An Early Photographer
My name is Caroline Emily Nevill. I was born on 31st May 1829 as the eldest daughter of Wil-liam Nevill, the 4th Earl of Abergavenny, and Caroline Leeke. My brother, William, was born in 1826, followed by two sisters–Henrietta Augusta in 1830 and Isabel in 1831. My youngest brother Ralph was born in 1832.
If you look for more information on my father and his family, you will find me listed as ‘An Early Photographer’, whereas my sisters are listed according to their marital status: Henrietta ‘mar-ried on 10 July 1855 to Hon. Thomas Lloyd-Mostyn and had issue’, and Isabel ‘married on 23 January 1854 to Rev. Hon. Edward Vesey Bligh and had issue’. Henny’s husband died when he was only 31, leaving her to take care of two boys. But there was so much more to her than just ‘married.’
My sisters and I, nicknamed ‘The Trio’, were introduced to photography by W.J. Thomas — the antiquarian, amateur photographer, and editor of the journal Notes and Queries. In our lifetime we got the chance to exhibit at the Photographic Society in London in 1854, now known as The Royal Photographic Society. It’s worth noting that seven years later, in 1861, journalist and writer Isabella Mary Beeton’s book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, would be published.
Comprising recipes and advice for housekeeping, it would become a popular manual, re-emphasising the Victorian belief that a woman’s role was to manage the home. In that re-gard, getting our work exhibited at the Photographic Society was not a small achievement. However, there were detractors.
In a book titled Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840-1860 which would be written almost 200 years since we first exhibited, authors Larry J. Schaaf and Roger Taylor would write: ‘When the sisters exhibited in 1854 at the Photographic Society in London, the Athenaeum’s observation was that aristocratic ladies “taking sun pictures is cer-tainly as useful and beautiful an occupation as crochet and Berlin-work.”’
The Athenaeum was a private member’s club founded in London in 1824 for men and women with intellectual interests, especially though not exclusively for those who attained some dis-tinction in science, engineering, literature or the arts. Truth be told, it’s only recently that The Athenaeum fully opened its doors to women.
My sisters and I weren’t fazed by the opinions of a group of prejudiced men and their cronies. In fact, Henny and I became members of the Photographic Exchange Club when it was founded in 1855. The purpose of this club was to allow photographers the means by which they could trade and distribute their pictures among themselves and an interested public. Between 1855 and 1857, it produced as many as four albums containing images shared by its members. These albums could be considered as the earliest publications of photographic art for art’s sake. Be-tween 1855 and 1858, I contributed architectural views of Kent, such as the Allington Castle, done with waxed-paper negatives, and to the Amateur Photographic Association after 1859. Henny’s contributions were in the form of images called Eridge Park and Oak Tree.
I never got married and I don’t think I regretted it either. Remember I said there was so much more to Henrietta that just being ‘married’? Well, she commissioned the Mostyn Art Gallery in Llandudno as headquarters for the Gwynedd Ladies’ Arts Society. Henny donated £10.10, which is worth £1200 today. Mostyn is considered to be the first art gallery dedicated to exhibiting work by and women artists in the world. It was also a precursor to the present MOSTYN gallery in Wales.
Between June and July 1861, my sisters, our mother and I visited the photography studio of Camille Silvy to get our portraits made. You can find these portraits in the National Portrait Gal-lery. It’s funny that Camille got Henny and my name mixed up. You will see that he has correct-ed our names on the portraits. What gives me joy though is that Henny is described as ‘Photog-rapher and philanthropist; President of Llandudno Hospital, Wife and Daughter’, in that order.
You may wonder that – in talking about my life – why did I talk so much about Henrietta? It’s not least because she is my sister, but because of her contributions to the field of photography. Art is a predominantly male space. It’s imperative that women and non-binary artists reference and build up their contemporaries to ensure that no one is forgotten, no one is left behind. In soli-darity, we can reclaim spaces and open doors that have so far been closed to us.
A Creative Non-Fiction Piece by Shyama Laxman