British photographic history

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Online exhibition: Sights of Wonder: Photographs from the 1862 Royal Tour

In 1862, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (who would be crowned Edward VII in 1901 following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria), undertook a tour of the Middle East as part of a structured programme intended to educate the young prince and prepare him for his future role as king. The prince had undertaken previous trips abroad, but on this ambitious itinerary he was accompanied by one of Victorian Britain’s pre-eminent photographers, Francis Bedford (1815 – 1894) and this was the first royal tour to be documented through photography. The exceptionally beautiful images taken by Bedford convey the sense of awe and wonder that these ancient sites still, to this day, possess.

Bedford’s remarkable photographs not only documented the historical landmarks and biblical vistas the prince and his entourage encountered, they also became an important, early record of the Ottoman dominions and the Holy Land. Throughout, Bedford’s task was, as the Photographic News put it, to record scenes that were ‘fraught with historic and sacred associations’.

Each of these carefully framed views was painstakingly composed, and, in our own era of Instagram, online visitors will be able to draw immediate parallels and contrasts. Not least, Bedford’s human subjects were required to remain completely still for several seconds so as not to appear as a blur. And, while Instagrammers require little more than a smartphone, Bedford needed an entire caravan of lenses, tripods, heavy crates of chemicals, glass plates, and a complete portable darkroom to achieve the rich depth and detail of his albumen prints.

Sights of Wonder is the third annual collaboration between the Barber, Royal Collection Trust and the University of Birmingham’s Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, a partnership which aims to train up a talented cohort of early career curators in a professional setting. As with previous years, a small group of University of Birmingham MA Art History and Curating students takes responsibility for all aspects of an exhibition, from selecting the individual objects from the Royal Collection, establishing key themes, researching and writing interpretation to devising and contributing to the public programme. This year, alongside the usual curatorial dilemmas, the students faced the additional considerable hurdle of Covid-19, and very rapidly had to recast plans for a physical exhibition into virtual form. They rose to the challenge with aplomb, and have produced the Barber’s first show specifically designed for a digital platform, exploring the greater flexibility and deeper levels of engagement which this switch allowed them.

The exhibition can be enjoyed online as if we were accompanying the tour, following the trajectory of the journey, starting with Egypt. Here, we first appreciate the remarkable detail that Bedford’s lens captured in the ancient settings, from desert terrain to the finely carved texture of the stone blocks and pillars of the ruined temples of Karnak, in Thebes. Looking at these images, we may wonder, as the Prince of Wales and his photographer surely did, at the inevitability of the rise and fall of empires.

We then join the entourage in the Holy Land, Lebanon and Syria. Bedford and the royal party would have been acutely aware of both the biblical history and contemporary politics of the region, the latter as turbulent in the 1860s as today. Two years before the royal tour reached Damascus, the escalation of the conflict between Maronites – a Christian group – and Druzes – a religious community associated with Shi’a Islam – saw the destruction of the Christian quarter and the slaughtering of thousands of Christians. Bedford took photographs which showed the aftermath, The Street Called Straight and The Ruins of the Greek Church in the Christian Quarter as well as a portrait of Abd al-Qadir (1808 – 1883), the Algerian religious and military leader who played a key role in helping Christians escape the massacre. The tour then eventually travelled to the more peaceful but no less resonant city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and then on to Athens, whose illustrious past would have been deeply familiar to educated Victorians through the works of the great classical writers and philosophers.

Stepping aside from the curators’ primary visual narrative, which draws out the complexities of the Victorian response to the Middle-East through Bedford’s images, our virtual visitors can also explore a range of other options online, from an interactive map of the journey, to detailed video demonstrations of the photographic process used by Bedford. Further resources and activities designed for a variety of age groups and interests are available for virtual visitors to use and share in this discovery section. 

Robert Wenley, the Barber’s Deputy Director, said: ‘Bedford’s photographs were taken just a generation after the birth of the medium and yet they have a technical mastery and aesthetic impact that has rarely been matched.  This is compelling in itself and arguably even easier to appreciate on screen than in a dimly-lit physical gallery, but the curators’ interpretation of these images takes us beyond their seductive surfaces, and opens up fascinating issues around the nature of empire and the resonance of biblical landmarks to a deeply Christian Victorian Britain.  We are enormously grateful to both our student curators and Royal Collection Trust for working so fruitfully and energetically in partnership with us, particularly in such unpredicted and challenging circumstances’ 

Alex Sheen, Art History and Curating MA student, University of Birmingham, added: ‘Curating in a crisis is definitely not something we envisaged at the start of this project, but the rapidly unfolding situation opened up a valuable opportunity to learn how curation can adapt to the changing world. Through creating the digital exhibition, we now have the benefit of offering greater accessibility and therefore reaching a wider audience. Working with the staff at the Barber and Royal Collection Trust, we’ve aimed to curate an innovative and immersive experience, which visitors can enjoy from the comfort and safety of their homes, wherever they may be.'

Alessandro Nasini, Curator of Photographs, Royal Collection Trust, said: ‘Working with the students on this project has been an absolute pleasure and an enriching experience for all parties. The young curators had the challenging task of selecting a relatively small number of items from a large pool of material made available to them, analysing it, interpreting it and presenting it to the public. Some of these steps took place during visits to Windsor Castle, where our Photograph Collection is housed. We had the opportunity to look closely at the material, while exchanging ideas and openly discussing the many options offered by the material itself and our interpretation of it. From my perspective, it felt like such a refreshing and stimulating experience, almost as if I were looking at some of Bedford’s photographs for the first time. During one of the visits, the student curators also had the opportunity to learn about various behind-the-scenes processes and procedures every exhibition goes through, including the essential work from our colleagues in Conservation. I’d like to congratulate the students on their hard work on the exhibition and thank staff at the Barber Institute and at the University of Birmingham for supporting and facilitating this initiative and such a rewarding partnership.’

For more information about Sights of Wonder: Photographs of the Royal Tour visit barber.org.uk. Follow @barberinstitute on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for regular updates, news and opportunities to engage with the Barber.

Images:

Francis Bedford: The Sphinx, the Great Pyramid and two lesser Pyramids, Ghizeh, Egypt;  The Prince of Wales and Group at the Pyramids, Giza, Egypt.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

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