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Photoshop and Facebook, Victorian-style

Long before Photoshop and Facebook, upper-crust British ladies were cropping and splicing with giddy abandon and drawing spider webs inhabited with the pasted-on faces of their friends.

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One of the most subversive collagists – clearly a cutup herself – was Georgina Berkeley. She drew a street scene in London populated by shills wearing sandwich boards. On each advertisement she pasted a head shot and penned slogans like “Go and see the clever woman” or “Great croquet match.” On another page, she painted a boy with fairy wings blowing bubbles. In each floating circle is the face of a member of her social set. Most daring would have been the head of an upper-crust gentleman pasted on a drawing of a leotard-clad acrobat plunging through a hoop.

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Even Princess Alexandra, married to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, got into the act. Her album celebrates her five children, their images placed inside petals of vividly colored flowers. One tot’s picture lounges in a purple morning glory, while another’s head blooms at the center of a pansy.

Speaking of Prince Edward, in his salad days before ascending to the throne, he was known as quite a playboy. One society beauty used her album as a means of advancement in the blue-blood hierarchy. Lady Filmer, who was spotted canoodling with the prince at Ascot, attending the opera, and even fox-hunting with him sans her husband, exchanged calling cards with His Highness almost daily. A page from her album shows Lady Filmer standing proudly near her gluepot and album as the prince in his boater leans jauntily on the table. Her husband, half the size of the prince, sits downstage near the family dog. These albums, the curators point out, were effective tools of flirtation, belying the notion of the Victorians as irredeemably stuffy.

Many of the pages have a fantastic, fairy-tale aura, influenced by popular illustrated books by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Berkeley plopped an austere, petticoat-clad dowager astride a flamingo, as a pixie-ish tot perches on a turtle. In the Pleydell-Bouverie album, a cherubic toddler sits on a red toadstool near a little boy riding a frog.

The Viscountess Jocelyn (bridesmaid to Queen Victoria) placed her sailor-suited children comfortably on the branches of a tree, with two babes snuggling in a nest. A page from the Countess of Yarborough’s album (labeled “Mixed Pickles”) was likely the work of her niece Eva Macdonald. It shows Lord Yarborough brandishing a fork to spear figures floating in a pickle jar, including the notorious coquette Lady Filmer as well as Lady Yarborough and her brother-in-law.

One of the most skilled artists was Marie-Blanche Fournier, whose watercolor of a peacock butterfly features four bewhiskered gentlemen’s faces in spots on the wings. In a show of self-deprecation she placed her own face, and those of her husband, and daughter on the tail feathers of a turkey.

A common motif in these albums – long before the World Wide Web existed – is a spider web inhabited by pasted faces to show off one’s connections. Social media indeed. Just like “swagger portraits,” or oil paintings of venerable ancestors hanging on the walls of country estates, these are swagger albums. By making visual the web of one’s friends, the multitasking albummakers could brag about their social standing, advertise their artistic skill and imagination, flirt with higher-ups, and amuse their guests.

It’s no insult to call them charming.

The exhibition travels to the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, June 5 through Sept. 5.

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