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Church of St Peter and St Paul in Sevastopol

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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Comment by David Robert Jones on October 9, 2019 at 2:41

Mike Hinton, a Crimean War specialist, has pointed out to me that the damage to the church of St Peter and St Paul in Sevastopol may have been caused by Russian fire from the north shore of the roadstead after the occupation of the city by the Allies. This prompted me to investigate further.

On pages 420-421 of William Howard Russell's book entitled The War from the Death of Lord Raglan to the Evacuation of the Crimea, the war reporter for The Times describes the complete destruction of Sevastopol in the months following the fall of the city. He states that '...….the churches where they (i.e. the Russians) worshiped, the theatres, the public monuments, are specially selected for practice of the Russian gunners, as though they were emulous of running a race in destruction with the allied armies'. He went on ' The shells of the princely mansions on the French side of the town have been knocked to atoms by the Russian batteries on the north side, the theatre has been demolished and the beautiful church of St Peter and St Paul laid in ruins by the same implacable foe...……..'.

I was in ignorance of the amount of destruction wrought by the Russian guns positioned across the roadstead from Sevastopol when the city was occupied by the Allies and that they fired on their own impressive buildings. I am now better informed.

It now seems very likely that Robertson/Beato photographed the church very soon after Sevastopol was taken and that later Russian missiles set fire to the roof. The collapse of the southwest corner may have been because of structural weakness caused by the fire or another missile, such as a mortar shell, dropping through the roof.

Comment by Glenn Warner on October 7, 2019 at 12:56

Excellent work. I've know that challenge having been doing the same with the Arras cathedral.

Comment by David Robert Jones on October 2, 2019 at 9:07

Knowing that William Simpson, the Crimean War artist, had painted a watercolour of the Church of St Peter and St Paul without its roof, I looked up the entry in his book with George Brackenbury entitled The Seat of the War in the East, from Eighty-One Drawings made during the Crimean War. Here I found the following: - 'Since the taking of the place (i.e. Sevastopol) it (i.e. the church) has been burnt, and, instead of the handsome church, we now have a picturesque ruin'. This is evidence for the third picture presented above being the first to have been taken. After the fire, which destroyed the roof and caused the building to later collapse, it was photographed by Langlois/Mehedin. It now seems likely that vandalism after Sevastopol was captured led to most of the damage caused to the Church of St Peter and St Paul.

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