Neo-Victorian Review – Darwin, photography, and the ‘screaming Victorians’ of Anthony Rhys’s visual biofiction Or; Whose Biofiction is it Anyway?

Emily Turner is a first year doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, where she is studying the medical humanities with a specific focus on locating archives of patient publications produced in mental health institutions between 1850 and 1950. You can find out more by following her at https://twitter.com/emilyjessturner, or read more of her journalism and academic writing at https://emilyjessicaturner.wordpress.com.

Image: Asylum Feeding, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.

Image: Asylum Feeding, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.

If you attended the BAVS conference held in Cardiff earlier this year, you may have had time to explore the gallery of screaming Victorians adorning the walls of the registration room. If not, it is worth taking some time to get acquainted with the fascinating legion of howling, devastated, vindictive and enraged men, women and children that populate artist Anthony Rhys’s collection of work.

Rhys, whose work has been described as ‘emotional archaeology’ and ‘Neo-Victorian bio-fiction in paint’, explores the emotional lives of dispossessed, alienated, excluded, and institutionalised people in the Victorian period. His projects often focus on the history of a town and its inhabitants, and his portraits are linked to real people in Welsh history.

The human subjects of these portraits, and indeed the works of art themselves, are amalgamations.  Rhys’s process of creation utilises written sources, such as Welsh newspaper coverage of scandals, combining them with visual sources, such as period appropriate photographs from his own collection or institutional photographs from prisons, and photographs demonstrating facial expressions sent to him by friends and colleagues.

It is interesting to explore why his oil paintings have been described as biofiction, a genre which retells the stories of ‘real life’ people. It differs from biography through its process of creatively filling in the semantic ‘blanks’, reinterpreting the narrative as literature, rather than faithfully recounting historical evidence.

Image: Rose, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.]

Image: Rose, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.]

“My practice forms a type of tripartite – I find a story I want to illustrate, I find an image I’d like to work from – such as a rich lady depicted on a calling card – and then I look for the expression I want, and match it to the face,” said Rhys as I spoke to him about his exhibition held during the BAVS 2016 conference.

“The story comes first, and then I find the images I want to work with – or sometimes it works the other way around. I work in a school with lots of women, and I asked them to send in pictures of themselves pulling various facial expressions, and I use these to inform my paintings.”

Multiple lives, both real and imagined, are hybridised within Rhys’s paintings, which are also informed by the photographic records of Usk Jail, a Welsh prison.

Rhys’s paintings, therefore, are often populated by those who exist on the outskirts of society – madwomen, delirious men, runaways, suicides, drunkards, workhouse inmates, criminals, fallen women. They are mistreated or peripheralised – and are thus very, very angry, an emotion that cannot be mistaken or ignored by the audience.

"Horror and Agony", from a photograph by Guillaume Duchenne. Figure 21 from Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Picture in public domain.]

“Horror and Agony”, from a photograph by Guillaume Duchenne. Figure 21 from Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Picture in public domain.]

The paintings are therefore aggressive, not least because the figures within them bellow out at the injustice of the world, at the dire nature of their situations. The works are framed so that the audience views them face on, confronted by desperate human expression. This experience is jarring, accustomed as we all are to the morose, demure expressions of Victorians in contemporary portraiture.

Due to this starkly recognisable difference to our conventional understandings of Victorian portraiture, these images share a visual and thematic relationship to the scientific illustration incorporated by Charles Darwin in his 1872 work, The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Not only connected by their similar imagery – illustrating highly emotive faces rarely seen in Victorian portraiture – the two collections of pictures are related by their use of (or reference to) the medium of photography.

With the publication of Expression, Darwin became ‘one of the first scientists ever to publish photographs in a scientific treatise’[1]. Multiple photographs exemplifying a range of human expressions and states of being were utilised in this text order to illustrate his work and reinforce his argument that ‘it follow[ed], from the information thus acquired, that the same state of mind is expressed throughout the world with remarkable uniformity; and this fact is in itself interesting, as evidence of the close similarity in bodily structure and mental disposition of all the races of all mankind’[2].

Image: Photographs from the 1862 book Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine by Guillaume Duchenne. Later republished in Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Picture in public domain

Image: Photographs from the 1862 book Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine by Guillaume Duchenne. Later republished in Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Picture in public domain

A visual pioneer whose work contributed to the semantic association of photography with the ‘objective’, Darwin uses the medium in an attempt to get to the ‘truth’ of a person: he ‘wanted his pictures to have a semantic force, to embody a general truth about human or animal physiognomy’[3].

