Saturday, 24 January 2015

PART I: Photography Through The Years at the V&A

I came for two exhibits on the day I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was feeling unwell though, so I chose to see this one as it was ending in a few days.

The V&A was the first museum to collect and to exhibit photographs in 1852 and 1858, respectively. The temporary display chronicled the history of photography from its inception to the modern times. The selection presented "...celebrates the creative language and visual appeal of photographs in many forms."

Please excuse the reflection of the overhead lighting and my own reflection on the glass-framed photographs.

Louis Daguerre from France and William Henry Fox Talbot from England were the proponents of photography as a viable profession. But it was Talbot who discovered the photographic negative which became the dominant form of photography until the digital age.

This temporary display focused on the V&A's museum photographers. The first museum photographic service was born in 1856 when Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the V&A, then the South Kensington Museum, appointed his brother-in-law Charles Thurston as museum photographer. When he died suddenly, his sister, Isabel Agnes Cowper, took over. She was probably the first woman to hold such a role.

Portrait of Mrs Andrew Pritchard by Antoine Claudet, on hand tinted daguerreotype, 1847

Claudet was a student of Daguerre's and was among the first to open a photographic studio in London. Daguerreotypes were unique and positive (as opposed to Talbot's negatives) images made on highly polished copper plates coated with light sensitive silver. The effect was a neutral grey tone that made the sitter corpse-like, so they were sometimes painted over by hand to appear life-like.

Scientist in his Laboratory by John Benjamin Dancer, hand tinted daguerreotype stereograph, 1851

In the mid-19th century, photographers were viewed as part scientist and part alchemist. An inventor with interest in photography, John Benjamin Dancer staged this scene where a man was surrounded by technical instruments. One of them was a stereoscopic viewer used to view the above daguerreotype in three dimensions (3D).

Dandelion by Anna Atkins, cyanotype, about 1854

The first woman photographer, Anna Atkins used the cyanotype process to create images esteemed for their scientific and aesthetic appeal. Cyanotype process, invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842, was done by placing specimens on light sensitive paper where the image is imprinted under the rays of the sun, without the use of a camera.

Bredicot Church by Benjamin Bracknell Turner, calotype, about 1850

The calotype process was invented by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840. Turner was licensed by Talbot to practice the technique where a negative is placed in contact with a sheet of sensitised paper in sunlight, producing a positive print of the same size.

Bell Harry Tower, Canterbury by Francis Bedford, albumen print, 1855

The above photograph was exhibited in 1856 by the Photographic Society of London (now the Royal Photographic Society) and was purchased by the Museum's founding director Sir Henry Cole. It was part of the first group of photos that marked the beginning of the Museum's collection of the art of photography.

Academic Study by John Watson, Albumen print, 1855

This was intended as a work of art or as an aid to artists. The model is seen from the back, as opposed to the more titillating convention of the time. The absence of reflection in the mirror suggests that the glass was removed or blocked during printing. 

The Anatomy Lesson with Dr George Rolleston by Charles Dodgson, Albumen print, 1857

Dodgson is also known as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The multi-faceted Dodgson was  not only a mathematics don at Christ Church, Oxford, but also an amateur photographer. He photographed this group during an anatomy lesson in the Anatomical Museum at Christ Church in 1857. The original print was rephotographed by a contemporary to create this copy.

The second half of the 19th century saw photographers from the West travelling within and ouside Europe, producing images of commercial, documentary, social, and artistic value.

Portrait studios thrived around the time and people started collecting miniature format portraits for albums.

Soldiers at Camp by Roger Fenton, Salted Paper print, 1855

Fenton was among the world's first war photographers. He used wet collodion process to produce images of the British army and topographical views of the Crimean War.

Indian courtesans by an unknown photographer, Albumen prints, about 1860
When India and Sri Lanka were under British rule, many British photographers artistically conceived ethnographic and anthropological images of the people. They were the equivalent of souvenir shots and for the viewing of armchair tourists back home who travelled vicariously through these photos.

Raphael Gallery by Isabel Agnes Cowper, Albumen print, about 1870

The seven Raphael Cartoons display became hugely popular at the Museum and were frequently used as a teaching aid to art students. The above photograph appears to show in-progress painting studies from the Cartoons, which were probably made by students of the Royal College of Art.

Guardbook, about 1873-1874

The Museum's photographic service kept albums known as guardbooks when it started operations in 1856. They contained small negative prints the Museum Photographers produced. The Museum staff and guests wishing to have new prints made consulted the guardbooks. These now serve as invaluable records documenting the early years of the V&A's photographic service.

Next post, we'll continue with more series of photos highlighting photography over the years. 

Cromwell Road


  1. Photography has considerably changed through years, but old photos are fashinating! Some hours spent to see an exhibit are always well spent!!
    Beautiful seeing the exhibit with you ....

    1. I agree. I'm also drawn to old photos. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I love it, what a marvellous place :)) Happy Monday doll xx

  3. Wonderful Post! It's so intriguing ... I loved the photograph of the Bell harry Tower and great bits of history about it as well. Thanks for sharing these images. x <3 Thanks for your lovely visits and comments too!

    1. Thank you Madison! The images were even better in the flesh :) Have a lovely weekend soon x


Thank you for reading. Your turn; let me know your thoughts :)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...