VALENTINE CAMERON PRINSEP, A.R.A.
Val C. Prinsep was photographed in his studio by Frank Dudman, the 28-year-old assistant to Joseph Parkin Mayall, whose name appears on every image. Mayall might have considered his assistant sufficiently qualified to produce a studio portrait of an artist who had only recently, in 1879, been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. The portrait of Prinsep was included in the first installment of Artists at Home, issued in March 1884, so it needed to engage viewers in such a way that they would subscribe to the rest of the series.
The photograph was taken in 1883 at 1 Holland Park Road in Kensington. Prinsep is photographed in his studio, which measured forty feet by twenty-five feet and occupied nearly the entire first floor of his home. Although Prinsep holds a palette and paintbrushes, his studio comes across as more of a gallery than a working space. And despite being over six feet tall and of rather large proportions, Prinsep appears small in this picture, seated in a wooden chair with his ankles crossed amid his vast collection of paintings. Prinsep tilts his head slightly towards his left shoulder to meet the gaze of the viewer, but his body is turned away. The curve of his body complements the crouched posture of the young child reading in the large painting closest to the viewer, The Bookworm. Although this powerful juxtaposition of artist and artwork elicits a reflection on the relationship between the creator and created, critics reviewed the image harshly. The Magazine of Art, for instance, commented on Prinsep’s pose: “Mr. Val Prinsep turns from his picture with a frown, as if he felt inclined to wring the photographer’s neck.”
While The Bookworm represents a genre scene, the majority of the paintings visible in the photograph are portraits, including Portrait of a Woman with Dark Hair, which stands immediately before Prinsep, as though it has been just recently completed. As portraiture was an especially popular genre during the Victorian period, the preponderance of portraits in his studio advertises his skills in an artistic field of high demand. It also creates an interesting parallel between Mayall’s photographic portrait of Prinsep and Prinsep’s painted portraits of various subjects. If Mayall advised Dudman to stage the portrait in this way, the parallel between the photographic and painted portrait could bolster the reputation of photography as a fine art. Prinsep’s paintings are clustered predominantly on easels towards the back of the room and hung on the back wall, creating a contrast with the empty space in the front. This clutter of canvases creates the illusion of a large body of work, possibly to emphasize Prinsep’s productivity and success as an artist.
The only notable feature in the foreground of the composition is the slightly curved, patterned rug in the left corner of the frame, which echoes the tapestry draped over the banister in the back corner of the room. The rug rests on an oddly striped carpet, and, curiously, the corner is turned up; the photographer chose not to correct this imperfection, perhaps to capture the spontaneity of the photograph. Both the tapestry and the carpet indicate that Prinsep was aware of current aesthetic trends in home decoration and attest to his sense of fashionable home design. Additionally, these imported textiles hint at a worldliness consistent with Prinsep’s familial and artistic connections with India.
In March of 1884, F. G. Stephens announced in The Athenaeum that Prinsep would be represented at that year's Royal Academy exhibition by The Bookworm, "a capital picture of a little girl seated on a low stool in a library, with a large book in her lap, and with steady eagerness reading its pages, so that we seem to see her eyes following the great letters along with lines which her diligent fore-finger traces; with the other hand she firmly clutches a corner of the volume, and thus holds it to her knee. The stool is a richly toned grey velvet; the girl's dress is black, with a broad white collar, over which flow the masses of her pale auburn hair." "Fine-Art Gossip," The Athenaeum, March 22, 1884, p. 384.
The artist's studio was an "aesthetic boutique" designed to stimulate the acquisitive instincts of patrons. . . . On the surface, artists' homes appeared to be shrines to beauty, but they were actually artfully crafted salesrooms where prospective buyers were induced to lower their guard and become lost in the contemplation of ethereal objects. Their attention was drawn to the most expensive things in the studio--the artist's paintings--which were dramatically displayed on easels, as in the painting room of [F. R.] Leyland's son-in-law, Valentine Prinsep. Photographed for F. G. Stephens's pictorial essay, Artists at Home, in 1884, Prinsep accentuated two of his recent paintings in this manner. At the right, The Bookworm is spotlighted by the sklyight above, while in the center of the room, the artist poses at another easel on which rests an unfinished portrait of a woman. It seems as if we have interrupted him at the magic moment of creativity wherein his special powers as an imagemaker and as a dispenser of beauty lay. It was this association with the intangible, this gift of transforming mystery into matter, that drew weary businessmen to studios like Prinsep's and Burne-Jones's.
--Dianne Sachko MacLeod, Art and the Victorian Middle Class: Money and the Making of Cultural Identify (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 296–98.