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Reading Publicity Photographs through the Elizabeth Robins Archive: How Images of the Actress and the Queen Constructed a New Sexual Ideal

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2015


In this article, I trace the origins of the normalization of pornographic tropes as the new sexual ideal in contemporary visual culture to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publicity photos of actresses and monarchs by examining one prominent transatlantic actress's collection of publicity photos, the Elizabeth Robins Papers at the Fales Library at New York University. As I show, around the turn of the twentieth century, a new standard of idealized feminine beauty was produced by the combination of two contradictory images of celebrity: the distant decorum of the monarch and the perceived erotic sexuality of the actress. The mass production of publicity photographs, which took the form of cartes-de-visite in the 1860s and cabinet photos in the 1870s, broadened the spectrum of sexuality by positioning these two quintessential celebrity types—the actress and the monarch—in relation to the tableau vivant and to existing and emerging tropes of portraiture. The image of the actress existed in relation to several mutually dependent discourses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the rise of photography in relation to other art forms; the rise of theatrical spectacle in relation to advertising, consumerism, and fashion; the rise of women's public role in relation to sexuality, the body, and beauty culture; and the paradoxical democratization of celebrity culture as related to the monarchy. All of these factors center on a figure who lived so vividly in the public imaginary that she could be found in multiple spaces: on the stage, in stationers’ shops, on postcards, in newspapers, in photograph albums.

Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2015 

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1. Mary Luckhurst and Jane Moody, “Introduction: The Singularity of Theatrical Celebrity,” in Theatre and Celebrity in Britain, 1660–2000, ed. Mary Luckhurst and Jane Moody (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 1–11, at 1.

2. Kerry Powell, Women and Victorian Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 150.

3. See correspondence from Oscar Wilde in the Elizabeth Robins Papers, Fales Library, New York University (hereinafter ERP), Series II, Subseries B, General Correspondence, 1888–1952, Box 28, Folder 209. Among other praise, Wilde wrote, “The English stage is in her debt. I am one of her warmest admirers” (Oscar Wilde, Royal Albion Hotel, Brighton, to Gerald Duckworth, ca. 1894?) and “I count Ibsen fortunate in having so brilliant and subtle an artist to interpret him” (Oscar Wilde to Elizabeth Robins, telegram 18 February 1893). See also Powell, Women and Victorian Theatre, 161; and Powell, Kerry, “Oscar Wilde, Elizabeth Robins, and the Theatre of the Future,” Modern Drama 37.1 (1994): 220–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. Elizabeth Robins, Ibsen and the Actress (London: Hogarth Press, 1928), 7–8. Originally given as a lecture before the Royal Society of the Arts under the auspices of the British Drama League on 12 March 1928.

5. Cima, Gay Gibson, “Elizabeth Robins: The Genesis of an Independent Manageress,” Theatre Survey 21.2 (1980): 145–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. Lisa Z. Sigel, Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815–1914 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 151.

7. Kirsten Pullen, Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 3.

8. Tracy C. Davis, “The Actress in Victorian Pornography,” in Victorian Scandals: Representations of Gender and Class, ed. Kristine O. Garrigan (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), 99–133, at 100.

9. For a broader discussion of the gendered semiotics of theatrical space, see Hanna Scolnicov, Woman's Theatrical Space (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

10. Quoted in Helmut Gernsheim, The Rise of Photography, 1850–1880: The Age of Collodion, 3d rev. ed. (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1988), 194.  The “Skittles” to whom Mrs. Carlyle refers is Catherine Walters (1839–1920), celebrated nineteenth-century courtesan and fashionista.

11. Ibid., 9–19.


12. Ibid., 23.


13. The queen's love of photography was the subject of the exhibition A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography, 4 February–8 June 2014, in the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

14. Known as the Royal Photographic Society since 1894.

15. Gernsheim, 20.

16. William Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1844–6), 1.

17. Joanne Lukitsh, “Julia Margaret Cameron and the ‘Ennoblement’ of Photographic Portraiture,” in Victorian Scandals, ed. Garrigan, 207–32, at 214.

18. Ibid.


19. Gernsheim, 193–5.

20. See William B. Becker, “Cabinet Cards,” in Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, vol. 1: A–I, ed. John Hannavy (New York and London: Routledge, 2008), 233–4.

21. Lynn Hunt, “Introduction: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500–1800,” in The Invention of Pornography, 1500–1800: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, ed. Lynn Hunt (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 1993), 9–45, at 10.

22. Sigel, 120.

23. Allison Pease, Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 51.

24. Ibid., 53.


25. Quoted in Lukitsh, 227.

26. Quoted in Jennifer Green-Lewis, Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 1.

27. Quoted in Gernsheim, 193–4.

28. See photographs in the ERP, Series IX, Photographic Material, Subseries A (hereinafter IX.A), Elizabeth Robins, Album 1, Photographs #55–58. I have attempted to maintain the orthography of photograph captions whenever possible, such as preserving the alternate selections of “and” or “&.” (I have also retained the finding aid's use of the number sign #; see, accessed 29 August 2015.)

29. Ibid., #10–14.


30. Ibid., #37.


31. Ibid., #9.


32. Ibid., #61–71.


33. Ibid., #39–50.


34. Ibid., #26–29.


35. ERP, Series IX, Photographic Material, Subseries B (hereinafter IX.B), General Portraits, Album 4, #263.

36. ERP, IX.B, Album 2, #1.

37. ERP, IX.A, Album 1, #36.

38. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #96.

