IT was the conflict that brought Florence Nightingale to prominence, had a profound influence on Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and was responsible for one of the greatest blunders in British military history, the Charge of the Light Brigade. But the Crimean War, which lasted from 1853-56 and claimed more than 750,000 lives, also gave birth to war photography, and it is the power of the images produced by English pioneer Roger Fenton that inspired a new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh.

Fenton, one of the leading photographers of the 19th century, was the first to be commissioned to take pictures of a conflict and travelled to Crimea in 1855, not long after the Battle of Balaclava. He was embedded with British troops for more than three months on the Black Sea peninsula – still a disputed territory more than 160 years on – travelling and developing his photographs in a converted wine merchant’s wagon. Fenton took around 360 images of the people and places at the heart of the war.

Due to technological limitations – not to mention Victorian sensibilities – direct depictions of battle and death do not feature. What Fenton does capture, however, is the brutality and destruction of war in a more nuanced way, the fatigue of the soldiers and the bleakness of the landscape. The results are more haunting and poetic than a modern audience might expect from such early photographs.

Loading article content

Scottish soldiers played a significant role in many of the key moments in the Crimean War, including the Battle of Balaclava (which featured the aforementioned ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade against the Russians) and feature strongly in the exhibition. The pictures were particularly innovative in that they focused on the effect of war on individual soldiers, a new concept.

Among the highlights is Valley of the Shadow of Death, now Fenton’s most famous picture, taken on April 23, 1855, depicting a barren ravine littered with Russian cannonballs. The calmness of the image belies the violence of the place, and the photographer’s letters to his wife tell how he came under fire while capturing the picture, highlighting the dangers of being a war photographer, regardless of the era.

According to the exhibition’s curator, Sophie Gordon, this is the perfect point to explore Fenton’s pioneering work.

“Fenton is usually described as the leading British photographer of the 19th century, at the forefront of this new art and the technology it employed,” she explains. “But within his work the Crimea pictures are viewed as problematic for art and photography historians because they are very different to the rest of his work, not as easy to understand or aesthetic.

“But it was these difficulties that interested me. In the 19th century these pictures were highly praised, and thousands came to see them. Queen Victoria was a keen collector of his work. These pictures are what he became best known for. I felt they needed a reassessment.”

Gordon also hopes the exhibition will help modern audiences understand more about a conflict that had a huge impact upon Victorian Britain but has all but fallen off the historical radar.

“The Crimean War is not something many of us are familiar with any more,” she says. “Once you start to understand what it was all about, you start to see these pictures in a different way, and they become much more powerful. For me that really changed the whole way of approaching what Fenton was doing.

“Some criticised these pictures as an attempt by the British government to whitewash war, accusing Fenton of being under some official directive. But this wasn’t true at all. He is far more subtle in his interpretation of conflict. Overall I think he’s making a subjective commentary and you can really see this in the bleak and empty landscapes that allow the imagination to populate the image.”

Among the portraits featured is one of Glasgow-born Sir Colin Campbell, commander of the three Scottish regiments in Crimea. Unlike other military chiefs, he apparently had an extremely close bond with his men, evidenced by Fenton’s difficulty in getting him to find the time to sit for a photograph in Crimea. It was the uniforms of the Sutherland Highlanders he commanded that were the original Thin Red Line, the evocative phrase still in use today. Another evocative picture shows Colonel Grant of the Black Watch, dressed in his kilt and sporran.

And undoubtedly one of the stand-out pieces is the disturbing portrait of Lord Balgonie, taken not long after he had left the battlefield. It is thought to be the first visual record of someone suffering from shell shock.

Gordon says her favourite picture from the exhibition is that of a British soldier, Colonel William Brownrigg, sitting with two young Russian boys aged around seven or eight.

“At first glance the picture tells us nothing but if you go back to Fenton’s letters he writes about the two boys and describes them in great detail. They were living in Sevastopol and had apparently come near to British camp while gathering nuts.

They were captured and taken prisoner. Fenton’s letters say they cried and cried to be sent home.

“It’s such a sad story which highlights the callous side of warfare, the unthinking treatment of the enemy and the impact of war on civilians. Sevastopol suffered enormously during the conflict. The boys are staring at camera and I always wonder what happened to them.” n Shadows of War: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea, 1855 is at the Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, until November 26