If you can get along to London’s Tate Britain before the 25th September, I recommend Painting with Light, an exhibition celebrating the links between early photography and art in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

It cannot be described as a glamorous blockbuster, and the images are generally small and intricate.  Not for the faint hearted, it nevertheless repays close attention (and, just, the entry price). The subject is overdue closer scrutiny, as very often painting and photography-as-art are treated in isolation.


Jane Morris (wife of William) posing for artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Doyens of the Pre-Raphaelite, aesthetic and impressionist movements used photographic images as inspiration, as an alternative to the preparatory sketch, or as aid to composition. Photography presented a new, revelatory way of seeing the world, and therefore seeing art. From the 1850s books and journals were illustrated with photographs instead of engravings and lithographs, and the publications of learned Victorian societies were the forums for this conversation.

Many who had trained as artists became photographers, especially portraitists. From the introduction in 1851 of the wet plate process, which produced sepia-tinted positive prints, the number of professional photographers increased from 51 to 2,534 by 1861.


The Lady of Shallot by Henry Peach Robinson, 1861

As technologies for the taking and developing of photographs improved, many artists saw landscape in new ways.  The beauty and ‘truth’ of wonderous mother nature – which Romantic artists like Constable and Turner sought to capture – was traditionally deemed to lie in the accurate rendering of detail, based on close observation. Now artists became more concerned with immersing the viewer in atmospheric effects of light, shade and colour.

Many photographers were, in turn, inspired by artists to push technical boundaries and experiment with lenses, exposures, chemical treatments etc.

I see photography in this period as essentially another form of printmaking. A couple of engravings from steel plates feature in the exhibition, demonstrating that traditional printmakers still had an important part to play in the creation, reproduction and dissemination of art.

Ultimately, this show goes to prove that whatever the chosen means of expression, art advances through the imagination and talent of the artist, and their impact on the viewer.


House Hunting

January 29, 2016

I get lots of requests from clients looking for old prints of their houses. We’re talking old houses natch, with considerable local history, connections to a good family name, and perhaps of some architectural significance. These are usually not houses of national, or international, renown. The lodge or gatehouse, but not the big house up the drive. You know what I mean.

These seekers often have to be very patient, sometimes not hearing from me for years, and I can empathize. For 15 years I have been on a personal quest for historical images of my parents’ house in Lincolnshire.


1820s hand-coloured engraving of Aslackby, Lincolnshire

My search has been frustrating at times – located in a part of the country not overly blessed with lavishly-illustrated county histories, the house has a somewhat obscure provenance and is not associated with any famous past residents, or great historical occasions.

I have heard tantalising tales of an engraved illustration in this or that book, maybe by one of the Buck brothers (Samuel and Nathaniel, prolific topographical draughtsmen in the eighteenth century), maybe by someone else. The closest geographically I have come so far in terms of old prints is a small c.1820s engraving of a neighbouring village, and two more substantial views of the nearest market town.

A fellow Ephemera Society member was kind enough to let me scan this postcard of my parents’ village – featuring the very house in the upper right corner. (He doesn’t want to sell.) He tells me he’s seen with his own eyes a postcard that is a full-size photo of the house alone. Wow.  Privately published, presumably in a very small print run, at the height of the postcard boom of the early 1900s. I could flick through the ‘Lincolnshire’ section of every stand at every postcard fair for the rest of my life and not come across it. Doesn’t quite seem worth it.

15.Dowsby postcard

c.1910 photographic postcard of Dowsby, Lincolnshire

He did sell me a c.1910 handwritten bill from a local printer to a prominent former owner of the house, which is a nice little connection.

I was once very excited to see sale particulars of an early 20th century auction of the house offered very cheaply online – complete with interesting photographs and estate map – but was told the item had been sold a few days earlier and not removed from the website. Frustrated again.

I enjoy browsing old family scrap albums, all the rage in Victorian times, which can reveal very personal insights into the lives and times of their compilers, and the places in which they lived. What are the chances…?  Amateur watercolours from the 18th and 19th centuries vividly record not only architecture and topography, but can contain incidental details that have acquired considerable interest in their own right – for example fashions in dress or interior decoration. These drawings are often found in a diary or sketch book, often the work of a young lady of the house, and often very finely executed – wealthy families could afford to employ quality drawing masters.

