Birmingham has scored a coup with a collection of rare royal photographs, says Alison Jones.
When members of the Royal family travel abroad in modern times we are accustomed to seeing their every move flashed back to the British media.
The self-conscious photo opportunities as their hosts wheel out some cultural entertainment, or the impatient posing as they are required to smile for the press posse before they can set a ski on the slopes.
But when Frances Bedford travelled with the then Prince of Wales on a grand tour through the “East”, the activities of the man who would be king barely featured in the resulting collection of photographs.
Instead Bedford took full advantage of the doors that being part of such an elite party opened for him, getting shots of sacred sites and historical buildings that few people back in England would have had, or ever have, the opportunity to see.
The tour took place in 1862 and Bedford became the first official photographer to accompany a member of the British Royal Family, the 21-year-old son of Queen Victoria who would later be crowned Edward VII.
The results of Bedford’s endeavours have now been purchased by Birmingham Library and Archive Services, who triumphed over stiff competition to obtain the rare prints.
“We were very fortunate,” says Pete James, Head of Photographs, Birmingham Library and Archive Services.
“It is very rare that these kind of things come up and they tend to get snapped up by American institutions or go to private collectors, so it is quite a major coup for us.
“That is all down to the helpfulness of the vendor.
“The photographs were in a general sale in Dublin and a gentleman acquired them there,
“He did a search for other institutions with Bedford material and got in contact with us.
“I know there were a number of major auction houses and dealers chasing him for the material and offering him substantially more but he was very keen they stayed together as a set and went to an institution where there would be public access to them.”
The collection includes 172 photographs, a suite of three portfolios entitled “Photographic Pictures Made By Mr Francis Bedford During the Tour in the East in which, by command, he accompanies His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales” and two oblong folios with the original gilt-lettered Morocco title label “Photographic Pictures of Tours in the East”
They were purchased for £55,000 with grants of £32,500 from the Art Fund and £15,000 from the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund.
Last year a suite of three Bedford albums sold for a record $132,000 (£82,500) at the Swann Galleries in the USA. Individual prints have sold for £800 to £1,200 each.
“We’re really grateful to the art fund and the V&A for their continued support which enables us to develop the collections, particularly in the current time,” says Pete
The library now has probably the largest collection of Bedford material in the world with 2,700 glass negatives and 2,049 prints of mostly architectural and topographical views of Great Britain.
The Royal tour took in Athens, Corfu, Constantinople, Tripoli, Egypt, Syria and the Holy Land.
Bedford was able to use the fact he was part of the Prince’s entourage as his calling card and was permitted to photograph Christian and Muslim sites that were considered sacrosanct.
“They are really a recording of what the Prince saw. A very small number, no more than half dozen deal with the Royal party itself,” explains Pete.
“I think the purpose of the photographs was to evidence the improving nature of the tour that the Prince of Wales took, all the culture he engaged. It is kind of about him but by dint of what he saw when he was travelling rather than ‘this is what he did on his holiday’.
“As far as we know it was one of the first times a party had accompanied a member of Royalty on a tour like this.
“The shots of the Royals were very informal, there were a couple of group shots. One of the Royal encampment is actually in Libya, which is quite topical.
“Members of the party appear within larger images, exploring the ruins of various historic sights and buildings but they appear as indicators of scale as well as adding pictorial interest, less so for who is in the photographs.”
Bedford’s work on “Tour in the East” is regarded by historians in the field as being among the most significant body of 19th century photographs of the Middle East.
It was held in such high regard that the exhibition of it that opened at the German Gallery in Bond Street in 1862, the British Journal of Photography trumpeted it as “Perhaps the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public”.
Bedford received a silver medal for the series at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867.
“It was probably one of the most extensive records of the Middle East at the time but it was also to do with the quality of Bedford’s photography, his technical skill and also his compositional approach to the work,” says Pete.
The son of an architect and a skilled lithographer, Bedford’s artistic training clearly influenced the way he created his photographs.
The increased gallery space in the new Library of Birmingham means that it will be able possible to exhibit “Tour in the East” in full , for the first time in more than 150 years, sometime after 2013.
For now it is planned to put five reproductions of the images in the frames on the hoardings which surround the library build.
For Pete, the photographs don’t just represent an artistic and historical achievement, but an organisational one.
“Bedford would have to take very large plate camera, all the glass negatives, all the chemicals with him, a dark room tent. He would have been working in incredible heat with lots of dust flying around, so the technical accomplishment and the logistics involved in making a body of work this size would have been extraordinary. He probably took out 100s of large sheets of glass and had to get all of those out to Egypt and back intact to be able to print them.
“He would have also had to reconnoitre all his locations – some of them are taken from hilltops or tops of buildings – so the whole effort of taking his kit into the places he wanted to be would have been a Herculean task.”
* Enlarged images from the “Tour in the East” collection the Library of Birmingham hoardings from April 26 for a limited time.