First published: Spring 2018
Is this the earliest existing photograph of outsider art? Where does the history of outsider art truly begin? In the United States, perhaps it began with the 1982 seminal exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930–1980”. Curated by John Beardsley and Jane Livingston, the exhibition drew national attention and spawned many new collectors, scholars and enthusiasts.
We may look further back, to Jean Dubuffet’s introduction of the term art brut in 1945 and his formation of the Compagnie de l’Art Brut in autumn 1948. Before that, one arrives at Hans Prinzhorn’s early collecting at the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidelberg and his book Artistry of the Mentally Ill, published in 1922. These are pivotal points in the formal history of outsider art, but self-taught art-making far predates any of these milestones, and some of the artists would surely have been held in the same high esteem as Ramírez, Darger, Wölfli, Finster or others.
This leads to the question: what records of historical self-taught art-makers or their work exist today? A recent discovery at an auction in England may, in fact, be the oldest existent photograph of outsider art, and perhaps its artist.
Recently, I came across a blog devoted to wristwatch collecting that carried the headline, “Victorian Graffiti – an interesting ambratype, depicting two men, one in official uniform” [sic]. It was linked to the website of a small auction house in the UK selling the “collection of a Gentleman”. What the auction house identified as “Victorian graffiti” appeared to be by a self-taught or outsider artist. The murals in the photograph share a striking resemblance to works currently being shown in galleries and museums around the world. Enlarging the image using a high-quality flatbed scanner, the words written on the wall become readable. One can make out the following phrases: “No. 1 Rail way bobby aged 59”, “Squire John Russel aged 76” and “Joe H”. The titles “squire” and “railway bobby” (policeman) are English terms, and given the auction house location it is likely that the image was also taken in the UK.
There are depictions of clocks, faces and sun-like objects that are difficult to discern. The thatched-roof building has a square and polka-dot design near its top and around the window. The viewer is left to wonder if the entire building was decorated in a similar fashion – are we only seeing part of the artist’s creation? The individual on the left is be wearing an uniform. Is he the “railway bobby” depicted on the wall? And the individual on the right, who seems to be wearing disheveled clothing: one could be tempted to come to the idea that he lived in the cottage, and perhaps was the artist himself.