The Photographic Experiments of Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo)

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The career of Frederick Rolfe as a photographer began about the same time he became Baron Corvo. Although, as Hadrian the Seventh bears witness, he would continue to cherish hopes for it, in reality his career in the Church had just come to an ignominious end, and at least for the time being he needed a new sacred calling to which to devote his talents. Art seemed to be the obvious choice.

Having been given an ultimatum in mid-April, 1890, to remove himself from the Scots College, a seminary in Rome for training British candidates for the priesthood - his expulsion being based evidently on unspecified "violations of rules" and perhaps more to the point, the running up of sizeable personal debts for which tradesmen were importuning the College - Rolfe took to his bed and refused to budge. His tactic of passive resistance failed; as the day of the ultimatum, May 3, drew to a close, the servants at the College deposited him on the sidewalk in front of the seminary, bed and all. Later that month Caroline, Duchess of Sforza-Cesarini, the British-born widow of an Italian noble and, like Rolfe, a convert to Catholicism, to whom he had probably gotten an introduction through a nephew of hers who had been a fellow-student with him at Oscott, his previous seminary, offered him her hospitality at her villa at Genzano. It was she who, Rolfe claimed, that summer bestowed on him the title Baron Corvo, by which he was to be known henceforth.

At Genzano he met the Italian boys whom he would eventually immortalise in Stories Toto Told Me and In His Own Image. He listened to their talk, but he also painted them, and photographed them, in what was evidently his first serious photographic work. Rolfe was self-taught as a photographer, and while we know he was involved with the medium while in his first seminary at Oscott - he left behind a chemist's bill there for photographic supplies - there is no previous work by him known.

Among the boys Toto Ephorus especially enchanted Rolfe; the later books are effusive in their descriptions of all the boys, but particularly Toto, and one very telling study the newly-created Baron took of him - apparently nude, although a sprig of leaves leaves one in doubt - is preserved, and can be found reproduced in Miriam Benkovitz's Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo (Putnam, 1977) as plate IVa. The same study of Toto, and four more of the photographs of the boys from that idyllic summer near Rome are reproduced in Donald Week's Corvo: Saint or Madman? (McGraw Hill, 1972), including one of Tito Biondi, another of the youths, with Guido, Toto's younger brother. These two photographs also are reproduced in Brian Reade's Sexual Heretics (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970).

All good things must come to an end; somewhere around November Rolfe was back in the cold of England.

These photographs, vaguely reminiscent of artistic snapshots, and thus apparently so commonplace to our eye today in regard to their technique (the subject matter being quite another matter; as nudes of persons apparently under the age of 18, if done today in The Netherlands today they would earn Rolfe a long prison sentence for child pornography!) were rather revolutionary for their day, in two respects. The first is that they were done in plein-air. In 1890 photography (particularly portrait photography or nudes) was still largely something done under the tightly controlled conditions of a studio, where one could be sure of having the all-important lighting correct. There were, of course, subjects which had to be photographed outdoors - battlefields, pyramids and temples, cityscapes - but these, like most of the nudes as well, reveal the second difference. Prior to 1890 photography was basically conceived as a medium which was in the service of other goals - a "mirror of nature" which provided topographic records, reference studies for artists too poor to hire models, etc. - and not as a medium for artistic expression in and of itself. There were other photographers of about the same date who were also calling this view of the nature and use of photography into question. One was Thomas Eakins, in the United States, who moves beyond reference studies and pictorial notes for future paintings to create photographs which appear intended as works of art in their own right. F. Holland Day, also in America, and with him those who would become the Photo Secessionists (Stieglitz, Clarence White, Steichen), were enunciating a whole aesthetic specifically for photography. In England there was F.W. Sutcliffe, whose studies of village life in Whitby - including groups of boy nudes such as "Water Rats" and "His First Bathe" - did not depart too greatly from the prevailing aesthetics of genre painting in the day. There were still other photographers who did not look to a new and separate photographic aesthetic, but reached back to the prevailing academic conceptions of art, and tried to translate them directly into the new medium; a name that comes immediately to mind there is that of another Baron - one with a rather better claim to his noble title than Baron Corvo - who was just getting his career under way in Italy at that date, Wilhelm, Baron von Gloeden, in Taormina. Although their aesthetics were somewhat different, the two Barons had two things in common - working in Italy, with good light, they both took their work into the open air; and they both saw photography as a medium for creating art in and of itself.

