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27 Jun 2019

Women in the photographs of E A Hornel – Broughton House

Written by Ben Reiss – Curator, Morton Photography Project
A black and white photo of a teenage girl posing in an artist’s studio. She is standing and raises both arms in front of her.
© National Trust for Scotland, Broughton House
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Women and girls are everywhere in the images Scottish artist E A Hornel left us – not just in his paintings, but also in the 1,700 photographs he took and collected throughout his life. To create his paintings, Hornel stitched together elements of women and girls from various of these photographs. He reduced the women to mere pattern pieces – a pose, a turn of the head, feet, fingers and hands – denying them any individuality and turning them into exotic or idyllic fantasies.

This inherently male way of looking at these women means they were literally objectified, turned into objects to be manipulated however Hornel chose. He was hardly alone in reducing female models to symbols or objects, but his method of working makes this reduction particularly stark.

His way of looking was also fundamentally colonial. Hornel was a white, western man taking and collecting photographs in countries where he would have seen himself as dominant. Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Myanmar (then Burma) were part of the British Empire when he visited. The women he photographed there, along with the women in his Japanese photographs, became a shorthand for a ‘mystical far East’.

Being white and male gave Hornel the upper hand in a vast power imbalance when photographing these women. In the context of his day there was nothing unusual about his approach and there is no indication his attitudes were exceptionally insensitive or objectifying for a man in his position. However, we are justified in being critical of his approach today, and should look to interrogate his attitudes.

A black and white photo of a Sri Lankan girl kneeling in an interior. She rests her left hand on a ceramic jug beside her.
© National Trust for Scotland, Broughton House

Hornel’s photographic collection is not comprised exclusively of images of girls and young women – there are a few male figures present, but they are few and far between. Furthermore, the treatment of men and women in his photos is completely different. The men are snapped more naturalistically and are not used as models in Hornel’s paintings, while the women are carefully posed and manipulated, becoming objects and shapes to be used to construct his art.

A portrait of Hornel by Bessie MacNicol serves as the perfect metaphor for his approach to the women and girls he photographed. It shows Hornel in front of a woman in Japanese dress, who inclines her head respectfully towards him. Behind Hornel’s paintings stand women, particularly the women of East Asia, photographed and reduced to their constituent parts for his art.

A portrait of the artist E A Hornel. He holds a pallet and stands in front of a textile depicting Japanese women.
E A Hornel © National Trust for Scotland, Broughton House

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about Margaret Fay Shaw’s photographs of South Uist women and the life of Miss Toward of the Tenement House.

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