39. ERP, IX.A, Album 1, #72–79.

40. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #135–162.

41. ERP, IX.A, Album 1, #75–76.

42. ERP, IX.A, Album 2, #88–95.

43. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #106.

44. ERP, IX.B, Album 4, #286, and Album 2, #2.

45. See Paul Hammond, French Undressing: Naughty Postcards from 1900 to 1920 (London: Jupiter Books, 1976), 8–9; and William Ouellette and Barbara Jones, Erotic Postcards (New York: Excalibur Books, 1977), 6–7.

46. See Hammond, 9; and Pease, 84.

47. See Historian, USPS, “Stamped Cards and Postcards,” last modified September 2014, (accessed 13 September 2015), 2.

48. Davis, 125.

49. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #97–100.

50. Ibid., #127.


51. See St. John's College (Cambridge), Library Photographic Collections, Photographic Album 10,

52. See Julia Margaret Cameron, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women [1926], 2d ed., pref. Tristram Powell (London: Hogarth Press, 1973). For contemporary controversies around Cameron, see Lukitsh, 207, 221; and Davis, 125.

53. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #101, and Album 4, #263, #280, #284.

54. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #110.

55. Ibid., #177.


56. ERP, IX.B, Album 4, #266.

57. ERP, IX.B, Album 2, #73.

58. ERP, IX.B, Album 4, #311.

59. The Oxford English Dictionary defines pornography as “The explicit description or exhibition of sexual subjects or activity in literature, painting, films, etc., in a manner intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings; printed or visual material containing this.” According to the OED, the first definition of “pornography” occurred in 1842, shortly after the invention of photography in 1839, even though the word's etymology points to a longer connection between prostitution and pornography: πορνογράϕος (pornográphos) is that which writes (γράϕος, gráph) about prostitutes (πορνο, porno). I follow Roland Barthes in his claim that erotica engages the eye in an imaginative chase for detail, whereas pornography tells all by focusing on sexualized body parts. Lynn Hunt concurs; she defines pornography as “the explicit depiction of sexual organs and sexual practices with the aim of arousing sexual feelings.” See “pornography, n.,” OED, 3d ed., December 2006. See also Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), 59; and Hunt, 10.

60. They are mostly restricted to a bed, as for example, in the various anonymous pornographic photos (probably dating from 1866 or 1869) depicted in Sylvie Aubenas, “Les photographies de l'Enfer,” in L'Enfer de la Bibliothèque: Éros au secret, ed. Marie-Françoise Quignard and Raymond-Josué Seckel (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2007), 249–76, at 251–4, 273. A similar impression is produced if one compares the pornographic and erotic photos in Serge Nazarieff, Early Erotic Photography (Cologne: Benedikt Taschen, 1993); Frédéric Tachou, Et le sexe entra dans la modernité: Photographie “obscène” et cinéma pornographique primitif, aux origines d'une industrie (Paris: Klincksieck, 2013), 405–17; and Alison Rowley, “Bodies on Display: Romantic and Erotic Postcards in Fin-de-Siècle Russia,” in Open Letters: Russian Popular Culture and the Picture Postcard, 1880–1922, ed. Alison Rowley (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 105–35.

61. Pease, 84.

62. This is true of virtually the entire collection of photos in the classic 1931 criminological documentation, Erich Wulffen, Die Erotik in der Photographie: Die geschichtliche Entwicklung der Aktphotographie und des erotischen Lichtbildes und seine Beziehungen zur Psychopathia Sexualis (1931; repr., Schleinbach: Edition Winkler-Hermaden, 2011). For other countries, see Nazarieff; Rowley, Open Letters; Hammond; Ouellette and Jones; and Jean Pierre Bourgeron, Nude 1900 (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Morgan & Morgan, 1980).

63. ERP, IX.B, Album 5, #321.

64. See Eltis, Sos, “The Fallen Woman in Edwardian Feminist Drama: Suffrage, Sex and the Single Girl,” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, 50.1 (2007): 2749CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially 32–3 for a discussion of Mrs. Lessingham in relation to Robins's 1907 play, Votes for Women!

65. ERP, IX.A, Album 1, #52.

66. Ibid., #53 and #54.


67. Ibid., #55 and #56.


68. Ibid., #57 and #58.


69. ERP, IX.B, Album 2, #2.

70. See ERP, IX.A, Album #1, 81–104.

71. The Star, 21 April 1891, ERP, Series XI, Scrapbooks, Subseries A, Container 1, Scrapbook #7, Unbound Scrapbook, 1891–1893.

72. Whitehall Review, 25 April 1891, ibid.

73. The World, 22 April 1891, ibid.

74. Cima, 153. See also Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell, Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 47.

75. Susan A. Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 15.

76. Kaplan and Stowell, 2.

77. Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), 48.

78. Rafford Pyke, “What Men Like in Women,” The Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Illustrated Magazine, 31.6 (October 1901), 609–13, at 610.

79. ERP, IX.B, Album 4, #277.

80. ERP, IX.B, Album 3, #179.

81. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler (New York: Garland, 1984), 17.1804–5.

82. Ibid., 17.1809–13.


83. Ibid., 17.1778–80.


84. For other fictional works addressing the figure of the actress, see Émile Zola's Nana (1880) and Henry James's The Tragic Muse (1890).

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