The Chain Gang Abroad 1888

J.A. Chain, The Chain Gang Abroad: Around Europe with a Camera ([Denver?], 1888). Photograph album containing 274 mounted albumen prints (many with hand-coloring); captioned and embellished by hand; one photograph laid in. Graphic Arts division GAX in process

The Chain gang included J.A. Chain, a partner in the Denver Chain and Hardy Bookstore; his wife, painter Helen Henderson Chain (1848-1892); and their son Fred. The credit on the title page of this album implies that it was J.A. who created the albumen photographs, but there is good reason to believe the album itself was assembled and embellished by Helen.

Of the 19th-century western artists, Helen Chain was Colorado’s most prominent female painter. She settled in Denver in 1871 but traveled to Europe and to New York to study; in particular, spending one season working in the studio of George Innes. She illustrated several books, including John Lewis Dyer, The Snow-Shoe Itinerant. An Autobiography of the Rev. John L. Dyer. . . (Cincinnati, Published for the author by Cranston & Stowe, 1890). Rare Books: Western Americana Collection (WA) Rollins 0800.

This was a family of travelers, with Helen sketching and painting wherever they went. She was the first women to paint the Mount of the Holy Cross on site in 1877 and five years later, the first to exhibit New Mexico pueblo scenes at the National Academy of Design. The Chains joined photographer William Henry Jackson on a tour of Mexico in 1883 and he might have been their tutor in photography.

The 1888 trip to Europe, documented in this album, began in Dresden and proceeded through Nuremberg, Venice, Rome, and Switzerland. Classic views of well-known landmarks are mixed with very personal scenes, most notably one of Helen in bed with her feet protruding from an enormous comforter. These photographs are each trimmed and mounted with copious notes and decorative painted elements to create a unique, personal journal.