Voyage & Letters

The artist's van

The photographic van with Sparling on the box.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs LC-USZC4-9240

For Fenton, undertaking a photographic trip to the Crimea posed a number of practical and logistical problems, especially in 1854 when the physical requirements of the wet collodion process meant that every negative had to be carefully prepared on the spot. Working the process was a complex and painstaking business that required manual dexterity and a comprehensive understanding of photographic chemistry. In common with other photographers of the period Fenton used a mobile darkroom whenever he worked outdoors, and for his expedition to the Crimea he decided to take a carriage that had begun life in the service of a wine merchant. It was a substantial vehicle and by the time he had converted it into his “Photographic Van” it contained everything needed to prepare and process negatives in the field. The sides were given windows of yellow glass fitted with shutters and into the roof he built a pair of cisterns to supply both distilled and ordinary water. At the far end there was a bench to hold the baths and trays used to sensitise and develop negatives.

Elsewhere, every inch of space was taken up with racks and frames designed to secure the contents of the darkroom in place. There was even a small bed that folded out from under the bench, just like a modern camper van.

The photographic campaign was underwritten, at least in part, by Thomas Agnew & Sons, a leading firm of publishers and printsellers based in Manchester, and according to their subsequent advertising the venture was made “Under the Especial Patronage of Her Most Gracious Majesty and with the Sanction of the Commanders-in-Chief”. Doubtless this was the case, but of far greater significance to Fenton were the personal letters of introduction from Prince Albert which he used to establish his credentials with the British commanders and chiefs of staff in the Crimea.

Fenton must have known that he would be facing all manner of difficulties and danger when he arrived in the Crimea and to help with the chores and routines of photographing in the field he was accompanied by his assistant, Marcus Sparling, one time soldier and photographer in his right, and a lad whom we only know as William. When they gathered together on Blackwall pier, London, on 20 February 1855 to begin their voyage they had with them 700 glass plates, five cameras and lenses, several chests of chemicals, printing frames, gutta percha baths and trays, boxes of preserved meats, wine, and biscuits, the harness for three horses, and a tent, all of which was securely packed into thirty six large cases.

During whole of the time he was away from home Fenton regularly wrote long and detailed accounts of his experiences and adventures to his wife, Grace, his brother Joseph, and to Agnew in Manchester. These letters were subsequently transcribed by various members of the family into letter-books, of which two are known to have survived. Joseph Fenton's copy is now in the Gernsheim Collection, Harry Ransom Research Center, and the copy belonging to his daughter Annie Grace, is in the collection of the Royal Photographic Society, National Media Museum, where they can be consulted.

Although both letter-books frequently contain transcripts of the same letters the two versions are often very different. Joseph tends to concentrate on his brother's adventures and experiences and his transcriptions pay little regard to spelling or punctuation. Annie Grace, on the other hand, takes a more respectful approach to her father's correspondence and her letter-book is further enriched with supplementary letters not present in her uncle's copy.

Substantial extracts from Joseph Fenton's letter-book were published by Helmut Gernsheim, in “Roger Fenton: Photographer of the Crimean War“(London, Secker & Warburg, 1954). In keeping with editorial conventions of the day Gernsheim omitted most of the personal remarks and endearments and took liberties with text by silently inserting exclamation marks and other punctuation. Nevertheless, Gernsheim's book introduced Fenton's correspondence to a wider audience and for the past fifty years it has remained the standard text.

This website brings together both letter-books to publish the entire sequence of the twenty-five letters. In all cases they are published with only the lightest of editorial interventions. These are noted below.

Editorial Criteria

In transcribing the letters from the Joseph Fenton and Annie Grace Fenton letter-books, we have attempted to render a clear reading and retain the flavour of the originals. To this end we introduced a few simple editorial rules:

All editorial comments are contained within square brackets [ ].

Paragraphs and punctuation are generally absent in the letter-books. For ease of reading, we introduced paragraphs where a clear shift of subject matter took place. We have introduced punctuation to the main body of the text and this is clearly indicated by [ ] brackets.

Where words or proper names are incorrectly spelt we have provided a [sic]. In other cases we occasionally provide a corrected spelling in [ ] brackets to retain the meaning of the narrative.

The spelling conventions and punctuations of the nineteenth century have been respected and retained.

Sebastapol, Malakoff and Kadikoi are spelt in a variety of ways throughout the letters, and have been faithfully transcribed without the use of [sic].

Annie Grace Fenton frequently used the abbreviation 'wh' in place of 'which' or 'when' and the original form has been respected in our transcription.

(Professor Roger Taylor and Dr Kelley Wilder, Editors.)