Sunday, July 10, 2011

Before the Camera -- July 10, 2011

Henry Van Der Weyde was a son of Doctor Peter Henri Van Der Weyde. After service in the American Civil War, Henry emigrated to England, where he became a pioneer in taking photographs using artificial light.

"The American Duchess of Marlborough is not pretty..." I don't think the Duchess of Marlborough in 1889 was an American, but her close relative in-law, Lady Randolph (Jennie) Churchill, mother of Winston was. But she was pretty. The photo above shows her. It was not taken by a Van der Weyde.



One finds so our world celebrities passing down Regent street on a pleasant afternoon that he keeps bobbing from one to another aad often, loses all. "There goes Lord Tennyson." "Quick! The Duke of Portland was in that carriage. I wonder if that was Miss Dallas-York with him?" "There goes a carriage with royal arms!" "Oh, where? I did not see any of them;" and so on all the time, While I was trying to push to the front a grand carriage drove up to the sidewalk, then another and another; a red carpet was laid down to the door; there was a flash of jewels; some bundles of millinery quickly sprang out. I glanced to the coachmen and footmen; they all bad big posies and satin ribbons in their buttonholes. Then I knew the real reason of the crowd. It was 'drawing-room day" in Regent street. After being presented at court the beauties were coming to be photographed.

The London photographers usually receive no other customers on that day. Most of the royalists go to Vander Weyde now. It is a singular fact that Vander Weyde, with this old historic Dutch name, is really an American, who came to London penniless after the war. As the carriages rolled up the crowd increased. Several ladies in the street tried to go up, but were repulsed by the grim servant in livery at the door. When the Duchess of Marlborough swept in the excitement became tremendous and I could stand it no longer, so I found myself following yards and yards of black brocatelle, tulle, lace, passementerie, jets and feathers up the wide staircase to the little Moorish waiting room.

The American Duchess of Marlborough is not pretty, but she has a fine presence, and carries herself with grace and dignity, and a little self consciousness or exalted looks, perhaps. She was dressed in court mourning, with the magnificent family jewels, which were once the laurels of a splendid home. I thonght her dressed in the best taste of any of the ladies in the gallery. Many portraits of Lady Randolph Churchill hang about, from the simple American girl in white muslin when she first came over to the more mature woman of the world in her court dress, with the star of India blazing on her bosom. The magnificent Duchess of Leinster was there, with her head lifted like a great stag on the alert. Her pictures do not do her justice. She must be seen in the flesh to appreciate her color as well as her form.

I heard one stout lady of past 40 say: "Oh, you naughty American, boy, why don't you make me look like Adelaide Detchon or Dorothy Daae? These are two professional beauties that Vander Weyde has made famous. A good deal is expected from him sometimes. Most of his pictures are taken by electric light, and by the use of colored glass which softens and subdues the lines of the face and gives to the skin of each woman its loveliest natural color, and makes some plain women look beautiful.

My hour lengthens to two or three, then, when all the trains have departed, I was taken to the studio, where the work of the real artist is seen one might almost say he is a photographer only in play, an artist in earnest, for while he often rushes down to pose some important person he gets back to his painting as soon as he can, and sometimes works until after midnight, forgetting club and society.

We had tea from some dainty cups of egg shell porcelain, and I asked him how he became interested in photography. It was by an accident -- a terrible accident.

He was a Seventh regiment boy. In the war he was captured, and was in Libby prison for more than two years. He was always of an inventive genius, and could not be idle even amid the horrors which surrounded him. While there he conceived some inventions which made him a fortune when he came out.

Then he spent five years in European travel, and visited many then little explored countries. A sudden change swept away his fortune, he was in London and wondering what to do; chance took him into a photographer's. He was told he could not be taken that day, it was too foggy. Without thinking he said: "Could not one be taken by artificial light?" "There would be a fortune for the man who could invent one," the clerk replied. That night he went to work. His first idea was to collect the rays of the son in a gigantic burning glass; at great expense he had one constructed, hollow and filled with water. The room for experiment was in a north light; had it been under the sun's rays the monster glass could have melted a man to a grease spot.

One day while he was seeking there came a terrific explosion, the glass burst, he was knocked down and deluged with water, one of the fragments piercing his arm, pinned him to the floor and severed an artery, while the blood spurted to the ceiling. The inmates of the house, hearing the noise, rushed to the room to find him senseless. He was taken to bed and for months lay in a raging fever. The room was locked, and when he was at last allowed to walk he opened the door and found the floor scattered with fragments of glass and the blood stain on the ceiling -- the thought of his days of wasted labor was too much. He fainted and had a relapse.

When he recovered he heard that a discovery had been made -- the electric light. This was what he had been searching for. He hired a poor photographer to work for him nights, and at last perfected the invention for which all the court beauties thank him when drawing room day is a foggy one.

The pictures produced by it are peculiarly soft and suggestive without changing the likeness of the face, for they need but little retouching. The great advantage is that the light is movable, so that when a pose is caaght it can be experimented with from every point.

London Cor. Philadelphia Press.

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