I live in hope, dear reader.

I was this morning invited, along with other arts/heritage bloggers, to preview the Royal Childhood exhibition at Buckingham Palace as part of a visit to the State Rooms, before they open to the general public for the summer season tomorrow.

A privilege to be able to wander through the gilded opulence of Nash’s theatrical interiors in select company, unhindered by hordes of the great unwashed. In fact the very polite and helpful staff in their smart uniforms considerably outnumbered the visitors.

A pity that the exterior of the Queen’s London residence – a somewhat austere and faintly institutional-looking building I always think – gives no hint of the lavish warmth and gaiety that greets the visitor within. But that’s by the by.

The exhibition itself didn’t spark much interest personally – a couple of displays of toys, family gifts and childhood outfits, padded out with photographs and film footage of royal kiddies, centred on the ballroom. A lot of smiling Will and Kates posing with little George, for the tourists.

The only item I could find of mild interest to the bibliophile or ephemerist was the below invoice addressed to Queen Victoria from bookseller, publisher and photographer Joseph Cundall (1818-1895), of 12 Old Bond Street.


His bill, dated 1845, itemises exclusively children’s books, for the royal progeny.

Cundall traded from addresses in Old and New Bond Streets (in collaboration with others) in the course of an illustrious career in the book and photographic arts, before accepting the post of supervisor of publications at the South Kensington Museum (later the V&A) in 1866.

He specialised in children’s illustrated books and in the later 1840s became increasingly interested in the photographic possibilities of illustration. He was a founder member of the Royal Photographic Society of London.


Australasian Odyssey

January 17, 2014

Please forgive the extended break between posts dear reader, I have been travelling in the Antipodes over the festive season. The dual purpose was a family wedding in Sydney and to lend my support to England’s cricketers; the less said about the exploits of our flannelled fools on the field the better.

Naturally I found some consolation in the company of a few select antiquarian printsellers.

A four day stop-over in Singapore yielded ample opportunity to visit that island nation’s sole ABA representative: Antiques of the Orient, in Tanglin Shopping Centre. Owner Ms. Julie Yeo was on hand to introduce me to an impressive stock of early views of the former British East India company trading post. Her company has published a number of scholarly reference works which have become indispensable collector’s guides to historical images of South East Asia.

No visit to Sydney would be complete for the bibliophile without a trip to Hordern House. Their impressive and wholly-suitable 19th century townhouse premises on Victoria Street was undergoing redecoration when I rang the doorbell on spec, and, though closed, Derek McDonnell kindly allowed me a peek at the main showrooms. Highlights in a high-calibre stock included an aquatint of Sydney Cove published a few years after the then British penal colony on the edge of the world was founded.

My eye was drawn to a cricket print I’d almost kill to own, hanging in a stairwell: a lithograph of the second-ever (more successful) English touring side playing on the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, published in 1864 in Melbourne by Charles Troedel.

In the suburb of Kensington, to the south of the Sydney Cricket Ground, is situated the large and airy showroom of Josef Lebovic. His eclectic stock showcases a range of printmaking, both European and Australian, and encompases caricatures, Victorian genre, twentieth century etchings, elegant inter-war travel posters, and early photographs of Australian Aborigines and settlers.

On my way home to Blightly I stopped at Hong Kong. I simply had to potter down Hollywood Road, past dozens of antique shops, to the emporium of Jonathan Wattis. Over a coffee Jonathan and his charming wife showed me their fascinating display of early photographs of this one-time British outpost in Asia.

“They might as well be photographs of the moon”, quipped Jonathan. And he’s right. The sepia images I inspected, landscapes of lush vegetation dotted with pleasant-looking European-style villas, bore no resemblance to the overcrowded high-rise ‘entrepôt’ that confronts the modern visitor.

All four of the businesses featured have over a period of many years established reputations of integrity and expertise among the more enquiring minds within their respective communities. At a time of rapid development and change in all their territories, when a sense of place and identity are arguably more important than ever, let us hope that they – and others striving to engage people with their heritage – continue to thrive.

