Scope and Content of the Collection
Title: Views of Greece, Egypt and
Collection Number: 2001.R.1
Getty Research Institute
Special Collections and Visual Resources
1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1688
Abstract: The collection comprises
sixty-nine photographs of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople attributed to the
British photographer James Robertson. The majority of these photographs record
the ancient monuments of the city of Athens. The remainder document a small
number of ancient Greek sites outside Athens, as well as various architectural
monuments in Constantinople. Photographs of one ancient and one Islamic
monument in Egypt are also included.
Language: Collection material is in
Open for use by qualified researchers.
James Robertson, Views of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople, circa
1853-1857. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Accession no.
Acquired in 2001.
Ann Harrison processed and described the Views of Greece, Egypt and
Constantinople in 2001 and 2007. John McElhone, photograph conservator at the
National Gallery of Canada, and Teresa Mesquit, photograph conservator at the
Getty Research Institute, provided expertise on the techniques of
mid-nineteenth-century photographic prints.
Comparable collections of James Robertson's photographs of Greece are
held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert
Museum in London and the Benaki Museum in Athens.
Although James Robertson's photographs have enjoyed broad popularity
both in his time and today, until recently many details of his life and career
have remained obscure. New research has significantly altered the facts
presented in much of the earlier scholarship and helped to clarify the
professional relationship between Robertson and Felice Beato, his
Of Scottish descent, James Robertson was born in Middlesex outside
London in 1813. He trained as an engraver, and by 1833 he was working at the
British Royal Mint. In 1841, Robertson moved to Constantinople, present-day
Istanbul, having been recruited as part of a group brought in to modernize the
Ottoman Imperial Mint. As chief engraver and die-maker, Robertson was known for
his elaborate and beautiful designs for Ottoman coinage and commemorative
medals. In April 1855, he married Matilda Beato, cementing a relationship with
her brothers, Felice and Antonio, who would follow Robertson into photography.
Robertson worked at the Mint with ever increasing responsibilities, including
appointment to the Imperial Coinage Commission, until his retirement in October
1881. He and his family then immediately left Constantinople for Yokohama,
Japan, where Felice Beato had settled. Robertson died there on 18 April
By the early 1850s, Robertson was engaged in photography as a sideline
to his work at the Mint. His short, intense photographic career can be roughly
divided into three phases. In the years from circa 1853 to 1855, Robertson
worked alone, photographing Constantinople and then Greece. From 1856 to 1857,
he worked with his brother-in-law Felice Beato, first with Beato as an
uncredited assistant, then as a full partner, and the pair photographed farther
afield. After 1858, Robertson only sold prints from earlier negatives.
It is not completely clear when or how Robertson got interested in
photography. He may have been drawn into the new medium through his general
artistic interests. As well as his numismatic designs, Robertson produced
sketches and paintings of life in Constantinople in his early years in the
city. Whenever he began, by July of 1853 there is evidence of him selling
individual photographs of Constantinople, and by October he had an album for
sale. These early forays into photography were successful. By the fall of 1853,
Robertson's photographs were being used for engravings in western publications
Illustrated London News and his Constantinople album was
favorably reviewed. He quickly expanded his catalog, photographing in Greece in
1853 or 1854 and publishing two albums of those photographs in 1854. Robertson
continued to send his work out to the western market. In January 1855 he
exhibited a selection of Constantinople photographs in London, and in May a
group of photographs of Constantinople and Greece in Paris. Both venues led to
critical acclaim. Also around this time, Robertson opened a studio in Pera, the
European quarter of Constantinople, probably primarily as a sales outlet for
The turning point in Robertson's photographic career, however, was his
coverage of the Crimean War. Robertson's location in Constantinople gave him
easy access to the war zone. His earliest photographs of the war document the
staging of troops outside the city in the summer of 1854, and he subsequently
made several trips to the front in 1855 and 1856, documenting the aftermath of
decisive battles. Robertson's war coverage brought him an extensive new
audience for his work.
It was also at this time that Robertson started working with Felice
Beato. By May of 1856 Beato was in the Crimea working as Robertson's assistant.
Although the photographs of the Crimea were signed only by Robertson,
contemporary documentation indicates that many photographs from the summer of
1856 were actually taken by Beato. Robertson and Beato's collaboration
continued after the war. By late summer they were on Malta photographing the
island and selling those prints, as well as Robertson's earlier work. They
returned to Constantinople that December, soon to set out on their next
photographic expedition to document the Holy Land and Egypt. When they arrived
in Jerusalem in March of 1857, they were accompanied by Antonio, Felice's
younger brother. Antonio Beato would later become an established photographer
in his own right, but there is no evidence for his actual involvement in these
photographs. It is also with this trip that the signature on the photographs
shifts from "Robertson" to "Robertson & Beato." New photographs of
Constantinople and Athens with this double signature further document the work
of the pair in 1857.
After this burst of activity, however, Robertson and Beato went their
separate ways. In 1858, Robertson appears to have quit taking photographs,
although he still produced prints of his earlier work until he finally sold the
studio in Pera in 1867. The company name of "Robertson & Beato" would
continue on new photography for a short while longer, used by Felice Beato, but
with no evidence of Robertson's active involvement.
