News | January 25, 2023

New Season of Photography at Bodleian Libraries

Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Smyth (engraver, England), The Spitalfields Ball. Costume Portraits, from daguerreotypes, by Beard, 1848, in Illustrated London News, 15 July 1848

Following recent archival acquisitions that have expanded its collections of photography, the Bodleian Libraries has announced the opening of a season of photographic exhibitions and talks at the Weston Library, home of the Bodleian’s special collections.
 
The photography exhibition programme will start with A New Power: Photography and Britain 1800-1850, opening on  February 1, 2023. A New Power will explore the early history of photography, starting with the invention of the medium and the dissemination of photographic images throughout British culture and ending with the famous Great Exhibition of 1851. A wide range of early photographs will be on display, alongside paintings, prints, sculptural busts, books, periodicals, panoramas, and even elements of the first computing engine.

The exhibition will show how photography intersected with all aspects of a nascent modernity – including industrialisation, science, art, celebrity culture, journalism, publishing, class conflict, colonialism, and consumer capitalism – revealing photography’s crucial role in making Britain the society it is today.

Among items on display are:

* Sargassum bacciferum, from the first fascicle of Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1843, the work of English botanist Anna Atkins whose albums of cyanotype prints of seaweed and algae are often regarded as the earliest photographic books

* Journal of residence of two years and a half in Great Britain, 1841, by Jehangeer Nowrojee and Hirjeebhoy Merwanjee, a first-hand account of a demonstration of the daguerreotype process  published by two naval architects from India 

* Daguerreotypes of Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth including her letter to her half-sister Fanny Wilson describing her first portrait session.

* London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, Henry Mayhew’s three-volume publication that features numerous engraved portraits of members of the English working class - his text based on interviews and social analysis was given added force by the addition of wood engravings based on daguerreotypes

* Tallis's Drawing Room Table Book of Theatrical Portraits, Memoirs and Anecdotes which features a series of engraved copies of daguerreotype portraits of celebrated Shakespearean actors, sometimes  shown as if in a portrait studio, but more often posing in costume as if performing. Queen Victoria bought a copy.

* A group portrait of Queen Victoria with her five eldest children taken in January 1852 by William Edward Kilburn who was commissioned to photograph the Royal family on a number of occasions - the Queen was portrayed with her eyes closed which is why she wiped out her face on the plate, but spared the images of the children.

A second photography exhibition, Bright Sparks: Photography and the Talbot Archive (March 17 to June 18 2023), will celebrate the acquisition of the archive of the British inventor of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877). It features items from the archive in conversation with works by contemporary artists, including Cornelia Parker, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Martin Parr, and Garry Fabian Miller. This conversational format will bring the archive to life in new ways, making it accessible to a wider audience and showcasing how Talbot’s varied work and innovations influenced and inspired later artists.

The two exhibitions will mark a year dedicated to photography at the Bodleian Libraries. They follow important acquisitions including the Bern Schwartz archive, the archives of William Henry Fox Talbot, the archives of Helen Muspratt, and Daniel Meadows, material from the Hyman collection of 20th-century British photography, and Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey’s collection of photobooks. The Bodleian will host a varied diary of public engagement events, including a scholarly symposium, public talks and programmes, and the continuation of public lectures by contemporary fine art photographer Garry Fabian Miller running at the Weston Library until October 2023.
 
Curated by Geoffrey Batchen, Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford and a specialist in the history of photography, both exhibitions will mark and celebrate this exciting new era at the Bodleian. The Library will embrace its central role in the conservation of photography both in Oxford and internationally, in line with the increasing prominence of photographic study and research at the University of Oxford.

"Oxford University is quickly becoming an internationally significant centre for the study and appreciation of photography," he said, "offering a powerful conjunction of world-class collections, exhibitions, publications, expert staff and academic classes. A number of important exhibitions have already been held, but 2023 will be a highlight during which the public will be able to get an insight into the depths of the Bodleian’s collections and engage in an imaginative way with the magical art of photography."

To support the Bodleian in this endeavour, the position of Curator of Photography was created following a generous gift from the Bern and Ronny Schwartz Foundation, with Dr Phillip Roberts as the inaugural post-holder.

Dr Roberts commented: "Photography was the most valuable tool for capturing and sharing information since the book, and so it is absolutely right that the Bodleian Libraries make it a key part of its mission to preserve the riches of human knowledge. From the discovery of silver darkening under sunlight to grand optical and alchemical treatises, and the earliest photochemical experiments, the Bodleian collections tell the story of the discovery and proliferation of photography.

"Our upcoming exhibitions will explore the early years of the new medium and demonstrate its profound impact on all of our lives. 2023 will be a transformational moment for the Libraries. Through great exhibitions, lectures, hands-on workshops, and important new acquisitions, we will launch a new era at the Bodleian. Photography will take its rightful place as one of the critical records of the modern age."