Exhibition: ‘Camille Silvy, Photographer of Modern Life, 1834-1910’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Exhibition dates: 15th July – 24th October 2010


Many thankx to the National Portrait Gallery, London for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910) '[River Scene, France]' Negative 1858; print 1860s


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
[River Scene, France]
Negative 1858; print 1860s
Albumen silver print
25.7 × 35.6cm (10 1/8 × 14 in.)



When Camille Silvy originally exhibited this photograph in 1859 (with the title Vallée de l’Huisne), a reviewer wrote: “It is impossible to compose with more artistry and taste than M. Silvy has done. The Vallée de l’Huisne… [is a] true picture in which one does not know whether to admire more the profound sentiment of the composition or the perfection of the details.”

Early collodion-on-glass negatives, such as those Silvy used to render this scene, were particularly sensitive to blue light, making them unsuitable for simultaneously capturing definition in land and sky. Silvy achieved this combination of richly defined clouds and terrain by skilfully wedding two exposures and disguising any evidence of his intervention with delicate drawing and brushwork on the combination negative. The print exemplifies the tension between reality and artifice that is an integral part of the art of photography.

The Huisne River provided power for flour and tanning mills and was significant in the history of Nogent-le-Rotrou, the town where Silvy was born. This photograph was taken from the Pont de Bois, a bridge over the river, looking toward the south and downstream. It was only a few minutes’ walk from Silvy’s birthplace. As the reviewer suggested, it is a sentimental image, an idyllic landscape full of reverence for and memory of a timeless place that was significant in the artist’s development.

Text from the J. Paul Getty Museum website


Camille Silvy. 'James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies)' 1862


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies)
© National Portrait Gallery, London



James Pinson Labulo Davies was a 19th-century African merchant-sailor, naval officer, influential businessman, farmer, pioneer industrialist, statesman, and philanthropist who married Sarah Forbes Bonetta in colonial Lagos.

Sara Forbes Bonetta, otherwise spelled Sarah, was a West African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people who was orphaned in intertribal warfare, sold into slavery and, in a remarkable twist of events, was liberated from enslavement and became a goddaughter to Queen Victoria. She was married to Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Victorian Lagos philanthropist.


Camille Silvy. 'Silvy in his Studio with his Family' 1866


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
Silvy in his Studio with his Family
© Private Collection, Paris


Camille Silvy. 'Proof sheet of Madame Silvy' c. 1865


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
Proof sheet of Madame Silvy
c. 1865
© Private Collection, Paris



This is the first retrospective exhibition devoted to Camille Silvy, pioneer of street photography, early image manipulation and photographic mass production. The exhibition includes photographs not seen for over 150 years.

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.

Press release from the National Portrait Gallery website [Online] Cited 13/10/2010 no longer available online


Camille Silvy. 'Adelina Patti as Harriet in Martha' 1861


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
Adelina Patti as Harriet in Martha
© Private Collection



Adelina Patti (10 February 1843 – 27 September 1919) was an Italian 19th-century opera singer, earning huge fees at the height of her career in the music capitals of Europe and America. She first sang in public as a child in 1851, and gave her last performance before an audience in 1914. Along with her near contemporaries Jenny Lind and Thérèse Tietjens, Patti remains one of the most famous sopranos in history, owing to the purity and beauty of her lyrical voice and the unmatched quality of her bel canto technique.

The composer Giuseppe Verdi, writing in 1877, described her as being perhaps the finest singer who had ever lived and a “stupendous artist”. Verdi’s admiration for Patti’s talent was shared by numerous music critics and social commentators of her era.

Text from the Wikipedia website


Camille Silvy. 'Studies on Light: Twilight' 1859


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
Studies on Light: Twilight
© Private Collection, Paris


Camille Silvy. 'Self-portrait' 1863


Camille Silvy (French, 1834-1910)
© Private Collection, Paris



National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London WC2H 0HE

Opening hours:
Open daily 10.00 – 18.00
Friday until 21.00

National Portrait Gallery website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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