In a Photographer’s Footsteps

Although the current series on BBC Radio 4 In a Prince’s Footsteps narrated by former hostage John McCarthy is interesting, its title and the description “John McCarthy revisits sites of the Prince of Wales’s photographic tour of 1862” rather annoy me. The important footsteps (and tripod holes) are not those of some royal prince (later better known as King Edward VII) but of photographer Francis Bedford (1816-94.)

I’m not sure how long the series of broadcasts and the image galleries that accompany them will remain on the BBC web site – and John McCarthy found some interesting people to talk with – but the Prince’s diary – which he wrote apparently in his own hand (perhaps unlike the current incumbent he actually put his own toothpaste on as well) is available in full at the Royal Collection, which also has a transcription of the pages – just as well as his handwriting would not get a gold star.

The Royal Collection entitles its exhibition more sensibly Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East, and the show continues at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh until 21 July 2013, coming to the The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace at the end of October 2014. Birmingham Library and Archive Services bought a set of these pictures a couple of years ago, and used some large version on the hoardings around the Library which was being built in Centenary Square which opens in September, and he is likely to have a major show there later – doubtless cheaper to view than in the Queens Gallery. As well as the 172 pictures from this tour they have a very large collection of 2700 glass negatives and 2049 prints by him, mostly architectural and topographical views of Great Britain in the 1970s.

Francis Bedford was the first photographer to travel on a Royal tour, and afterwards the work he took was shown in what was then described “as ‘the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public’.” It was certainly work that altered ideas about the Middle East and the Holy Land in particular, and led many to follow the photographer’s example and visit these lands.

Being a Royal photographer was clearly rather different in those days, and Bedford wasn’t a press photographer but a particularly fine photographer of landscape and architecture. On the tour he had to work under difficult conditions, with at times high temperatures making the wet plate process almost unbearable to perform. The photographs are well reproduced on the site, with links to his other works in the Royal collection and a handy ‘zoom’ function to see details.

Victoria and Albert had a great interest in photography, and built up a fine collection of Victorian images. I don’t think the tradition has really been carried forward, although the current monarch has a specially monogrammed Leica M6 and almost certainly used it at times. The Duke of Edinburgh used to take pictures of birds from the royal yacht with a Hassleblad and a 250mm f4 lens, as well as a using a Minox, and although I’ve never seen it’ his 1962 ‘Birds from Brittania’ (published in the US as ‘Seabirds from Southern Waters’ and still cheap secondhand) apparently shows that either he or his valet could use it! The Minox is presumably the gold-plated version the company presented him with in 1965.

You can read more about Francis Bedford – and see more pictures – in a lengthy article by William S. Johnson.


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