Unlike Robertson, Felice Beato pursued photography as his primary
career. He was probably born in the 1820s, possibly on Corfu. After the work
with Robertson in 1856-1857, Beato went off on his own. His training with
Robertson, especially the experience of the Crimean War and the military
connections he made there, set the stage for Beato's subsequent career, as one
of the first photographers to serve primarily as a war photographer. From 1858
to 1860 Beato photographed the Indian Mutiny. Many of these photographs,
although solely the work of Beato, bear the signature "Robertson & Beato,"
presumably to take advantage of the company's name recognition. After this
initial solo enterprise, further series of military conflicts followed. Beato
went to China with the Anglo-French expeditionary force and documented the
Second Opium War in 1860. In 1871 he was the photographer for an American naval
expedition against Korea. Finally, in 1885 he went on the Sudan expedition to
Khartoum to rescue Gordon, although none of these photographs survive.
Between these military engagements, Beato was based in Yokohama, where
he had settled in 1863. The following year he formed a partnership with Charles
Wirgman, a correspondent and artist for the
Illustrated London News who had travelled with Beato in
China, supplying photographs for publications and tourist views. The
partnership lasted until 1868, when Beato went off on his own. His non-military
photographic work in this period included architecture, landscapes and genre
scenes, many still bearing traces of Robertson's stylistic influence. By 1877,
however, Beato sold his photographic business. He appears to have then been a
general merchant until November 1884, when he went bankrupt due to currency
speculation. By 1889 Beato had moved to Burma where he would run a photographic
studio and furniture business until his death circa 1907.
Scope and Content of the Collection
Sixty-nine photographs of Greece, Constantinople and Egypt attributed
to the British photographer James Robertson comprise the collection. The
majority of these photographs record the ancient monuments of the city of
Athens. The remainder document the antiquities of Corinth, Sounion and Aegina,
as well as various architectural monuments in Constantinople. A photograph of
the Sphinx and an Islamic monument in Cairo are also included. These Robertson
photographs form an important study collection for the early history of
photography. Additionally, the photographs of Greece provide rare visual
documentation of the state of the archaeological monuments, as well as the
practice of archaeology, in the 1850s.
The majority of the photographs in the collection are identified as
Robertson's work either through a signature on the negative or the print, or by
attribution. Two photographs bear the joint signature of Robertson and his
partner, Felice Beato. One photograph may be intrusive, with no clear
connection to Robertson.
James Robertson's photography centered on his adopted city of
Constantinople, but he also photographed Greece, Malta, the Holy Land and
Egypt, as well as the conflict of the Crimean War. Apart from his Crimean War
photography, Robertson's images fall into three main categories: panoramic
cityscapes, architectural studies and Ottoman types. Only the architectural
work is represented in this collection. Robertson had a distinctive style of
photographing architectural monuments with groupings of two or three figures in
the foreground. Seemingly casual passersby, wearing uniforms, native and
western dress, surround the monuments providing scale and lending a touch of
romantic, local color for Robertson's northern European clientele.
Robertson's photographs of the eastern Mediterranean world mark the
shift from amateur to professional travel photography in the 1850s. Robertson
never solely made a living from his photographs, but he was certainly aware of
the commercial market and chose and composed his images accordingly.
Robertson's images were designed to appeal to a northern European, primarily
British, traveler, either civilian or military, and the public back home. He
marketed to the growing interest in the East and Orientalism in mid-century
Britain, which was dramatically increased by the Crimean War. His photographs
were exotic, yet comfortable for the British public because they followed an
established aesthetic of presenting the eastern Mediterranean world. In order
to reach his target audience, the actual traveler or the armchair tourist,
Robertson advertised his work in British publications and displayed his work in
exhibitions in London and other European cities.
This collection of Robertson photographs is unusual in that it is
composed primarily of his less common photographs of Greece, and in that it
represents such a comprehensive set of these photographs. The dates for the
photographs used here represent the date the negative was made. Individual
prints may have been made at a later point, but for the majority of the prints
in this collection, there is no evidence for a substantially later print
This collection also displays the range of Robertson's technical
practices. The appearance of Robertson's photographs suggest that he used a
wet-collodion process for his negatives. As for his prints, Robertson appears
to have made use of several processes. This collection includes images printed
on plain salted paper and on albumen coated paper. However, the 1850s were a
transitional time for printmaking techniques and the technique of the majority
of prints in this collection, especially the photographs of Greece, remains
ambiguous through visual analysis alone. These ambiguous prints are
distinguished by a surface sheen intermediate between the surface type
associated with salted paper prints and that of standard albumen prints. This
surface sheen could be due to either a heavily diluted albumen image-carrying
layer or to a material, such as albumen, used as a post-processing coating over
a plain salted paper print.
Subjects - Names
Pittakys, K.S. (Kyriakos
Subjects - Topics
Arch of Hadrian (Athens,
Library of Hadrian
Temple of Athena Nike
Tower of the Winds
Subjects - Places
(Greece)—Buildings, structures, etc.
(Turkey)—Buildings, structures, etc.
Genres and Forms of Material
Beato, Felice, b. ca.