A new book “William England – Views of Switzerland – A Collector’s Catalogue” is now available on lulu.com which provides more detail on William England and catalogues over 500 of his views reproduced in half scale in black and white (a colour version is available at a higher price).
One of the best early photographic records of a tour of the Alps was created by William England (1830-1896). As the principal photographer for the London Stereoscopic Company (LSC), he was one of the most admired and best-selling photographers of his day. His stereoviews demonstrate a genius for composition. He placed people in the foreground (usually including his french wife Rosalie) to provide interest and a sense of depth and scale. Sadly his oeuvre has been neglected by historians and he is little known today.
William joined the LSC in 1854, the year of its foundation. He became pre-eminent among their in-house photographers and was sent to North America in 1859 and 1860, bringing back a stunning series of views of the east of the USA and Canada. It is claimed that his view of Blondin crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope sold over 100,000 copies, making it probably the best-selling stereoview of all time. He also made a series of views of Ireland in 1858, Paris in 1860 and was the official photographer for the International Exhibition of 1862 in London.
The LSC did not acknowledge the photographer in its published views. Maybe William England did not feel he was getting the recognition, or indeed recompense, he deserved for his leading role at the company. In 1862 he invented the focal plane shutter, which allowed greatly increased control over exposure times and consequently an improvement in image quality. Perhaps realising that he could capitalise on his invention, in 1863 he left LSC to form his own photographic enterprise.
His first major project was to photograph a tour of the Alps on behalf of the Alpine Club. In the summer of 1863 his travels took him to some of the most famous tourist spots: Geneva, Lausanne, Chillon Castle, Sallanches, Chamonix, Gorges du Trient, Martigny, Sion, Zermatt, Interlaken, Grindlewald, Lauterbrunnen, Reichenbach, Rosenlaui, Thun, Berne and Fribourg. The fruits of his labours were published as a series of 130 stereoviews entitled ‘Views of Switzerland – Under the Special Patronage of the Alpine Club’. Subsequent trips expanded the number of views of the Alps to over 1000.
The Alpine Club was founded in 1857, originally as a dining club for like-minded alpinists. By 1865, there were 290 members and, over the years, it has attracted the cream of British mountaineering. It still exists today, its original ethos of providing a meeting point for like-minded souls undiminished, and by now possessing the finest mountaineering library in the world.
The last word on 1860s alpine photography in general and England’s photographs in particular, shall be left to the Alpine Club Journal of 1865-66:
‘It is not surprising that photographs of alpine scenery are taken annually in great numbers, and very widely appreciated, more widely perhaps than similar views of any other localities. The effects of snow and ice are reproduced with singular beauty and clearness by photography; and the absence of colour, which is the great drawback to all photographic pictures, matters comparatively little where light and shade, and dark rocks and bright snow, form the chief features of the scene. The great clearness of the air in fine weather enables the photographer to work at great advantage, and the views annually offered to the public are marvellous both for beauty and cheapness. Of the enterprising artists who have thus made stay-at-home people familiar with every region of the Alps, the best known is probably M. Braun of Dornach, whose camera has visited the Grands Mulets and the Theodule Pass, the summit of the Titlis and the icefall of the Morteratsch Glacier; and whose alpine pictures, of all sizes and of all localities, may be reckoned by thousands. But the adventurous Frenchman has recently been rivalled by one or two others, of whom Mr. England is the most skilful. By the untravelled eye, indeed, Mr. England’s work might fairly be judged the best of all; for his pictures excel Braun’s both in perfection of workmanship and in artistic grouping. He has a better eye for the picturesque than his French rival; and has the experience of his predecessors to aid him. The mountaineer, however, will for the present prefer Braun, who seems very often to take a view simply for the topographical detail included in it, so that a collection of his pictures contains a large store of information valuable to the intending climber. We can only express a hope that Mr. England will include in his next tour visits to a few scenes which the hoof of the tourist’s mule cannot reach. He will find views equally picturesque with those he has already published, and the great mechanical skill displayed by him will be a guarantee for his reproducing accurately the forms and proportions of the mountain scenery.’
An American Journey – The photography of William England, Ian Jeffrey
Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland 1840-1940 (www.cartedevisite.co.uk)
William England (1816–1896), Gérard Bourgarel, Pro Fribourg 149/2005
Alpine Club Committee Meeting Minutes 1864
Alpine Club Journal, Vol II 1865-66, p48. Alpine Photographs
William England – vues stéréoscopiques du Valais, Yves Biselx, AVIA, ISBN 9782839909341
William England – a collector’s catalogue, Peter Blair, http://www.lulu.com