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Photographer of Modern Life Gets Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
Silvy in his Studio with his Family, 1866 by Camille Silvy. © Private Collection, Paris.
LONDON.- The first retrospective exhibition of work by Camille Silvy, one of the greatest French photographers of the nineteenth century, will open at the National Portrait Gallery this summer. Marking the centenary of Silvy’s death, Camille Silvy, Photographer of Modern Life, 1834 – 1910, includes over a hundred objects, many of which have not been exhibited since 1860. The portraits on display offer a unique glimpse into nineteenth-century Paris and Victorian London through the eyes of one of photography’s greatest innovators.

Focusing on Silvy’s ten-year creative burst from 1857-67 when he was working in Algiers, rural France , Paris and London , the exhibition will show how Silvy pioneered many branches of the photographic medium including theatre, fashion, military and street photography. Working under the patronage of Queen Victoria , Silvy photographed royalty, statesmen, aristocrats, celebrities, the professional classes, businessmen and the households of the country gentry. Silvy’s London studio was a model factory producing portraits in the new carte de visite format – small, economically priced, and collectable. Silvy played an important role in the popularity of the carte de visite format in London and these portraits show how the modern and fashionably dressed looked. Silvy’s Bayswater studio, with a staff of forty, produced over 17,000 portraits.

Works on display will include River Scene, France (1858), considered Silvy’s masterpiece, alongside his London series on twilight, sunlight and fog. Anticipating our own era of digital manipulation, Silvy created photographic illusions in these works by using darkroom tricks. Mark Haworth-Booth, the curator of this exhibition, claims that Camille Silvy came closest in photography to embodying the vision of ‘the painter of modern life’ sketched out by Charles Baudelaire in a famous essay.

The exhibition draws on works from public and private collections including that belonging to Silvy’s descendants, seen for the first time, along with a cache of letters in which Silvy describes to his parents how he set up and ran his London studio. A selection of Daybooks, providing a unique record of the day to day workings of Silvy’s studio will also be on display. The Daybooks were bought by the National Portrait Gallery in 1904 and are among the rarely seen treasures of the Gallery’s photography collection. Albums, documents, a dress worn by Silvy’s wife for a portrait session in 1865 and other items which build up a picture of Silvy’s working practice will also be included in the exhibition. The exhibition will illustrate the transformation of photographic art into industry, the beginnings of the democratisation of portraiture and the life of this photographic genius who fell into obscurity.

Born 1834 in Nogent-le-Rotrou , France , Silvy graduated in arts and law and took up a diplomatic post in the French foreign office in 1853 and was first sent to London the following year. In 1857, he joined a six month mission to Algeria to draw buildings and scenes but he soon realised the inadequacy of his talents and turned to photography. Returning to London , he exhibited River Scene, France to immense success in the 3rd annual exhibition of the Photographic Society in Edinburgh and at the first ever Salon of photography as a fine art in Paris . In 1859 he took over the photographic studio of Caldesi and Montecchi at 38 Porchester Terrace in Bayswater, London . After ten years of creative productivity, in 1869, at the age of thirty-five, Silvy retired from photography. He went on to fight with distinction in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 before being diagnosed with folie raisonnante (manic-depression) in 1875. Camille Silvy spent the remaining thirty-one years of his life in psychiatric asylums before dying from bronchopneumonia in the Hôpital de St Maurice, France in 1910.

The exhibition is curated by Mark Haworth-Booth. Haworth-Booth was a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) from 1970-2004 and is now Honorary Research Fellow at the V&A and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.


London | National Portrait Gallery | Camille Silvy |




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