Francis Hetling’s Victorian Waifs

In July 1974 London's National Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibition titled "The Camera and Dr Barnardo." It was principally devoted to pictures of orphans from the Barnado homes, but it included seven prints of Victorian waifs taken by a previously unknown photographer, Francis Hetling. The prints were said to date back to the 1840s. The photos generated excitement among collectors because most photographs from that period showed well-to-do people. It was quite rare to encounter images of the urban poor.

The truth was revealed in 1978. The photos were actually taken by advertising photographer Howard Grey in early 1974 using child models who had posed for him near London's King's Cross station. Grey, inspired by the booming market for nostalgia, had been attempting to take photos with a pseudo-Victorian look. He had then given copies of the photos to Graham Ovenden, an artist and collector of Victorian photography. Ovenden, without Grey's knowledge, rephotographed the images to look like calotypes, a photographic process used until 1860. Ovenden then presented the photos to the National Portrait Gallery, claiming they were genuine Victorian prints.

Grey and Ovenden were later charged with fraud by a collector who claimed to have bought ten Hetling prints from Ovenden. At the trial, Ovenden described his creation of the fictitious Francis Hetling as nothing more than a joke on the art establishment that had gotten out of hand. He said that he wanted to expose the indifference of the art world to contemporary talent, explaining that, "living photography is a fine thing, not only when it entails age." Grey and Ovenden were both acquitted.

Shown are four "Hetling" photos. Experts later pointed out details that should have raised red flags. For instance, the cringing girl (in the photo second from top) would have had to hold that pose for several minutes if it were taken with a camera from the 1840s. It was also noted that the girl in the bottom photo appeared strangely chubby for a waif. Nevertheless, experts admitted that the case demonstrated the ease with which old photographs could be faked.
Links and References
• Linklater, M. (Dec 10, 1978). Faking Out the Collectors. The Washington Post.
• Steinbauer, Mary. (July 1981). "The puzzling case of the faked photographs." Life. 10-14.
Photo Categories: Staged Scene, Children, 1960-1979

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