by Jon Cronshaw
A surreal portrait of the19th century is the focus of Charlotte Cory’s latest exhibition at the Brontë Parsonage Museum. Jon Cronshaw spoke to the artist about her work and lifelong passion for the Brontës.
Artist and novelist Charlotte Cory’s latest exhibition creates a surreal world where Victorian men and women become anthropomorphic animals.
But rather than being drawn or painted from the artist’s imagination, the images are made by using computer technology to seamlessly merge early photographs with images of taxidermied animals.
“There’s a parallel between taxidermy and photography – they’re both about preserving a likeness,” says Charlotte. “So there seems to be something very natural about merging the two together.”
“Victorians would go into a studio and almost be clamped into a position for a photograph.
“I think the idea of a person having to stand still for three minutes for these early photos almost makes them look like stuffed animals,”
“There’s always been something quite disturbing about photographs. It’s weird when you look at old photographs, it’s even weird when you take a photograph and see what you look like,” she says.
“The language of photography is quite violent and vicious – ‘snapshot’, ‘capturing’, ‘seizing’, ‘shooting’. So there’s a sort of violence about grabbing an image.”
The images used are taken from some of the earliest photographic portraits whose sitters’ identities have been lost in time.
“There’s nothing sadder than an old photograph that’s lost its provenance,” says Charlotte. “These are discarded photos that I’m giving a new life to – it’s creative recycling.
“I always felt sorry for discarded old photographs. They’re all of somebody – somebody who went to a studio and posed for these images.
“One day I started messing around with old photos, and just merging other things into Victorian photographs, and that completely took over my art practice.
“When you take away the face from an old photograph, you’re forced to look at the body language and the other objects in the picture that the sitter chose to be photographed with,” she adds.
“People tend to laugh at them initially, but then they start to think about what the images mean, and about what they leave behind, and suddenly they find them quite sad and rather profound.”
The original photographs are around half the size of a modern postcard and were known as Carte de Visite – a name given to them in 1854 by their French inventor André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri.
As the price of a having a photograph taken became affordable, by 1859, a craze dubbed ‘Cartomania’ swept Britain, and saw families lining up to have their portraits taken.
“When you think about what it must have been like back then – for the first time ordinary people could leave a picture of themselves as they were on that day that will exist after they died. That must have been very strange,” says Charlotte.
But perhaps as intriguing as the show itself, is Charlotte’s lifelong passion for the Brontës – from their novels to their own life stories.
“It seemed quite amazing that the alternative 19th century I’ve been creating over the years should find itself in the Parsonage,” says Charlotte. “It’s extremely exciting.”
Charlotte read her first Brontë novel, Jane Eyre, as a 10-year-old girl and has been fascinated by the Brontës ever since.
“It took me 18 months of bullying my parents to take me to the Brontë Parsonage,” says Charlotte.
“We went on the way to the Lake District from London, and I’ve never forgotten it – that was in July 1967.
“I just remember walking round and being absolutely mesmerized by everything,” she says.
“Our family had been bundled into this VW camper van, and I remember they were waiting for me in the car park telling me ‘hurry up, hurry up’, but I wanted to look at everything and read all the labels carefully.
“It’s a place that’s lodged in my mind. I went back years later and realised that it had informed so many of my tastes and interests. I realised that I’d never quite got over that experience,” adds Charlotte.