Darwin’s attempt to objectively represent the ‘truth’ of human emotion impacting on the body to generate expression is also present in Rhys’s portraits, which feature Victorians unabashedly allowing their true feelings to show.

As biofiction, his works attempt to echo something ‘true’ through a fictional and creative medium, and the paintings are explicitly related to real historical characters, who express ‘genuine’ emotion relevant to their states. Likewise, his works are inspired by the ‘truthful’ medium of photography – “I have a wealth of photographic images – formal, informal, institutionalised – that I use when creating my work. All people with different histories,” said Rhys.

Image: Illustration of grief from Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Picture in public domain.

Image: Illustration of grief from Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Picture in public domain.

Rhys’s work could also be said to be informed by another photographic genre which has been emphasised for its supposedly authentic representation of a person’s individual being. Rhys is fascinated by cartes de visitie (literally “visiting cards”), mounted photographs measuring about four inches by two and a half inches, which were extremely popular during the latter Victorian period. He has collected hundreds over a number of years, and uses them to inform his paintings. Jennifer Tucker argues that ‘the advent of the carte de visitie changed commercial photography and affected the belief in the camera’s capacity to record truth. Many people attested to the superior accuracy of cartes de visite to depict likenesses, reinforcing claims that photography was a superior method of representation […] many practitioners catered to the new craze for portraits’[4].

Image: Trio of German cartes de visite with date blindstamps, 1897, 1898 & 1900. Free to use with attribution: from whatsthatpicture, Hanwell, London, UK.

Image: Trio of German cartes de visite with date blindstamps, 1897, 1898 & 1900. Free to use with attribution: from whatsthatpicture, Hanwell, London, UK.

As Darwin searches for the ‘truth’ of human expression, and as the cartes de visitie were commended for their ‘superior accuracy’ of a person’s ‘likeness’, Rhys likewise attempts to echo the historical reality of Victorian life for those on the outskirts of society through representing the ‘true’ feelings of Victorians.

Image: James Dowling, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

Image: James Dowling, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

This desire to represent the unrepresented stems from the inevitable blanks within biographical material – Rhys’s fascination with cartes de visitie comes, as Kohlke notes, from an interest in ‘the subjects’ typically formal demeanour and vacuity of expression, which gives no indication of their emotional lives’[5].

Cartes de visitie therefore lack personal insight into the subjects’ inner experiences, and Darwin’s photographs lacks the individuating, using photography not as a way to represent specific people but to reinforce his claims of a universal kinship between all mankind.

What Rhys, however, aims to create is ‘biofictive’ work which ‘fills in the blanks’, attempting to enable a greater insight into the inner lives of the individuals he portrays, aiming to achieve in his work ‘a neo-Victorian ‘face’ to the faceless – because visually unrecorded –real-life individuals’[6]. It is important to recognise, however, that although he offers a window into the private emotional lives of his figures, his work also acknowledges and embraces the unknowability inherent within visual images.

For example, in Rhys’s picture of James Dowling, we are shown an image of a man who howls in anger or pain. This visual ambiguity references the unclear story which accompanies his image – ‘James Dowling was charged with using threatening language to David Hart, cabinet maker, Merthyr. It appears that the accused has been suffering from delirium tremens […] some doubt having been expressed as to his sanity, the case was remanded until to-day, when Dr Miles stated that he had examined Dowling, and had no reason to believe that he was insane. He believed that the excitement he laboured under was caused by drinking, and was not prepared to sign a certificate of lunacy […] Dowling himself said nothing, and conducted himself in a rational manner, but appeared to be still suffering from the effects of his attack.’ “My people have something to tell you,” says the artist. What is Dowling’s expression saying to us? Is he mentally unstable, or is he violent and vindictive? Rhys’s paintings are ‘tantalising viewers with an evocative story-fragment to imaginatively ‘complete’ the subjects’ stories for themselves’[7].

Image: Veronica, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

Image: Veronica, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

Therefore, paradoxically, Rhys’s ‘biofictive’ paintings acknowledge the impossibility of visual ‘truth’ by drawing on multiple sources to inform the central biofiction and embracing ambiguity, whilst simultaneously attempting to represent a greater insight into the ‘authentic’ emotion of the figures within the portraits. His images aim to ‘tear a hole in our map of the past, a hole in which we see our predecessors as charmingly human’, as Chris Wild says in this fascinating BBC article.

