Memorable Images – Henry Taunt

Henry Taunt (1842-1922) was one of the most influential, innovative, and prolific Victorian photographers, all but forgotten today except by River Thames enthusiasts. Based in Oxford, he produced the first* photographically illustrated guide book to the river in 1872 which he entitled:

“A new map of the River Thames from Oxford to London, from entirely new surveys taken during the summer of 1871: with a guide giving every information required by the tourist, the oarsman, and the angler”

As well as all this information there were maps showing sections of the Thames, hand coloured in blue, with small photographs of local scenes on the relevant pages. His guide was so popular it ran for several editions to the end of Victoria’s reign and was one of the reasons for the huge increase in visitors to the Thames at the end of the century, another being the increasing popularity and ease of rail travel to the various towns along the length of the river. Taunt also wrote and illustrated many other local photographic guidebooks, and his business increased to such an extent that he had a small ‘factory’ on the outskirts of Oxford in Cowley producing all the many guides and photographs he created. At his death in 1922 thousands of his glass photographic plates were destroyed, but many were rescued and are preserved in the Oxford City Library and the National Archives.

Taunt's Guide bound in

Renowned at the time (and since by those who know of him) for his photographs of the Thames, he was also a fine photographer of other subjects. These are two of my favourites:

1232444 Great Barrington Barn 1880Threshing, Great Barrington Barn 1895

Great Barrington is near Burford in the Cotswolds. This character is straight from a Thomas Hardy novel, and the strong and confident late Victorian farm labourer makes an interesting contrast to the rather depressed and resigned late 20thC American workers portrayed by Duane Hanson in the previous post!

1232416 London Bridge 1880London Bridge 1880

The bridge in the photograph was completed in 1831 to the designs of Charles Rennie and replaced the medieval Old London Bridge with its houses and shops, and executed heads on pikes in earlier times. This crossed just downstream with the City end of it more or less where the dark brick warehouse building is seen. In its turn Rennie’s bridge was replaced in 1972 by a wider concrete bridge and the old one was dismantled, sold to an American entrepreneur, and rebuilt in Arizona.

The photograph was taken from the south bank of the river in the middle of the day, the clock on the Adelaide Buildings on the right of the bridge showing 12:40. This evocative picture conjures up all the hustle and bustle of Victorian England at the time of Oscar Wilde, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Gladstone. The City of London was at the centre of a vast empire and over 8000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles were crossing the bridge every hour in this period (it is the end of the A3 trunk road from Portsmouth). You can see carts with some of the huge quantities of hay needed for the 300,000 horses in the capital, and others are filled with wheels, boxes or barrels. There are omnibuses, Hansom cabs, and private carriages jostling the commercial vehicles on the crowded bridge, with a lone policeman observing it all from the roadside!

What is remarkable about this late Victorian view of the City of London is that there are hardly any buildings above 5 or 6 storeys allowing most of the church towers to be seen, a skyline little changed for 200 years. The centre of Paris is still much like this, but the Blitz and the philistinism and greed of the City put paid to any chances of this unique skyline being preserved. There are at least four of Sir Christopher Wren’s designs in the picture: St Magnus the Martyr is the church in the centre of the image, next to his Monument to the 1666 Great Fire of London. The tower above the end of the bridge belongs to St Mary Aldermary and the spire on the far right is St Margaret Pattens. On the left of the bridge is the classical looking headquarters of one of the famous guilds of London, Fishmongers Hall, built in 1834.

A Google Earth screenshot shows just how much has changed for the worse over the following 135 years. The only recognisable building is Fishmongers Hall. You can just catch a glimpse of the golden ball on top of the Monument to the left of Richard Roger’s ‘Cheesegrater’ building above the roof of Adelaide House. Everything else is hidden or destroyed and only ugly modern buildings remain, the most recent being the dreadful ‘Fryscraper’ by Rafael Viñoly which looms over the scene like a grotesque cartoon phantom.

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Taunt images from Imagestate Media on 2/11/2011

*Russell Sedgfield was the first to use photographs in his three books on the Thames published in the mid-1860s, but these were general interest guides rather than for users of the river.

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