Sunday, 10 October 2010

Photography with a bang: Muybridge and Sambourne's model behaviour

'Good evening major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife.'

London is good to its perverts and, in the case of Eadweard Muybridge, its cuckolded murderers, too. Muybridge (1830- 1904) is celebrated at Tate Britain until 16 January 2011 with an excellent exhibition which has only one flaw: the fêted photographer is more showman than artist. If anything, with his frame-by-frame photographs of a (clothed) woman leaping over a stool, a cockatoo on the wing or the famous flying horse, he's a pioneering filmmaker.

Amid the equine flights of fancy there are pictures of semi-clad men running, wrestling and performing acrobatics but the exhibition is shy about Muybridge's women models, including Catherine Aimer, Kate Larrigan and Blanche Epler, a particular favourite. They're pictured - naked - stepping across wet stones, walking downstairs (apparently an inspiration for Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2), acting coy ('Ashamed'), getting into bed or putting their feet up for a smoke (it probably was a tiring day in the studio).

As you leave, a final caption is desperate to make a case for Muybridge's fascination with capturing falling water: in this case being tipped over one nude woman by another. There has to be a feeling that, salesman that he was, Muybridge knew his market, even if it was only him.

Beyond Tate Britain, Muybridge is currently being celebrated in his birthplace, Kingston upon Thames. It reminds me of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's meticulous commemoration of another 19th-century photographer at the lovely Leighton House almost a decade ago.

Edward Linley Sambourne (1844-1910) was Punch's chief cartoonist who, under the pretence of needing images upon which to base his drawings - perhaps like those claiming to advance science and photography - accumulated an impressive portfolio of naked women in all sorts of mundane poses. His many models included 16-year-old Kate Manning, sisters Hetty and Lily Pettigrew, Ethel Warwick, Kate Derben, her Kennington neighbour Mrs Madge King, 'M Reid' - another favourite - and Maud Easton, of whom the most erotically charged photos were taken.

Sambourne's photo Maid sleeping in the top room at 18 Stafford Terrace (detail, pictured) would not have gone amiss in Tate Modern's recent mishit, Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, and may have been a better fit than most of the more well-known images crowbarred into that exhibition's flimsy theses. By 1905, Sambourne eschewed models for covert snaps of local schoolgirls - taken with a camera which took pictures at a right angle to the direction in which it was pointed.

- The quote at the top is said to have been spoken by Muybridge moments before he shot his young wife's lover, Major Harry Larkins. Muybridge was acquitted of murder.


  1. Great entry, but Muybridge wasn't prosecuted under English Law. The murder took place in America.

  2. Whoops, thank you for pointing that out!