The British Museum announced yesterday that it will finally be reopening on the 27th August 2020 after its longest peacetime closure since opening its doors in 1759 (pre-booking is necessary to visit, please see the BM’s website for details). To celebrate I thought I’d write a post about the stereographs of the British Museum taken by Roger Fenton in the 1850s.
Roger Fenton (1819, Lancashire – 1860, Middlesex, UK) was a leading and pioneering British photographer who started his career as an artist, painting in the Paris studio of Paul Delaroche, where he most likely first came into contact with photography. A fellow student was Gustave Le Gray, who also went on to become a very important Victorian photographer.
Fenton came back to the UK in 1844 and, apparently later inspired by the photography at the Great Exhibition in 1851, was instrumental in founding the Photographic Society of London in 1853 (which still exists today as the Royal Photographic Society) and was elected as secretary.
In 1852 Fenton travelled to Kiev, Russia with Sir Charles Vignoles, who was building a bridge over the River Dnieper. Fenton took a series of photographs of Kiev, St. Petersburg and Moscow and this is the first known comprehensive body of work by him, despite the salt print photographs showing that he had already mastered the techniques and art of composition of photography.
In the 1850s Fenton also beautifully photographed Queen Victoria’s family, which you can find examples of in the Royal Collection Trust’s online collection.
In 1855 Fenton spent almost four months in the Crimea after a commission from Thos. Agnew and Sons of Manchester under royal patronage. He made one of the earliest attempts to document a war through photography, many examples of which can be seen online on the Library Of Congress’ website after they purchased these images in 1944 from his grandniece Frances M. Fenton.
Many more examples of his photographic work can be found in the V&A museum, which now houses the Royal Photographic Society’s collection, however many images are awaiting digitisation. I must say that I especially enjoy his still life compositions and I recommend having a look.
In 1852 Fenton began photographing the British Museum; he was initially engaged to photograph some of the antiquities at the request of Sir Charles Wheatstone (the inventor of stereoscopy) and later in the Autumn of 1853 he became the official photographer to the Museum after a recommendation by Wheatstone to the Trustees. A photographic house was built especially for him on the museum’s roof to maximise light levels, he supplied his own chemicals and paid his own assistants.
In 1859 the Museum’s Trustees decided the cost of the photographic materials was too much and recommended that Fenton took the photographs, but the processing and printing were to be carried out at the South Kensington Museum to save money, as it was subsidised by the government. They had not consulted Fenton before making these decisions, he objected and his association with the Museum came to an end. He sought compensation for what he considered to be an unfair termination of his connection with the Museum after he’d invested a considerable amount of his own money in the latest equipment, facilities (including a glass house) and training others.
In 1873 the Autotype Fine Art Company used Fenton’s old studio for a number of projects and the studio was continuously used by photographers until the 1960s, when it became a graphic art studio, but it was eventually demolished in the 1990s. The Museum had no official photographer after Fenton until 1927!
So what has all this waffling about Roger Fenton’s career got to do with these seemingly random stereoviews? The cards themselves have titles hand-written on the front and show that they are of exhibits in the British Museum but the photographer is not identified anywhere on them. I recognised the images from the ‘Stereoscopic Magazine’, published between 1858 and 1863, copies of the title pages can be found on the Getty Museum’s website and attributes these same images to Roger Fenton. I have added the Stereoscopic Magazine’s original titles and publication dates for each stereoview in brackets underneath and a link to the copy in the Getty Museum where available. There’s no doubt that these are exactly the same images as Fenton’s.
I was extremely surprised these are by Fenton because the style of the thick cardboard mounts suggest these stereoviews were made in the 1870s or later and the quality of the prints is well below what we have seen from Fenton’s other examples, see the images below for the before and after cleaning. I have digitally cleaned them all because the inadequate fixing of the prints has left a lot of ‘snow’ on them but there are also fingerprints on every single one.
I’ve been wondering who made these later prints from Fenton’s negatives. Fenton himself gave up photography in 1862 and sold his equipment in 1863, so he didn’t make these prints. I wondered if the negatives were kept by the British Museum and these were produced in the 1870s by the Autotype Fine Art Company, however as these images were published in the Stereoscopic Magazine in the early 1860s it suggests that Fenton still had the negatives or they were bought by Lovell Augustus Reeve, the publisher. I’ve found references and letters in the British Museum archive that show Fenton made these stereoviews at the private request of Reeve in 1858/9 after Fenton had been instructed to cease photography in the Museum because of insufficient funds, much to the upset of the Trustees who had not sanctioned it.
Many sources state that Fenton’s negatives were bought by Francis Frith, who established what was to become the largest photographic printing business in England. Again I would be very surprised if these were produced by Frith because of the quality and style of them and there’s no guarantee that he bought all the negatives.
I did eventually find two letters which gave a small clue to the whereabouts of the negatives in 1872. The Museum was contacted after Fenton died to inform it that his wife still had negatives taken by Fenton of various objects in the British Museum and asked if they would be interested in purchasing them. Amazingly the Museum’s Trustees replied that they were not required as they were not publishing photographs. I can only guess that the original negatives from which these prints were made are the ones being mentioned but that’s currently where my trail goes cold. I’ve read through a catalogue of reproductions of objects of art held by the South Kensington Museum in 1870 which includes photographs in case they were given any of Fenton’s negatives but there aren’t any listed. I find it strange that each stereoview has a reference number but again I can’t find any contemporary catalogues which include them.
I will keep on looking for clues but in the meantime I hope you enjoy being able to visit the British Museum in the 1850s in beautiful stereoscopic 3-D.
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