the wavy grass lawn and a dramatic cloudy sky – Kersting’s signature. In the image of the Ionic Temple the vantage point chosen is especially significant: to obtain his chosen angle, Kersting would have had to walk down the slope to position his tripod and wait until all the columns were fully lit.
To conclude, Rievaulx Terrace constitutes a unique example of landscape moulded on a picture’s composition before photography came along. Even if the visitor – an 18th-century guest of Duncombe or 21th-century influencer – perceives the Rievaulx landscape as natural and spontaneous, it is in fact totally constructed on a vantage point to recreate the effect of picturesque paintings. Likewise, looking at Kersting’s photographs through his framing device – a half plate camera – we can see that he didn’t just construct a picture, he also altered the vertical lines, as though he were a painter.
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Volunteer