Rhys said: “People laugh at them the paintings, particularly their expressions, and that means that they’re interacting with the people in the paintings the way they would with people today. Emotion and human experience are the base of my work.” Although the artist ascertains that his attempt to humanise the figures and instigate a human connection between audience and portrait, thus, as Kohlke states, ‘reinstate and dramatise this missing feeling, filling in the blanks – much as writers of neo-Victorian imaginatively fill in the gaps in the life-stories of their historical subjects’[8], Rhys is well aware of the impossibility of a ‘true’ retelling of these Victorians’ stories.

For this reason, his work can be experienced in context with printed booklets featuring newspaper clippings illustrating the stories. “The screaming Victorians come with text, so you can either just look at the people or read about their lives,” said Rhys. “The audience can choose how to interact to it. I hope that the work is accessible, and can be enjoyed by public “customers” – local people who wouldn’t usually go to art galleries.”

Image: Eist Jacob Morgan, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

Image: Eist Jacob Morgan, by Anthony Rhys. Reproduced with kind permission of the artist

It is interesting to note that Rhys does not create his portraits as photographs, or even uses photographic manipulation of his images – he instead creates photorealistic paintings. “My favourite paintings are the ones that look as photographic as possible,” said Rhys. Painted in greys and whites, there is a distinctive photographic quality and technique to his paintings. It could be argued, therefore, that his work is as much a biofiction of the medium of photography as it is of the historical characters he represents.  Rhys’s work ‘recycles photographic traces back into the raw material for his paintings, which imitate the now established art form of photography. But like the medium he emulates in his work, the portraits’ very verisimilitude underlines their expert artificiality as neo-Victorian simulacra’[9].

Rhys’s work is self-aware enough to recognise the inherent ambiguity of the medium of photography, a discussion that was engaged with by Victorians and Neo-Victorians alike. As Tucker notes, ‘although nineteenth-century faith in photography was powerful, the idea that people over a hundred years ago accepted photographs at face value is exaggerated and misleading. Nineteenth-century viewers frequently asked many of the same questions that are asked about photographs today’[10]. To conclude, Rhys reinterprets the historical ‘truth’ not only through his amalgamated characters, but also in his use of medium. His painterly references to photography thus echo the ‘true’ lives of real people in the creative medium of painting, whilst also verifying the not-true (the amalgamated lives, the interpretation) by using the ‘scientific’ medium of photography. Rhys’s work operates within a dual space, constantly undermined and then reinforced by the untrustworthy medium of photography, which informs and underpins his work.

Anthony Rhys is a special needs teacher as well as an artist. Find out more about his work by visiting his website at http://www.anthonyrhys.com/, or by following his Twitter page at https://twitter.com/upsetvictorians.

_________________

[1] Prodger, Phillip, Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, (Oxford University Press, New York: 2009), xxiv.

[2] Darwin, Charles, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, (Penguin Books, London: 2009), 27.

[3] Prodger, Phillip, Darwin’s Camera: Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution, (Oxford University Press, New York: 2009), 23.

[4] Tucker, Jennifer, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, (The John Hopkins University Press, USA: 2005), 34.

[5] Kohlke, Marie-Luise, Resoundingly Neo-Victorian Biofiction in Paint: Review of Anthony Rhys’s Notorious, Neo-Victorian Studies, 8:2 (2016), 252.

[6] Kohlke, Marie-Luise, Resoundingly Neo-Victorian Biofiction in Paint: Review of Anthony Rhys’s Notorious, Neo-Victorian Studies, 8:2 (2016), 253.

[7] Kohlke, Marie-Luise, Resoundingly Neo-Victorian Biofiction in Paint: Review of Anthony Rhys’s Notorious, Neo-Victorian Studies, 8:2 (2016), 256.

[8] Kohlke, Marie-Luise, Resoundingly Neo-Victorian Biofiction in Paint: Review of Anthony Rhys’s Notorious, Neo-Victorian Studies, 8:2 (2016), 252.

[9] Kohlke, Marie-Luise, Resoundingly Neo-Victorian Biofiction in Paint: Review of Anthony Rhys’s Notorious, Neo-Victorian Studies, 8:2 (2016), 256.

[10] Tucker, Jennifer, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science, (The John Hopkins University Press, USA: 2005), 4.

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One response to “Neo-Victorian Review – Darwin, photography, and the ‘screaming Victorians’ of Anthony Rhys’s visual biofiction Or; Whose Biofiction is it Anyway?

  1. Pingback: Darwin, Photography, and the ‘Screaming Victorians’ of Anthony Rhys’s Visual Biofiction – Emily Turner·

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