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Edward Carpenter

2 of 9 portraits of Edward Carpenter

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Edward Carpenter

by Alvin Langdon Coburn
gum platinum print, 1905
11 1/8 in. x 8 3/4 in. (283 mm x 222 mm)
Given by Dr F. Severne Mackenna, 1977
Primary Collection

Sitterback to top

  • Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), Writer on social subjects. Sitter in 9 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966), Photographer. Artist associated with 114 portraits, Sitter in 2 portraits.

This portraitback to top

A socialist poet and author, Edward Carpenter is perhaps best remembered as a campaigner for homosexual rights, who openly cohabited with a man, George Merrill, from 1898. His treatise Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure (1889) argued that civilisation was a temporary aberration
that humanity would ultimately outgrow. The American photographer Coburn has made the photograph by printing two emulsions one on top of the other in perfect registration. The first, made of platinum salts, gives the image its rich tonality. The second, of photosensitized gum Arabic, gives it a hint of colour.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Rogers, Malcolm, Camera Portraits, 1989 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 1989 - 21 January 1990), p. 155 Read entry

    Edward Carpenter's life was a long reaction against Victorian convention and respectability, both social and sexual. The enduring influences were Socialism and Walt Whitman. At Millthorpe in Derbyshire in 1883 Carpenter built for himself and his working-class friend, Albert Fearnehough, and his family, a cottage with an orchard and market garden. Here he lived for the next forty years, writing, and, for a time, market gardening and making sandals. In 1898 George Merrill succeeded the Fearnehoughs; gardening and sandal-making ceased, and the two men kept open house for the many followers who made the pilgrimage there to meet the prophet of 'sexual liberation', among them E. M. Forster. He was 'touched' by Merrill: 'The sensation was unusual, and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts'. This experience inspired Forster to write his novel Maurice.

    Carpenter's own writings include Towards Democracy (1883-1902), England's Ideal (1885) and Civilisation, its Cause and Cure (1889).

    The great American-born photographer Coburn, who had studied in New York with Gertrude Käsebier and Edward Steichen, was regularly in London from 1904 onwards, where George Bernard Shaw introduced him to many of the most celebrated and influential men of the day. He finally settled in England in 1912, and mastered the process of photogravure, which he used to illustrate the books in his well-known Men of Mark series. This portrait of Carpenter, taken in Bloomsbury, illustrates the emphasis in Coburn's earlier work on mood and broad effects, rather than on contrast and detail.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 106

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Subject/Themeback to top

Events of 1905back to top

Current affairs

Following turmoil over the issue of Free Trade, Balfour resigns and calls an election, believing that the Liberals will be defeated. However, he is mistaken and Henry Campbell-Bannerman replaces him as the Liberal government Prime Minister.
The foundation of the Ulster Unionist Council, established to campaign against Home Rule, marks the birth of the Ulster Unionist party in Northern Ireland with the Duke of Abercorn as the first elected president.

Art and science

The Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals begin to hold informal gatherings at the home of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen. The group includes the artist Duncan Grant, biographer Lytton Strachey, and the art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry.
The German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein has his 'annus mirabilis', publishing groundbreaking papers on the nature of light and motion, including his relation of mass and energy in the equation e = mc2.


Massacre of more than 100 workers at a peaceful demonstration by troops in St Petersburg becomes known as 'Bloody Sunday'. The event sparks the 1905 Revolution, with uprisings and peasant revolts in other cities, leading the Tsar to issue the October Manifesto, pledging moderate reform, including the establishment of an elected 'duma' (government), which only partially appeases imperial opposition. Still fighting Japan, the internal agitation weakens the imperial army.

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