In the forthcoming issue IV of Tiny Pencil, Cape artist Steven Harris has contributed and we thought we’d give you a sneak peak this Friday. Below are his thoughts on writing for the next issue’s theme: Death and Resurrection.
Pondering the theme of ‘Death and Resurrection’ for Tiny Pencil issue IV I found myself drawn further and further into Victorian death portraiture. To modern eyes, at first glance it seems peculiarly macabre to prop up a dead relative and take their photograph, in some cases as if they’re in the midst of a happy family gathering (the corpse’s expression often seeming to articulate a feeling I know all too well from family gatherings I’ve attended myself). More ghastly still are the photographs taken of dead infants or children, sitting in their Sunday best often beside shell-shocked siblings. With babes-in-arms it was sometimes necessary for an adult to sit under a blanket and hold the child in place, which looks for all the world as if Death were dandling them on the knee prior to leading them gently away. These pictures are shocking and have a horrible humour which is hard to deny. Yet, the more I looked at them - and came to understand the reasons behind them - the more poignant they became. During the Victorian era photographic portraits were within the means of the middle classes only as an occasional luxury. If a child died it might never have had its likeness captured and the period before burial was the only chance. It is somewhat unfair that, in trying to avoid the morbidity of taking a photograph of a dead person, bereaved families strayed into the stranger territory of making believe that the corpse were alive and well and living it up in Clapham. After all, the limitations of the art at that time rendered everyone stiff and staring. The desperation in the act is heart-rending but there is a further shock: everyone in a Victorian death portrait is dead and, ultimately, all our photographs are of ghosts.