The chance find of a hoard of Victorian photographs of ‘famous feet’ is being hailed as a discovery of great historic and artistic significance, as David Clark reports
When Martin Phillips bought some cardboard boxes of old photographs from a Brighton antiques shop in April 2012, he wasn’t expecting to find anything of value.
“I was writing a book on local history and bought them to help my research,” he says. “The shop owner did warn me that some of them were a bit unusual, but I bought them anyway.”
As he worked his way through the box of local scenes, he was surprised to find that over half of the 500 photographs were perfectly-preserved 19th century albumen prints of feet. Wondering if he had accidentally bought the strange work of a Victorian foot fetishist, Phillips put them away in his garage.
However, when he looked at them again six months later, he noticed that there were some famous names on the back of the prints, including the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, naturalist Charles Darwin and fellow photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Now, one year on, these ‘foot prints’ are being described as one of the most significant photographic discoveries in recent decades.
All the prints bear the signature ‘Erasmus Choate, Brighton’ and during research in local and national archives Phillips has discovered more about this forgotten photographic pioneer.
Choate, the 14th Earl of Sussex, was known to have been a gentleman photographer active in the mid-19th century. He was one of the founders of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society) in 1853. He is known to have exhibited in the London Salons of the 1850s and ‘60s, though it was thought that none of his work had survived.
Far from being a foot fetishist, Choate was actually fascinated by the little-known Victorian pseudo-science of Podiology. As John Hammill, Professor of 19th Century History at Cambridge University explains: “It followed on from the Victorian fad for Phrenology, which linked aspects of someone’s personality to the shape of their skull.
“In 1850, the Austrian physician Josef Metz founded the science of Podiology, which suggested that you could analyse a person’s character from the shape of their feet. For instance, if you had long, narrow toes, it meant you had an extrovert personality, while having prominent ankles was a sign of high intelligence.”
Choate wrote several papers on Podiology for scientific journals of the period. He was very well-connected with both aristocratic society and within artistic circles and Phillips believes that he used these connections to gain access to many of the famous people of the period.
The photographs would probably been taken at his subject’s home then shown to a Podiologist for analysis.
Historical records appear to give credibility to his extraordinary claim. The feet in the picture marked ‘C. Dickens, 1861’ have what looks like a bunion at the base of the big toe on the right foot.
A letter written by Dickens to fellow novelist Wilkie Collins in that same year complains of “An infernal swelling that caused much pain and made me hobble along the street as if I were an aged gentleman.”
Among the hundreds of prints discovered, one of the most poignant photographs shows just one solitary foot; on the reverse, the photographer has written the brief explanation ‘A.J. Duggins (Ahab), 1860’ .
It is believed to refer to Alfred John Duggins, the 19th century seafarer whose left leg was bitten off during a whaling expedition. His life story was later used as the basis for the character of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.
The jewel in the crown of Choate’s photographs is arguably the image titled ‘Her Majesty, Windsor, 1865’. Remarkably, the feet in the photograph appear to be those of Queen Victoria herself and record evidence of an ankle injury sustained during a high-spirited croquet match the previous year.
Her husband, Prince Albert, was the patron of the Podiological Society, so it seems very likely that this is an authentic picture of the Queen’s feet – the only such photograph in existence.
Aside from their unique historical value, leading experts believe that Choate’s photographs also have considerable artistic merit. “Choate was clearly a photographer of great technical skill and artistic vision,” says Lucinda Forbes-Patterson, Curator of Photography at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
“His images have a remarkable and almost forensic clarity which transcends the merely documentary and anticipates the fine art of later periods. They are similar in style and content to Siegfried Bauer’s study of kneecaps in 1920s Germany, or the Norwegian photographer Sven Rasmussen’s photographs of thousands of his countrymen’s elbows, taken in the 1960s.”
As Forbes-Patterson points out, even tackling the subject was itself a ground-breaking endeavour. “Feet were a taboo area of the body for Victorians and people were rarely seen barefoot in public. It was even considered vulgar to say the word ‘foot’ or ‘feet’ in mixed company.
“Choate’s sustained meditation on the subject of feet allows the viewer to scrutinise what was normally hidden and is therefore a deliberate challenge to social norms in the period. They daringly invite us to compare one pair of feet with another and show that, in many ways, pictures of our feet offer as revealing a portrait of a person as our faces.”
Choate himself tragically died during the typhoid epidemic of the 1870s and the majority of his possessions were subsequently lost during a fire at his home. The discovery of these photographs has restored him to a position of prominence among the 19th century pioneers of photography.
Meanwhile, Martin Phillips has now decided to part with his collection of Choate’s work and all three hundred original prints, plus some surviving glass negatives, will be sold at auction later this month. Museums and private collectors have expressed an interest and they are expected to fetch in excess of £500,000.
Phillips says that some of Choate’s descendants had tried to claim ownership of the prints, but after a brief courtroom battle he has been confirmed as the legal owner. “I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, but I had to put my foot down,” he quipped. “I’m definitely the ‘sole’ owner.”