Exhibition Archive

Photographic Recollections: Ancient and Islamic Monuments in the Near East 1850-1880

7 July - 26 September 2004

James Robertson, The Suleymaniye Mosque at Istanbul c.1850, albumen print
James Robertson, The Suleymaniye Mosque at Istanbul c.1850, albumen print

This exhibition features historic photographs of the monuments of Egypt, the Holy Land and Istanbul from the collections of the Conway Library, one of the important research and teaching resources of the Courtauld Institute. The photographs, richly evocative albumen prints, were taken between 1850 and 1880 to supply the ever-growing contemporary demand for images of the ancient ruins, biblical landscapes, and mosques and palaces of the Near East.

Some of the photographers featured, such as James Robertson, Felix Bonfils and Wilhelm Hammerschmidt, settled and established studios in Istanbul, Beirut or Cairo, to deal directly with the increasing numbers of travellers to the area. Other photographers, like Francis Frith, Frank Mason Good, Giacomo Brogi and Francis Bedford, undertook extensive and laborious expeditions to acquire their negatives, which they sold to the home market from catalogues, or, in the case of the Italian Brogi and the English Bedford, published in magnificent albums. Bedford travelled to the Near East as official photographer to the 1862 expedition of the Prince of Wales, who is said to have proffered frequent technical advice. Most of the photographers were happy to enhance the oriental atmosphere of their images by including artfully placed, and often artfully dressed local inhabitants, as in Robertsons exquisite images of Istanbul from the early 1850s or Bonfils magnificent 1873 photographs of Baalbek, where human figures not only bring an air of dangerous romance, but also give scale to the vastness of the ruins.

Hand in hand with the later nineteenth-century fascination with the romance of the Near East went an almost scientific interest in the archaeology and architecture of these lands, which many of these photographs were designed to fulfil. The exhibition includes photographs taken in this investigative spirit by James MacDonald as part of the 1864 Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, and for Joseph Bonomi when he was recording Palmyra in 1867. The German photographer Wilhelm Hammerschmidt is perhaps the master of this art of photographing the monument as architectural record, whether he was turning his lens on Ancient Egyptian remains in the desert, or on the magnificent, crumbling Mamluke mosques of Cairo.

A section of this exhibition focuses on two unknown collectors, whose collections, formed around 1870, have been absorbed into the Conway Library, and invites us to speculate as to how and why people created albums of photographs of the Near East in the later nineteenth century. The approximately 70 photographs are not only beautiful and powerfully evocative in their own right but also record many celebrated sites before they were destroyed or altered forever by restoration or construction. This exhibition complements Heaven on Earth: Art from Islamic Lands, also organised by the Courtauld Institute and currently on display in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House.