- 1886-1920 (Creation)
Level of description
Extent and medium
Name of creator
Born Cuba 1856, died Falmouth 1936. Emerson was a photographer and writer noted for his work on East Anglia, particularly the Norfolk Broads. He was also a member of the Royal Photographic Society (formerly the Photographic Society of Great Britain).
P. H. Emerson contributed to the nineteenth century artistic discourse on naturalism, particularly the status of photography in relation to art. His treatise works include 'Naturalistic Photography' (1889) and 'The Death of Naturalistic Photography' (1890). Emerson was also influential in developing photographic techniques such as colour, portrait and stereoscopic photography.
Emerson practised photography at a time of growth in mass markets, commercialisation and photography as a leisure pursuit. He was, however, associated with the specialised and artistic photographic market which also flourished at this time. His work coincided with the opening up of the Broads for tourism and paved the way for later Broads photographers including Christopher Davies and John Payne Jennings.
Emerson was also a sportsman, genealogist, anthropologist and qualified doctor although he never practised medicine.
Emerson's Early Years:
Peter Henry Emerson's father, Henry Ezekiel Emerson, left Massachusetts for Cuba in 1826 to work as a coffee planter, managing estates near Cardenas and La Palma sugar plantation near Sagua la Grande. In 1855 he married Jane Harris Billing with whom he had 3 children, Peter Henry Emerson, born Cuba 13 May 1856 and baptised Pedro Enrique, Jane, born 1859 and Just William, born 1863.
Following the death of Henry Ezekiel in 1867 and unrest in Cuba during the 'war of independence', 1868-1878, when planters rose against Spanish rule, Peter Henry was sent to England. He was educated at Cranleigh School in Surrey from 1869, obtained an MRCS from Kings College London in 1879 and in 1885 received an MB from University College London.
In 1881 he married Edith Amy Ainsworth, a nurse from Bolton in Lancashire and they had five children: Leonard Ainsworth, born 1882, Ralph Billing, born 1897, Sybil, born 1884 and Zoe Orchis, born 1892.
Emerson's Photographic Career:
Emerson began experimenting with photography between 1881-1882 and received tuition from Ernest Griffiths (1851-1932). Emerson's interest in a medical career waned and, with a comfortable income to fall back on, he decided to give it up for photography and literature.
Emerson practised photography at a time of growth in mass markets, commercialisation and photography as a leisure pursuit. He was, however, associated with the specialised and artistic photographic market which also flourished at this time. Emerson was noted for his work on the East Anglia region and particularly the Norfolk Broads. His work coincided with the opening up of the Broads for tourism and paved the way for later Broads photographers including Christopher Davies and John Payne Jennings. During his Broads trips Emerson made acquaintances with artists who were to shape the course of his photographic and literary work. These included Arthur George Bell, a landscape painter and Thomas Goodall with whom he gathered material for his publications including 'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads' (1887).
The Norfolk Broads became a refuge from intense criticism of Emerson's work, particularly 'Pictures of East Anglian Life,' (1888) and his treatise 'Naturalistic Photography' (1889). Between September 1890 and August 1891 Emerson explored the Broads extensively. His works at this time included 'Wild Life on a Tidal Water' (1890) written whilst exploring Breydon Water near Yarmouth. Following rising tension in 1894 Emerson moved to Beaumaris, Wales, where he wrote Tales from Welsh Wales and Welsh Fairy Tales and Other Stories before returning briefly to Lowestoft in 1895 and then to Oulton Broad where he produced 'Marsh Leaves' (1895).
P.H. Emerson also had a broader impact on photography in the nineteenth century. He contributed to the nineteenth century artistic discourse on naturalism, particularly the status of photography in relation to art. His treatise works on these discourses include 'Naturalistic Photography' (1889) and 'The Death of Naturalistic Photography' (1890). Emerson was also a member of the Royal Photographic Society, but increasingly he challenged its views on the status of photography. Through questioning the relationship between art and photography, Emerson' s work was both a catalyst for the photographic secession movement in the 1880s and a source of controversy. The secession movement was associated with the formation of the Linked Ring, a brotherhood founded in 1892 from dissatisfied members of the Photographic Society of Great Britain (later the Royal Photographic Society) in protest against their neglect of photography as an art in its own right.
Emerson as a Writer:
Emerson is less well known for his writing but following his first book 'Paul Ray at the Hospital' (1882), he produced a variety of literary work. He was also a keen genealogist, encouraged in 1895 by Colonel John P. Stees to pursue research into the Emerson family, which culminated in his publication of 'The English Emersons', (1898). Emerson also had an interest in anthropology and collected information on customs, folklore and dialects.
Emerson's Later Years:
Emerson continued photographing and writing during the later years of his life. He continued to experiment with photographic techniques contributing to the development of portrait, stereoscopic and colour photography. From 1908 Emerson awarded medals designed by the sculptor James Havard Thomas to those he considered as having made considerable achievements in the field of photography. In 1922 he began compiling a uniform edition of his works of which only 'English Idyls' was published. During the 1920s Emerson developed a keen interest in detective novels and his last work was 'The Blood Eagle and other Tales' completed in 1925.
Throughout his life Emerson was an active sportsman with pursuits including shooting, golf and billiards. He was also a qualified doctor although he did not practice medicine professionally.
Peter Henry Emerson died at Falmouth on 12 May, 1936, aged 80 years.
Summary of Emerson's Photographic and Literary Works:
The following is a brief list of Emerson's main literary works relating to the records:
'Paul Ray at the Hospital' (1882)
'Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads' (1887)
'Pictures of East Anglian Life' (1888)
'Naturalistic Photography' (1889)
'English Idyls' (1889)
'The Death of Naturalistic Photography' (1890)
'Wildlife on a Tidal Water' (1890)
'East Coast Yarns' (1891)
'A Son of the Fens' (1892)
'Signor Lippo - Burnt Cork Artiste' (1893)
'Tales from Welsh Wales' (1894)
'Welsh Fairy Tales and Other Stories' (1894)
'Birds Beasts and Fishes of the Norfolk Broads' (1895)
'The English Emersons' (1898)
'The Blood Eagle and Other Tales' (1925)
For further information and a detailed list of Emerson's work see Neill McWilliam and Veronica Sekules (eds), 'Life and Landscape: P. H. Emerson Art and Photography in East Anglia, 1885-1900' (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, 1986).