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The Photographic World and Humour of Cuthbert Bede
- By Bridget A. Henisch and Heinz Henisch
Railway travellers departing from Paddington 150 years ago, pausing to buy a shilling novel from
the W H Smith bookstall, might have picked up a new bestseller: The Adventures of Mr Verdant
Green, An Oxford Freshman. Few Victorian readers knew that the popular author, Cuthbert Bede,
was in fact a little-known clergyman who for twelve years served as Rector of the sleepy Rutland
parish of Stretton. By the time he arrived in Rutland, in 1871, the Reverend Edward Bradley had
published, under the pseudonym of Cuthbert Bede, a wide range of books and articles,. including
a light-hearted look at the new Victorian craze for photography, Photographic Pleasures, Popularly
Portrayed with Pen and Pencil (London 1855).
Today Cuthbert Bede can boast several internet web pages and academic admirers from
Pennsylvania to Clerkenwell, but little biographical coverage outside The Dictionary of National
Biography and Who Was Who in Rutland (Rutland Record 8 (1988) 261). In this new study,
Professor Heinz and Bridget Henisch of Penn State University, USA, approach the career of
Cuthbert Bede from the viewpoint of photo-historians and authors of, among other works, The
Photographic Experience 1839-1945 (Pennsylvania 1994). They celebrate the humour, enthusiasm
and comic art of a very English eccentric.
Illustrated largely by Bede's own sketches and cartoons, The Photographic World and Humour of
Cuthbert Bede is a modest volume with a hefty price tag. As such. its sales may well be limited to
libraries, where Bede's irreverent sense of humour may strike an incongruous note. In their time,
all his books were intended for the wider public, who might be intimidated by a scientific analysis
of the photographic process but would roar with pleasure at the sketch of a self-important photographer threatened by a charging bull.
Ironically Bede's introduction to the new art was illustrated not by photographs but by comic drawings, many of which had previously
appeared in Punch.
Bridget and Heinz Henisch vividly convey their own delight in Bede's wit and wordplay, his insight and imagination. His love of puns and
puzzles finds expression in his own illustrations, so that a glass rod for stirring photographic chemicals' is honoured with a portrait
captioned "Glass Rod at the Court of King Camera".' In another of Bede's cartoons a schoolboy is threatened with a birch rod labelled as
a 'developing agent'. Fully aware of serious Victorian debate over what constituted 'High Art', Bede could not resist playing games with
the concept, finding high art in a rooftop photographic studio. The Henischs' book makes clear the limitations of Bede's technical and
aesthetic understanding of photography, but pays warm-hearted tribute to his achievement in making it appealing and accessible to the
middle classes of the mid 19th century.
In concentrating on Cuthbert Bede's photographic world, the authors deal more briefly with his very English background, influences and
wider interests. At times their transatlantic perspective limits the picture, such as a rather laboured explanation of Bede's reference to
Daniel Lambert, who two centuries later remains a gargantuan legend to many compatriots, especially around Stamford. Rutland is
misnamed as Rutlandshire and the proprietor who famously named the Ram Jam Inn becomes Charles Black rather than Charles Blake
(buried at Stretton). The first half of the book, exploring the 'Multiple Missions' of the Reverend Edward Bradley, is likely to be of greater
interest to Rutland readers. It aims to promote wider appreciation of this far from retiring clergyman, with the voracious, inquiring
energy of his published writings, his humorous warmth and engaging, if at times conservative humanity. Ceaselessly contributing to
journals such as Notes and Queries and Boys' Own Paper, he pontificated on such topical issues as the proliferation of junk mail and
the unsuitability of women to practise medicine. Exploiting the new opportunities of railway travel across the Midlands, he undertook
an exhausting programme of popular public lectures, with titles such as 'Wit and Humour', in order to raise funds for the restoration of
Stretton Church, where he now lies buried.
The second section of the book concentrates on the 'Positive Pleasures' which Cuthbert Bede found in photography. To those who share
Bede's interest in the developing world of photography and his schoolboy sense of humour these chapters will entertain and inform. They
offer an informed commentary on Bede's Photographic Pleasures, providing helpful, thumbnail sketches of the individuals with whom Bede
was involved, and the processes which concerned him but which he did not always understand. Whether finally Bede's light-hearted study of
photography justifies the devoted attention of the present authors remains in the balance. It is only one aspect of the wide-ranging rather
than deeply explored interests of a man very much of his time. The authors offer an honest assessment of Bede's contribution to the
popularisation of photography, recognising his limitations as well as his appeal. The public which made its own judgement remembers him
above all for The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, which sold 130,000 copies and was followed by two popular sequels. It is this novel which
earned Bede a place in the 1990 Oxford Book of Humorous Prose. It remains his greatest claim to fame.
The Rev Edward Bradley, alias Cuthbert Bede, repays study by social historians, lovers of comic prose and popular literature, local
historians and students of photography. As a clergyman, his contribution to religious thought is less apparent than his engaging
influence on parishioners. A generation entertained by Punch will find continuing amusement in his sketches. This book provides an
invaluable insight into the experience of a lost generation, those to whom the magic lantern and the miracle of photography offered
new visions of a rapidly changing world. Cuthbert Bede led eager Victorian readers, as he can still entice readers of the 21st century, to
share wonder and pleasure on the threshold of a new world of technological communication.