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The Italian Baroque and the Birth of Art Photography in England

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Paul Mellon Centre

16 Bedford Square

London

WC1B 3JA

United Kingdom

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A Fellows Lunch by Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow.

In the 1850s, fuelled in part by the invention of the rapid wet-plate collodion process, a new wave of photographers began to explore the medium’s expressive potential. Among these ‘art photographers’ were an unlikely group of four practitioners whose biographies closely intersected: the Swedish émigré Oscar Rejlander, the Ceylonese expatriate Julia Margaret Cameron, Oxford mathematician Lewis Carroll, and the Countess Clementina, Lady Hawarden. Of these, all but Hawarden, whose career was cut short by her untimely death at the age of forty-three, were strongly influenced by Italian painting and sculpture. The current research represents the first concerted attempt to examine and explain specific points of contact, especially in Rome.

Cameron, who never travelled to Rome personally, encountered works in reproduction. The influence of Roman collections in her production was nevertheless extensive. Among the works she referenced were Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, (Galleria Borghese), Guido Reni’s Madonna and Child (Galleria Doria Pamphilj), and Reni’s Beatrice Cenci (Palazzo Barberini, attribution disputed).

It has long been supposed that Rejlander visited Rome twice, once in the 1830s, and again in 1852. Research has revealed that accounts of the 1830s visit were most likely apocryphal, but the 1852 trip did indeed occur, with pronounced effect. Rejlander sent examples of his work to Pope Pius IX, and the influence of Vatican collections, including Raphael’s School of Athens, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, and numerous works in the Vatican Pinacoteca has now been firmly established. Rejlander’s progression through the great collections of Rome has also been confirmed through analysis of motifs that would later appear in his photography. The Capitolini and Palazzo Corsini collections were particularly influential, the latter where Reni’s Salome with Head of St John inspired Rejlander to produce his famous Head of St John on a Charger (Royal Collections, Windsor).

Research revealed the particular influence of the Italian Baroque and works of the Bologna School, a connection which has never previously been noted. This calls into question the oft-repeated claim that the art photographers comprised a ‘Pre-Raphaelite School’, since their primary influences were clearly later. This has significant implications not just for the understanding of the origins of art photography, but also for understanding the Pre-Raphaelites themselves, and the development of nineteenth century British art more broadly. A link is theorised between the acute interest in emotional expression during the Baroque period and photography’s increasing capacity to freeze motion in time, enabled by wet-plate collodion technology.

Speaker Bio:
Phillip Prodger, Ph.D. (Cantab.) is 2017 Mellon Centre Rome Fellow and Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. Previously, Prodger has held posts at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, and the National Gallery of Canada. A specialist in 19th century British photography, previous writings include Darwin’s Camera (Oxford, 2009), and Time Stands Still: Muybridge and the Instantaneous Photography Movement (Oxford, 2003).

Image:
Oscar Rejlander, Unknown Woman, 1860-66, albumen print, National Portrait Gallery, NPG P2011

The Fellows Lunch Series is a series of free lunchtime research talks given by recipients of Paul Mellon Centre Fellowships. All are welcome but please book a ticket in advance.
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Paul Mellon Centre

16 Bedford Square

London

WC1B 3JA

United Kingdom

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