May I wish all my loyal subscribers a very happy and prosperous 2014.

Before The Ashes

August 21, 2013

Talking of photographs (see previous post ‘The photographer’s art’), a print to truly capture the imagination was offered at T. Vennett-Smith’s cricket memorabilia auction on Wednesday 14th August.

Lot 962 was a sepia team photograph from the 1868 Australian Aboriginal cricket tour to Britain. Ten Aborigines and two white men (one of whom clearly not dressed for action) are posed in front of an anonymous marquee.


According to a source quoted in the only book that I know of to comprehensively describe this remarkable tour (first published in Melbourne in 1967), the players are about to take the field at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, in August 1868. The European standing at the centre is the Englishman Charles Lawrence, a fine all-round cricketer who had been coaching the Aborigines back in Australia, and who regularly turned out for the team during the tour. His teammates have been identified also.

Inscribed simply ‘Australian Eleven 1868’ to the mount below, the auctioneer’s estimate of £250 – 350 on such a desirable lot was always going to be left far behind. The successful bid it turned out was £1,650.

In the midst of the Fifth Ashes Test at The Oval, many cricket fans who have grown up with the historic rivalry between England and her Antipodean cousins are still unaware that the first cricket team from Australia to tour these islands was composed not of white Europeans (that happened a decade later), but of men from western Victoria who could claim an ancestry on that far away continent of thousands of years.

As for the cricket itself, in an intensive – not to say punitive – schedule, what was effectively a thirteen-man playing squad contested 47 matches in four-and-a-half months across the length and breadth of the land. The Aborigines won 14 and lost 14. British crowds flocked to see the “black cricketers from Australia”, and paid good money to do so, but the human cost was high. Incidents of illness among the Aboriginal cricketers in this alien environment, both mental and physical, were a constant concern, and one player, known as King Cole, would never return to Australia. He died from a lung problem in Guy’s Hospital.

Contemporary images of this tour hardly ever come onto the market, and as one might imagine, the appeal of this evocative photograph far exceeds the boundary of the cricket field. Not only collectors of cricketana and sports historians, but buyers interested in Australian Aboriginal history, and indeed ethnologists around the world, must surely desire this souvenir of one of the more remarkable cross-cultural exchanges in the history of two nations.

The photographer’s art

June 21, 2013

For this post I’d like to focus on one area which I am conscious I have rather neglected in the past: the photograph. A visit to The London Photograph Fair at The Holiday Inn, Bloomsbury last Sunday prompted reflection on my somewhat ambiguous relationship with this all-conquering medium.


People often ask me if I deal in photographs alongside my traditional prints. I never have (though I do own the odd real photographic post card). It’s a fair enough question; major collections often group prints and photographs together into image archives, and they are often both sold by the same dealerships and auctioneers.

In the final analysis, developing a photograph is just another form of printmaking.

The majority of my stock pre-dates the advent of photographic processes in the 1840s and 1850s. The photograph market is frankly not one I understand and I am happy to leave it to the specialists.

I suppose if I’m honest I’ve always slightly looked down my nose at photographs. I tend to extoll the virtues of the labour-intensive craftsmanship that produced the hand-tooled engraving, and the dashing artistry of the master draughtsman who drew his design upon the limestone block. At a distance the photographer’s art seemed to me all too simply, and automatically, produced.

Over recent years I have come to a greater appreciation of the skill of the photographer, particularly during photography’s infancy. Apart from the technical accomplishment and compositional ability evident in the sepia images I saw last week, there is an undeniable art to capturing a moment in time which encapsulates the spirit of an age – and resonates down the decades to the modern viewer.

The impact of photography on printmaking, and consequently on the art world more generally – and indeed upon society at large – was and remains incalculably huge. The photographic image continues to inform our view of the world more than any other visual medium.

Within a relatively few short years, the advent of commercial photography supplanted the reproductive, illustrative ‘report’ function of the hand-tooled print, which for centuries had been the only means of mass visual communication. Printmakers were forced to seek other ways to make their craft relevant in this new photographic age – and the ramifications of that are impacting upon artists to this day.