V and A – history of photography


History of Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum

On the 12th of February 1858, Henry Cole, the founding director of the South Kensington Museum, recorded in his diary: ‘Museum: Queen &c came to private view of the Photographic Socy, being the first exhibition in the Refreshment upper room’. The exhibition was not only the first to take place in that part of the museum. It was in fact the first exhibition of photographs to be held in any museum. Consisting of 1009 photographs, it was organised by the Photographic Society of London and included approximately 250 contributions from its French counterpart, the Société française de photographie.

As the Museum’s official photographer, Charles Thurston Thompson recorded the 1858 display with his camera, creating the earliest known photograph of a photographic exhibition. The view shows a densely-packed display of a wide range of subject matter, including portraits, landscapes, architectural views and reproductions of works of art, with even more photographs viewable through stereoscopes crammed onto tables in the middle of the room.

Today, the V&A (as the South Kensington Museum came to be called) holds numerous photographs shown in the 1858 exhibition. Three of these works are visible in Thompson’s view: William Lake Price’s Don Quixote in his Study, Roger Fenton’s Head of Homer and Thompson’s own Oak, Albury Park, Surrey. Other photographs in the V&A Collection that were also shown at the time but do not appear in the Thompson image include works by such major 19th-century photographers as Gustave Le Gray, Edouard Baldus and Francis Frith. The images below were all featured in the 1858 exhibition.

WilliamLakePrice1855

Robert Howlett 1857

Francis Frith 1858

Added to this is the History of Photography collection

Featuring classic, modern and contemporary photographs, this display outlines the history of the medium and includes work by some of the most influential figures to use photography as a creative art.  It also illustrates the wide variety of styles, subject matter and processes that can be seen in the V&A collection

Robert Frank 1924

Francis Brugiere 1920s

Don McCullin 1968

And occasional exhibitions,such as :

Curtis Moffat: Experimental Photography and Design, 1923–1935

Curtis Moffat, ‘Abstract Composition’,

Curtis Moffat created dynamic abstract photographs, innovative colour still-lives and some of the most glamorous society portraits of the early 20th century. He was also a pivotal figure in Modernist interior design.

Moffat was born in New York in 1887. He studied painting there and then in Paris, and in 1916 he married the English actress and poet Iris Tree, daughter of the actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. While in Paris, Moffat collaborated with Man Ray, producing portraits and abstract ‘photograms’, or ‘rayographs’.

Curtis Moffat 1925

Moving to London in the mid 1920s, Moffat opened an interior design company and gallery in Fitzroy Square. The company sold Modernist furniture by some of the best designers of the day, as well as African sculpture. It was here, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, that Moffat also produced stylish photographic portraits of leading figures in high society and the arts. The enterprise closed in 1933, largely due to the Depression.

Bill Brandt

“Brandt’s pictures survive and enter the memory because they were constructed by an artist.” David Hockney

Bill Brandt 1952

The V&A celebrates the centenary of the birth of Bill Brandt (1904-1983), Britain’s best-loved photographer of modern times, with a stunning retrospective. With over 150 mainly vintage, gelatin-silver prints from the Bill Brandt Archive, the exhibition displays the finest selection of his rare and famous prints to be seen in Britain for over thirty years.

1963(Bill Brandt)

Bill Brandt remains one of the pre-eminent photographers of the 20th Century. His career as a photographer began in Vienna in 1928, before he moved to Paris where he assisted Man Ray. He settled in London in 1931 and became the great documentarian of British cultural and social life, exposing the vivid contrasts in society between the World Wars.

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~ by Ray Harris on December 6, 2009.

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