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When Sevastopol was abandoned by the Russians on the night of 8-9 September 1855 during the Crimean War, the city became accessible to the Allies and artists/photographers were able to document the destruction wrought by numerous bombardments by British and French siege batteries. The first to enter Sevastopol were the British war artist William Simpson, the professional photographic team of James Robertson and Felice Beato based in Constantinople and the war tourist/amateur photographer George Shaw-Lefevre. In mid-November 1855, Jean-Charles Langlois, a career soldier and historical painter, and Léon-Eugène Méhédin, a young photographer, also arrived from France. Langlois, who specialized in battle panoramas, was hoping to replace preliminary sketches for a new panorama with photographs.
The church of St Peter and St Paul built on Central Hill in Sevastopol in the early 1840s was a notable architectural structure styled on the ancient temple of Theseus in Athens and, like many other buildings in the city, suffered damage from gun fire. A photograph entitled Sébastopol: L’église de Saint Pierre et Saint Paul (above right) by the Langlois/Méhédin team shows the church roofless with missing columns and the collapse of part of the pediment at its southwest corner. Trees to the right of the church are leafless indicating that the picture was probably taken late in 1855 or early in 1856.
The church also appears roofless on the far right skyline of a photograph by Robertson/Beato entitled Theatre, Sevastopol by the Royal Collection Trust (left). However, the front pediment that has partially collapsed in Langlois/Méhédin image appears intact in this view. Leafless trees suggests it was taken late in 1855 during the first visit of these photographers to the Crimea.
Another Crimean photograph attributed to Robertson/Beato entitled Church of St Peter and St Paul (right) by the Royal Collection Trust shows the same church, but with its roof and southwest corner intact. Only the top half of one of its front columns is missing. The image could not have been taken earlier than the fall of the city, as there was no access for British and French artists. The leaves on the trees suggest that it was taken either soon after the Russians left Sevastopol in the early autumn of 1855 or during the second visit of Robertson/Beato to the Crimea in the spring and summer of 1856.
As the camera does not lie, the author believes that there are two possible alternatives to the inconsistencies in damage to the church seen in the three photographs. The first is that Church of St Peter and St Paul was taken by Robertson/Beato immediately after the city was occupied by the Allies in September 1855 and then it collapsed because of structural weakness or deliberate human intervention for safety reasons to be photographed later by Langlois/Méhédin. Given that the roof is missing, but the front pediment appears in place, in the other Robertson/Beato image, this collapse may have been progressive. The second theory is that the Langlois/Méhédin image was taken before Robertson/Beato took Church of St Peter and St Paul and that the latter was photographed in the summer of 1856 after restoration work had started. The carts in the picture could have been associated with the reconstruction effort. However, the amount of structural work needed by the Russians to get from the condition of the church in the Langlois/Méhédin picture to its appearance in Church of St Peter and St Paul in just a few months after the armistice in March 1856 would have required a tremendous effort at a time when labour would have been at a premium and there were many other priorities. Therefore, the author thinks this sequence of events to have been highly unlikely. The first theory is also supported by a website that suggests that work to rebuild the church did not begin until 1888 when local merchants donated funds for the work. Perhaps someone else has another explanation?
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