An exhibition of photographs from the Conway Library in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, 7th July 2004-26th September 2004.

This was not quite the first photographic exhibition to be held in the Institute’s galleries. Twelve years ago, the Conway Library mounted an exhibition of photographs of the Middle East taken by Robert Byron and Lawrence of Arabia. This time, too, the photographs featured monuments from Islamic lands, to complement the highly successful exhibition, Heaven and Earth: Art from Islamic Lands, in the Hermitage Rooms. This time, we focused on what was, in the 19th century when these photographs were taken, usually known as the Near East — Istanbul, Egypt, the Holy Land as far north as Damascus and Palmyra. And whereas the photographs by Byron and Lawrence were fine modern prints, taken from negatives owned by the institute, this time, all the photographs exhibited were original 19th century prints from the Conway collection.All the photographs were taken in the decades, often called the golden age of photography, between 1850 and 1880, when the discovery of the wet collodion negative technique brought a new, and unsurpassed depth and clarity to the photographic image. Most of the photographs shown were fine albumen prints — another new technique developed around 1850, though the four earliest, views of Istanbul mosques by James Robertson, were salt paper prints. Many of the photographers featured were British, including Robertson, Francis Bedford, James McDonald, Francis Frith and Frank Mason — Good, but there were several photographs too by Bonfils, Brogi, the little-known German Wilhelm Hammerschmidt, and the Venetian Beato brothers — though usually in conjunction with their British brother-in-law, James Robertson.

All the photographers were omnivorous in their approach to the monuments they found in the Near East: they photographed Islamic architecture, ancient, classical and Biblical ruins, and even modern cityscapes and houses, with equal fascination. Some, notably Hammerschmidt and Brogi — who was used to taking classic views of Italian renaissance palaces — were almost archaeological in their approach. Most of these photographers enlivened their views with carefully posed and elaborately dressed natives, even Sergeant James McDonald, who was taking photographs to record sites in Jerusalem included in the Ordnance Survey of 1864, and Francis Bedford, who was undoubtedly the most architecturally-aware and knowledgeable of the photographers. The latter had been commissioned by Queen Victoria as the official photographer to the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1862, and was clearly expected to produce photographs which would capture all the exotic and slightly dangerous allure of lands where the feet of pharaohs and prophets, emperors, soldiers and holy men, Jewish, Islamic and Christian, had trod since ancient times.

Dr. Lindy Grant