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Historic Photographs

In the Public Eye

In the early years of photography, to sit for one's portrait was for most an expensive and uncomfortable experience, but by the 1860s it had become cheaply available to all levels of society, particularly in the popular formats of the carte de visite and later the cabinet portrait. If the poet Charles Baudelaire could only find disgust in the increasing democratisation of a 'loathsome society' which 'rushed, Narcissus-like, to contemplate its trivial image on a metallic plate,' he was largely alone: the market for portrait photography by this time formed the commercial foundation of the medium and would continue to do so well into the twentieth century. In the age before widespread amateur photography, the commercial photographer supplied not only personal and family portraits, but also satisfied the demand for portraits of celebrities from the worlds of politics, fashionable society and the arts. This selection is taken from the British Library's Department of Manuscripts, which holds an extensive collection of photographic portraits of some of the most important cultural figures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, 1860s

Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt Enlarged image
Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt
Add. MS 54085B f.14
Lady Alice Kerr, Portrait of Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, 1860s
Albumen print

This intense study of the traveller, poet and diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) is one of a number of studies, many in the style of Julia Margaret Cameron, credited to Lady Alice Kerr, in a small album of portraits relating to the Blunt family. Some of these images also occur, however, in other collections, where they have in the past been credited to Ronald Leslie Melville, 13th Earl of Leven, who was a noted amateur photographer in the 1860s.

Leo Tolstoy, 1880s

Portrait of Leo Tolstoy Enlarged image
Portrait of Leo Tolstoy
Add. MS 52772 f.120
Scherer and Nabholz, Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1880s
Albumen print

Tolstoy's fame, both in his native Russia and abroad, was such that portraits of the novelist found ready commercial sale. This cabinet portrait of the writer, taken by the Moscow photographic publishers Scherer and Nabholz, continued to be sold as a printed postcard well into the twentieth century.

Anne Jemima Clough, 1890

Portrait of Anne Jemima Clough Enlarged image
Portrait of Anne Jemima Clough
Add. MS 72824B f.6
Eveleen Myers, Portrait of Anne Jemima Clough, 1890
Platinum print

Although she had originally taken up photography as an amateur in 1881 for the purpose of photographing her children, by the end of that decade Eveleen Myers had established a considerable reputation as a portraitist of figures in politics and the arts. This portrait shows Anne Jemima Clough (1820-1892), a pioneer in the field of women's education and the founder and first principal of Newnham College, Cambridge.

George Bernard Shaw, 1900s

Portrait of George Bernard Shaw Enlarged image
Portrait of George Bernard Shaw
Add. MS 50582 f.16
Frederick Henry Evans, Portrait of George Bernard Shaw, 1900s
Platinum print

George Bernard Shaw's keen interest in photography - which he wrote about extensively and practised as an enthusiastic amateur - is evidenced in his own papers, which contain an extensive series of portraits of the dramatist by some of the most celebrated photographers of the day. This study is one of a series made by F. H. Evans, best known for his mastery of the subtly toned platinum process.

W. B. Yeats, c.1910

Portrait of W. B. Yeats Enlarged image
Portrait of W. B. Yeats
Add. MS 50585 f.93
Lena Connell, Portrait of W. B. Yeats, c. 1910
Sepia toned gelatin silver print

Most noted as a member and photographer of the Suffragette Movement, Lena Connell also maintained a successful London portrait studio, and numbered many literary figures among her subjects. This portrait of William Butler Yeats is one of a series she made of the Irish poet and dramatist.

James Joyce, 1925

Portrait of James Joyce Enlarged image
Portrait of James Joyce,
Add. MS 57365B f4
Henri Martinie, Portrait of James Joyce, Paris, 1925 .
Toned gelatin silver print

The photographer Henri Martinie was active in the French avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s and specialised in the portraiture of writers and artists. This portrait of the novelist James Joyce is characteristic of his photographic style, taken close to his subject and using a short depth of focus to emphasize the facial features.

Further pages from the project:

Photographic Processes Photographic Processes
The world in focus The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology Exploration and Archaeology
The image of war The Image of War
Making the modern world Making the Modern World
In the public eye In the Public Eye

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Photographic Processes
The World in Focus
Exploration and Archaeology
The Image of War
Making of the Modern World
In the Public Eye


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