Rolfe's photographs were startling enough to earn them a place in the art journals of the day. Gleason White, the editor of the British journal The Studio, illustrates his article "The Nude in Photography," in the issue of June 15, 1893, with two prints by Rolfe, one from the 1890 series from Rome, and a second later one made after his return to England. A further portrait of a thirteen-year-old boy - Gleason White's son Eric - is reproduced a month later, on July 15. The same, June 15 article on the nude is also accompanied by the first prints by Von Gloeden to ever be published in England, and the same issue contains Sutcliffe's "Tail Piece," the clothed buttocks of 15 village boys leaning over a wall. Writing of Rolfe there, the White says "[He is] an amateur photographer who brings artistic instinct into play, and knows the right moment to choose for representation."

Although he is not mentioned in any other modern histories of photography, Rolfe is extensively discussed in Emmanuel Cooper's Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography (Unwin Hyman, 1990), where still another of the Italian photographs - by all appearances, again of Tito and Guido - is reproduced as plate 125. Writing of Rolfe's work, Cooper says, "The studies are soft and misty in a blend of pictorialism and aestheticism, sensual rather than sexual, with a romantic rather than materialist air. All are to some extent portraits, in which setting and pose are vital to the expression of `natural innocence' and unspoilt but worldly charm. None shows details of genitalia, nor are they directly solicitous of the viewer's sexual interests... all evoke a misty, slightly veil-like purity, seen as if in a dream." (p. 154). It is here that the distinction between the aesthetics of Rolfe's nudes and those of Von Gloeden and his contemporaries in Italy, Pluschow, d'Agata and especially Galdi, comes to the fore; the overt sexuality and physicality present in their male nudes is absent from Rolfe. Rolfe makes, then, somewhat strange company in the other modern study to mention him - Thomas Waugh's Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography (Columbia, 1996), with still another shot of Tito and Guido in posing pouches (plate 2.11). The eroticism that is there - and there clearly is an eroticism present - is quite subtle and indirect. Only one of these images - that of Toto reclining legs apart on a garden seat - is sexually provocative, in both the pose and the direct gaze into the camera, but unlike similar pictures by Von Gloeden and his contemporaries, the genitals are masked by the leaves. It is possible that for Rolfe this had something to do with the ages of the boys; one must, in light of the infamous Venice letters, assume that the photographs referred to in his correspondence (but evidently now lost) Rolfe took of his somewhat older gondoliers, Carlo and Zildo, in the last five years of his life, were rather more sexually explicit. Still another and related point to bear in mind is that Rolfe's work - perhaps several hundred negatives at the most - was largely undertaken for his own enjoyment, unlike the commercial production of the Italians, which had to appeal to a distinctly homosexual clientele.

Rolfe had a second use for his photographs, which came more into the foreground in his later work in England. This was in a sense a more traditional use than his Italian studies, intended as art in themselves. The same writer, in The Studio, makes reference to this when he says of the English photograph reproduced there: "The reclining figure, taken by the same artist, is so good as a decorative motive that it is given with no reference to its intrinsic value as a photograph, although distinctly good on that ground."

Although Rolfe by no means abandoned photography, after his return to England in the autumn of 1890 he shifted more to painting. However, as A.J.A. Symons observed in a 1926 lecture on Rolfe, almost with understatement, "draughtsmaship was his weakness." Rolfe was evidently aware of this, and tried to compensate by projecting photographs or lantern slides of models on the wall or canvas, and drawing by tracing around these. There is no particular shame in that - artists have used similar means for generations (the camera obscura; and David Hockney has, for instance, recently suggested that the proper understanding for the century's old `slander' against Caravaggio, that he `frequented dark cellars for painting,' is that he was using a camera lucida); Rolfe was simply applying the very newest technology to solving an old problem. In the collection of Donald Weeks there is preserved, for instance, a photograph of Cecil Castle, the 21-year-old cousin (and likely lover) of Charles Kains-Jackson, a member of the British Uranian circle and acquaintance of Rolfe's at Christchurch, Hampshire, where Rolfe fetched up in 1891. Nude except for a knitted cap, his is caught on one leg rushing up the beach - "flying" - in a "spontaneous" pose; Rolfe has pencilled in a spear, shield and wings, and used it as the basis for a wall-hanging of St. Michael, for his decoration of the local Roman Catholic Church. Kains-Jackson writes in the magazine The Artist of another arras there done from a photograph of an Italian boy "of the most exquisite physical development" who had been caught mid-air in a leap into Lake Nemi, near Rome. Cecil also posed for Saints Sebastian and George, and is, according to Weeks, likely to be the model in the "decorative motive" that appeared in The Studio as well.

