Hugh Owen Rediscovered

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Hugh Owen Rediscovered, an exhibition of rarely seen 19th century British countryside views, will be on display from January 19 – March 18, 2016 at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs. The exhibition marks the first show of photographs by Hugh Owen since the 19th century.

Known for finely composed and exquisitely rendered photographs, Hugh Owen (English, 1808-1879) was a master of the paper negative, having learned from the inventor himself, William Henry Fox Talbot. Owen's day job, a cashier for the Great Western Railway in Bristol, stood in stark contrast to his photographic accomplishments, which brought him acclaim in the 1840s and 1850s.

The noted literary magazine the Athenaeum singled out Owen as a gentleman "well known for his talent in his art…whose various views…justified the reputation which he has earned" when his work was shown at the Calotype Society exhibition in London in 1847.

Owen's calotypes were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851, which was the first "world's fair." His images so impressed the commissioners in charge of the fair that they hired him to record displays in the Crystal Palace where it was held. The following year Owen became a member of the founding council of the Photographic Society and contributed regularly to their exhibitions.

The exhibition at Hans P. Kraus Jr. Fine Photographs features albumen prints made from paper negatives dating from before 1855. The survival of the prints is extraordinary. The Bristol photographer and historian Reece Winstone had been pursuing Owen's photographs since the 1950s.  His "greatest windfall" came in 1962 when an elderly gentleman, W. L. Venn, attended an exhibition by Winstone. Venn had been a handyman for the Bristol cleric and amateur archaeologist, Canon R. T. Cole. When Cole died in 1948, Venn purchased work by Owen in an album at the auction of his effects. He gave that album to Winstone for his collection, thus preserving this unique record of one of photography's unsung pioneers.

Whether a still life of ancient wine casks or a field during harvest time in the English countryside, the range of tones in Hugh Owen's photography is remarkable for his time. His poetic images of a cart in a barnyard and oyster boats on the beach draw the viewer into the rustic working world of the 19th century with a delicate and thoughtful vision.

To give context to Hugh Owen's images, work by a few of his contemporaries will be included in the exhibition including prints by William Henry Fox Talbot and Benjamin Brecknell Turner. Photographs by Owen can be found in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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