06 Aug, 2009

British Library opens a window to the past

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The Victorians staring in appear bemused, while the poor hippo looks as if he’s just given up. And who could blame him. Transported from his hot home on the mudbanks of the Nile to spend the next 28 years living behind bars in Regent’s Park.

This poignant photograph of the first hippopotamus in England since prehistoric times, named Obaysch, was taken in 1852 by the splendidly named Don Juan Carlos, Duke of Montizón. The animal’s arrival at London zoo caused huge excitement and visitor numbers quickly doubled. But, as is often the way with celebrity, interest waned as people began to realise the star didn’t do very much.

The image of Obaysch will be one of more than 250 rarely seen 19th-century photographs to be exhibited at the British Library’s big winter show, details of which were announced today. Incredibly, for an institution which has some 350,000 photographs spread across its various and vast archives, this will be the first major photographic exhibition to be held at the library.

John Falconer, the library’s head of visual materials, said: “Although we have what is undoubtedly a world class collection of 19th-century photographs, these have not been particularly prominent in the public eye. This exhibition is an attempt to remedy that.”

He said the exhibition would be less about art and more about showing how photography was used to reflect and illustrate 19th-century concerns – including science, portraiture, industry and imperialism.

The show features the work of one of the great pioneers of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the negative/positive photographic process called calotype.

Falconer said some of his favourite images in the show were by Talbot, including early experiments using botanical specimens and a magnificent oak tree in winter from about 1842-43. “In the few years of his active work in photography, he produced a wide range of very beautiful work embracing topography, architecture and landscape,” said Falconer.

The exhibition will take visitors through the photographic fashions, such as the 1850s interest in landscape and then, from the 1860s, portraiture, including the celebrity portrait – for example, Napoleon Sarony’s 1882 portrait of Oscar Wilde, which was also used to advertise a New York department store.

Researching the exhibition has unearthed some hidden gems, such as the portraiture skills of Lady Alice Mary Kerr who produced self-evidently powerful images – including one of the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt – but is largely unknown to photographic history.

Scientists also saw the benefit of photography and there are grimly fascinating portraits of the French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne using electrical stimulation to activate individual facial muscles and forcing his patient to look happy or angry.

Although photography was not sufficiently advanced to capture war and battles as they happened, photographers were attracted to scenes of conflict in places such as the Crimea and the Indian mutiny and, most extensively, the American civil war. One particularly moving photograph by Alexander Gardner, is captioned: “A sharpshooter’s last sleep, Gettysburg, July 1863.”

Falconer said the British Library, until quite recently, had never proactively collected photographs although they often turned up in collections of books and other archives.

He hoped the exhibition would interest younger people “whose experience of photography is now purely digital, where there is simply an ignorance of the nature of positive and negative photography”.

Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs, at the British Library, from 30 October to 7 March.

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