Victor Albert Prout photographer: Panoramas de la Tamise (Panoramas of the Thames) | Musée d’Orsay, Paris

BY Catherine Bindman, May 1, 2023

If you are willing to brave the flocks of visitors to the Musée d’Orsay, most of them apparently in hot pursuit of its celebrated Impressionist paintings, you will be rewarded by an elegant and unexpected exhibition in the museum’s tiny Cabinet de photographie. On view there through August 27 are 16 albumen prints from its copy of The Thames from London to Oxford in Forty Photographs (Virtue & Co., London, 1862) by British photographer Victor Albert Prout (1835–77).

In Westminster Palace and Bridge, the only image of London in the entire portfolio, the Gothic Houses of Parliament loom majestically over the hazy expanse of the Thames. Yet Prout’s romantic view obscures the murky and malodorous reality of the city branch of the river when he began working on it in 1857. Indeed, in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens characterized the Thames, polluted by human and industrial waste, as “a deadly sewer,” and during the warm summer of 1858, what became known as “the Great Stink” from the water outside the Palace of Westminster became so pungent that parliamentary business had to be diverted.

Victor Albert Prout, Kew Bridge, 1858-1862, from The Thames from London to Oxford in Forty Photographs. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt

Prout decisively turned his back on this urban cesspool, presenting instead a series of idyllic scenes in the manner of painters like Sir Joshua Reynolds, J. M.W. Turner, and John Constable. The photographer also rejected the gritty imagery of the working life of the river produced around the same time by American artist James McNeill Whistler in favor of picturesque bridges (Kew Bridge and Maidenhead Railway Bridge); pleasure boats (Barges at Oxford); thatched cottages (Pangbourne [Second View]); village churches (Below Pangbourne and Henley-on-Thames); grand dwellings (Garrick’s Villa, Hampton and The Duke of Buccleuch’s Mansion, Richmond); and royal palaces (Hampton Court). The horizontality of the landscape, punctuated by vertical details that subvert monotony but do not disrupt harmony, lends itself well to the panoramic format of the photographs, one that might have been influenced by his father’s landscape paintings.

Victor Albert Prout, Pangbourne, seconde vue, 1858-1862. © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Branft

Victor Prout was, of course, a contemporary of the Impressionists, and the portfolio demonstrates that he shared their fascination with the effects of light on water and foliage as well as with the outdoor sports and recreations popular at the time. And in the manner of Monet and Daubigny, among the Impressionist painters who sometimes worked from boats on the river, Prout constructed a kind of floating lab on a boat that allowed him to prepare and develop his collodion negatives on glass in situ. This somewhat eccentric contraption, a sort of rudimentary garden shed on a curiously small rowboat, is visible here in such images as Pangbourne (Second View) and Hampton Court.

These scenes, all but defined by their eloquent tranquility, are mostly unpopulated. But in Kew Ait, where there is no sign of the river, a man (perhaps Prout himself, who would have had plenty of time to nip in front of the camera) sits in the clearing of what might almost be a fairy woodland. In others, the same two young men, thought to be either assistants or the photographer’s brothers, Frank and Edgar, are carefully posed. In New Lock, Hurley, for example, one sits in a rowboat while the other manfully contemplates the landscape, hands in pockets. If a trip to the Musée d’Orsay is not feasible, these exquisite images can be viewed on the museum’s website; their arcadian harmonies (and occasional moments of silliness) remain potent antidotes to urban and political squalor.