Picture gallery: Sheffield Victorian photographer who captured the Great Flood

I read with interest the recent Retro article on The Sheffield Flood, which occurred in the second week of March 1864.

Friday, 23rd March 2018, 1:27 pm
Updated Friday, 23rd March 2018, 1:30 pm
The damage at Rowell Bridge Wheel, Loxley, Sheffield, following the Great Sheffield Flood in 1884. . Photo: www.picturesheffield.com/PA Wire

I noticed that the pictures used were the work of Sheffield photographer Lawrence Frederick Peacock, who was active in the early 1860s, mainly as a portrait photographer.

I have recently completed a postgraduate course on Photographic History, and I based my dissertation study around the subject of an 1860s photo album which still exists in good condition, and was the property of Mr Peacock, and is largely mounted up with the same pictures featured last week.

These pictures were created by the Collodion photographic process, and are mainly of a size which was referred to as quarter-plate (two and three quarter inches by three and three quarter inches).

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The landscape views in the album are quite well known now, as pictures of the flood’s aftermath, and Mr Peacock assembled them in two columns of four pictures on each page, following a downstream narrative, and giving written titles to each picture.

Sometimes, as in the Rowell’s Bridge, Loxley picture Retro featured last week, Mr Peacock has included a number, as there has been another view of the same area.

Included amongst the album photos are some other pictures which give an idea of the photographer’s feelings about the fragility of life in the face of unstoppable forces such as catastrophic floods.

Given that this flood was the gravest civil disaster of the Victorian period, and that mortality in general stalked the 19th-century citizen much more closely and unavoidably than today, a number of artist and poets of the period created works which sought to comfort and give strength to people caught up in personal loss.

Mr Peacock has included a copy of the famous 1855 French painting by Delaroche, The Christian Martyr, reminding us that drownings occurred in the days of the early Christian followers, as one of the types of death sentence enacted on them by the Roman emperors.

The depiction is of a bound woman who has been found in the river Tiber during the reign of Diocletian.

There is also an allegorical picture of a flood-imperilled woman surviving a deluge of seemingly apocalyptic scale by hanging on with both arms to what is obviously the symbol of her faith, a cross carved in stone, whilst others around her perish (see page one).

These are paintings of undoubtedly high emotional charge, and although I haven’t been able find the title of this second one, they appear here at an early stage in the history of photography, as photographic copies of famous paintings;items which had only just been made available for study of art technique at the start of the 1860s in the art teaching institutes, such as the Sheffield School of Art.

There are also some studies of waterfalls in the album, possibly taken in Derbyshire, which must rate as some of the earliest to be captured by photography locally.

Here again, Mr. Peacock seems to be making visual statements about the power of water, as one of the natural elements.

It is apparent that early photographic albums can tell us much about thethoughts of the compiler/photographer, even in the absence of written words, simply by way of the arrangements and inclusions of pictures outside the narrative of local history.

One of Mr. Peacock’s pictures featuring a waterfall within a deep gorge.

The 1860s was a decade of religious doubt in the wake of Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution; in the midst of rapid technological change, so it is perhaps not surprising that the activity of scrapbooking could sometimes be used by people who wanted to cathartically work through their thoughts and feelings, retain them in memory, and possibly pass them down into later generations.