This practice could on occasion go badly wrong, however. Later, in another doomed artistic venture, the decoration of St. Winefride's Shrine in Holywell, Wales, Rolfe used the same method of projection to prepare the figures of a banner of Caradoc, the son of the prince of Penarlag, striking off the virgin Winefride's head after she resisted his attempts at rape. Unfortunately, in his haste and excitement while working on this banner, Rolfe failed to remember that lantern slides, if not projected with the correct side facing the screen, reverse their orientation, so that on the banner Caradoc is committing his crime wielding his sword with his left hand, rather than his right.

Rolfe has another point to his credit in photographic history, as one of the early experimenters with colour photography. The photography journals at the turn of the last century were full of reports from various experiments, and some of these, in The Artist of July and August, 1891, concern work by Rolfe. He indicates that he began his experiments in the summer of 1890 in Italy. The "discovery" was evidently accidental, and by no means replicable; Rolfe indicates that he was able to obtain colour prints from about 30 out of 300 negatives tried. In typical Corvine fashion, despite a lot of huffing and puffing, he will tell nothing of the actual procedure ("I know nothing and wish to know nothing of formulae, which are to me a stumbling block and cause for offence"), but does reveal his discovery had something to do with peculiarities of ferro-prussiate printing paper, which normally would produce a blue image, not unlike the cyanotype still known today. The results, according to those who saw them at the time, were indeed awe-inspiring; a portrait of a boy, the same model as in The Studio for July 15, 1893, evidently reproduced the flesh tones of the face perfectly, against a background of fawn browns. Further reports of Rolfe's colour work surface in Holywell in 1897, and Donald Weeks speaks of the process being "perfected" by that date, saying "The secret of his final process was an emulsion with which both plates and paper were coated, without the use of any foreign pigment or coloured lenses." (p. 143) It would appear that Rolfe never attempted to take out a patent on the process; it is likely he himself never understood how it worked. Whatever his process was, it did not involve the three layers of emulsion each sensitive to one part of the spectrum - a solution which Rolfe publicly scorned - which ultimately was the answer to the problem of colour photography. After Holywell, both colour photography, and to a large extent photography itself, vanish from Rolfe's concerns as he turned to literature for his livelihood, or at least such livelihood as it would provide him.

One last word needs said about some reputed photographs by Corvo, which appeared in the April, 1934, issue of The Bookman, accompanying an article by Leonard Moore, "More about Corvo." Moore was Rolfe's last literary agent, during the final year of his life. With his final letter to Moore, of October 3, 1913, less than a month before his death, Rolfe sent him a packet of photographs which included "two hideous libels of me" - one a nude of Rolfe - and nine others. Moore assumed the others to be by Rolfe, and later published them as such. In actuality, according to Weeks (page 407), although they were taken with Rolfe's camera they must be attributed to Rolfe's last companion, Thomas Wade-Browne, who would also be the man who found Rolfe's body. He later crossed paths with Norman Douglas, who in Looking Back describes him as possessing "a rich store of memories and a crapulous turn of mind." It is in some strange way fitting that Rolfe's "last photographs" should not be his own.

Rolfe was part of that era in photography when it was easier to be original; there were fewer role models around. In the course of his brief career as a photographer - eight years at the outside - he indeed produced original work which earns him at least this footnote in photographic history. He never made any particular money from his career - but for that matter, neither did his writing make any real money for him while alive. It's just that his career as a writer did last longer, and is his real claim on posterity.

1) This is the English text of an article by D.H. Mader, β€˜De Fotografische experimenten van Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo)’ which originally

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