Earlier this year I published a collection of Eugène Blondelet’s atmospheric autochrome photographs of his family enjoying their garden in summer. Now, I return to the archive at the Bibliothèque National de France to share some more autochromes of vernacular gardens from the early 20th century.
These photographs were taken by amateurs in France between 1907, when the Lumière brothers launched their autochrome process to the general public, and the early 1930s. While they show some physical damage, and some deficiencies in their composition and exposure, these faults also evoke a sense of the past quite powerfully, capturing a particular time and place that otherwise would have disappeared.
The names of the photographers, the people they recorded and the locations of the gardens now exist only as fragments of information, or have become detached from these images altogether. But these pieces of narrative still provoke a jolt of memory, allowing us a brief window into past lives, and happy moments enjoyed in their gardens many summers ago.
This charming photograph shows a young girl in a light coloured dress and straw hat examining a garden flower. In the intense sunlight, the asters and California poppies appear almost as pale as her clothes, but at the edge of the photograph their mauve and orange colours are revealed more clearly.
The lawn is a dominant feature in this image of a garden, and the grass has been kept long, giving a relaxed feel to the space. The lush green of the grass seems to have infused the whole image, including the young boy in his shorts and long white socks, posing for the photograph.
The scale of this enormous climbing rose is emphasised by three small children, posing next to it in the shady walk-way. Today, garden photographers avoid intense contrasts of light and shade by shooting early in the morning, or late in the day, but here the harsh sunlight, dark shadows and cascades of pink roses seem to capture the moment of summer heat perfectly.
By the standards of modern photography, this portrait of a mother and boy in a garden is slightly out of focus, and over exposed, with the side of each person facing the sun bleached almost white. This is repeated on the plants, highlighting their leaves, and revealing their texture, but the overall effect is both tranquil, and otherworldly.
These two young women are posing in a flower garden, in front of a house. The flowerbed, with pink and white roses, is edged with clipped box, a style that was also popular in England in the Edwardian period. The groups of orange flowers are possibly gaillardias which were popular in France and named after maître Galliard de Charentonneau an eighteenth century magistrate who was also an enthusiastic botanist. In the centre of the bed is a standard rose, while behind this plant a pair of large shrubs seem to echo the two white figures of the women.
This elegantly dressed young woman carrying a blue umbrella is flanked by rows of brightly coloured flowers arranged on the staging of an impressive glasshouse. Parasols and umbrellas were often used as props by autochrome photographers. As well as showing the ability of the process to reproduce colours accurately, the large blocks of colour add strength and structure to the composition.
Seated on a garden chair, this stylish young woman is shaded both by a parasol and her wide brimmed hat. The red parasol and matching outsize bow on her hat seem to infuse the whole picture with a pinkish glow.
As well as the smartly dressed couple, this photograph reveals some purpose made garden furniture. The design, with its metal framework and slatted seats is typically French, as is the greyish-blue paintwork. The man looks rather impatiently at the camera, as if he is longing for the moment he can break free of his pose.
This young woman is writing at a desk in the garden, against a backdrop of bamboo and an array of brightly coloured asters in the foreground. In this period it was not unusual for families to bring furniture from their houses out into the garden for use on sunny days. We know that this photograph was taken on 30th August 1909, but any information about the sitter, the location or the photographer has been lost.
Looking somewhat ghostly in her long, white dress, this woman holds two pink roses, apparently gathered from the group of standard rose bushes behind her. Standard roses have a single strong stem, onto which two or more bush roses are attached, creating a mass of flowers, at eye level. This very formal shape is sometimes called a tree rose, or rose tree, in the UK. Today, in Claude Monet’s garden at Giverny, avenues of standard roses are underplanted with pelargoniums in summer, in the popular style of this period. The jagged edges of the damage to the top of the photograph almost suggest mountains in the distance.
This young couple standing in a sunny garden, are dressed in black, probably for a funeral.
In this compelling photograph, two women and a man are posed close to a flower border containing hollyhocks and roses. The women’s focus is outside of the frame of the photograph, while the man, lying somewhat incongruously at the women’s feet, gazes straight at the camera. The rustic looking wooden structure and young trees in the background suggest perhaps a newly planted garden, slightly at odds with the open skies and fields beyond.
Louis Rebillon has created a strong blue theme in his photograph of Madame Rebillion, as she sits reading a journal in the garden. Her blue satin shirt echoes both the blue irises at the top of the image and a string of cornflowers arranged around her straw hat. The cornflower, or bluet de France is a symbol of solidarity with veterans, victims of war, widows and orphans, similar to the red poppy worn on Remembrance Day in the UK. In France, bluet de France badges are sold twice a year, on 8th May and 11th November, with the proceeds used for charitable causes.
Here some older women are sitting in the garden with a young boy, who is unable to keep still for the time needed for the long exposure required for autochrome photographs. Perhaps the ghostly figure behind the group is his mother attempting to direct his pose? In the foreground is another fine example of a garden table, and in the background is a beautiful wall topped with tiled coping.
Here, Mme Fouqué poses outside at an indoor table which has been paired with two purpose made outdoor chairs backed with a heart shaped motif. The dressing of the table and the unoccupied chair with garden flowers adds to the charm of the scene.
Photography archive at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France here
Bluet de France here