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Finding Aid for Views of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople, circa 1853-1857
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Material
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Views of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople
    Date (inclusive): circa 1853-1857
    Number: 2001.R.1
    Creator/Collector: Robertson, James, 1813-1888
    Physical Description: 5.3 linear feet (3 boxes)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles, California, 90049-1688
    (310) 440-7390
    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.
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    Language: Collection material is in English

    Biographical/Historical Note

    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 collaborator.
    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 1888.
    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 like the 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 his prints.
    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.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    James Robertson, Views of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople, circa 1853-1857. Research Library, The Getty Research Institute, Accession no. 2001.R.1

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2001.

    Processing History

    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.

    Related Material

    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.

    Scope and Content of 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 date.
    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.

    Arrangement note

    Organized in two series: Series I. Photographs of Greece, circa 1853-1854 Series II. Photographs of Constantinople and Egypt, circa 1853-1857

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Beato, Felice, b. ca. 1825
    Pittakys, K.S. (Kyriakos S.), 1806?-1863

    Subjects - Topics

    Arch of Hadrian (Athens, Greece)
    Archaeology--Greece--19th century
    Architecture, Greek--Greece--Athens
    Architecture, Islamic--Turkey--Istanbul
    Architecture, Mameluke--Egypt--Cairo
    Architecture, Ottoman--Turkey--Istanbul
    Architecture, Roman--Greece--Athens
    Erechtheum (Athens, Greece)
    Excavations (Archaeology)--Greece--Athens
    Great Sphinx (Egypt)
    Hephaisteion (Athens, Greece)
    Library of Hadrian (Athens, Greece)
    Olympieion (Athens, Greece)
    Parthenon (Athens, Greece)
    Propylaea (Athens, Greece)
    Süleymaniye Camii (Istanbul, Turkey)
    Temple of Athena Nike (Athens, Greece)
    Tower of the Winds (Athens, Greece)

    Subjects - Places

    Acropolis (Athens, Greece)
    Aegina Island (Greece)--Antiquities
    Athens (Greece)--Antiquities
    Athens (Greece)--Buildings, structures, etc.
    Cairo (Egypt)--Buildings, structures, etc.
    Corinth (Greece)--Antiquities
    Istanbul (Turkey)--Antiquities
    Istanbul (Turkey)--Buildings, structures, etc.
    Ákra Soúnion (Greece)--Antiquities

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Albumen prints--Egypt--19th century
    Albumen prints--Turkey--19th century
    Salted paper prints--Greece--19th century
    Salted paper prints--Turkey--19th century