The first photographs ever taken of a Royal Tour are displayed in this exhibition. This medium had only been in existence for just over 20 years and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were very interested in it.
In 1862 the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, toured the Middle East. He was accompanied by eight gentlemen, one of whom was Francis Bedford, a photographer.
He took spectacular photographs as they travelled through Egypt, Palestine, the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece; countries with a rich heritage, a wealth of archaeological sites and blessed with a natural beauty. A photographer’s paradise.
The royal party travelled on horseback and camped in tents. Bedford took mostly shots of the scenery and ruins with just three photographs of the Prince. The public was keen to see images of the lands of the Bible and ancient Greek ruins. The number of pilgrims, and tourists, finding their way to the Middle East was steadily rising. It was considered diplomatic that the heir to the throne should have some knowledge and understanding of that part of the world. This was a time when Britain was keen to have a secure route to India.
The exhibition,sensibly arranged in the order in which the journey took place, is curated by Sophie Gordon, the author of Cairo to Constantinople: Francis Bedford’s photographs of the Middle East published by the Royal Collection Trust. ( £19.95)
Bedford was a commercial photographer who took up photography in the early 1850’s through his business of making lithographic reproductions of works of art, hoping to obtain a greater accuracy in his prints. He was commissioned by Queen Victoria to record her son’s tour, having received two previous commissions to take photographs of Coburg and Gotha which were connected with Prince Albert’s early life.
Bedford’s photographs of the Egyptian ruins are very accomplished. His shots of the First Propylon of the Temple of Isis at Philae were described by the Prince as, “beautiful and most interesting.”.
Notice the photography of the wall drawings. It is very fine. The Isis headed columns of the great courtyard are impressive. Do not miss the frieze over the columns. Sadly, the Prince had a cold during the visit to this site, but said, “Mr Bedford, the photographer who came from England with me and our party took some very good views.” Bedford was a master of composition which is well illustrated in his photograph of the monolithic shrine in the Temple of Horus at Edfu. The shrine is tiny. It looks like a sentry box, but he has created a view of successive rectangular frames one inside the other, which is very effective.
The Colossi of Memnon is memorable, being the only surviving part of one of Egypt’s largest temple complexes.It symbolises the impermanence of men’s ambition for their Empires.This monument inspired poets, Bedford and artists: Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Ozymandias on this theme, but it is thought he may have been inspired by a statue of Rameses II who had a temple complex nearby.
The Prince of Wales was a collector and he returned with some interesting artefacts which are on display. Do not miss the ancient Egyptian papyrus called Papyrus of Naskhem from Coorneh, which is inscribed with a funerary text describing the regeneration of Re, the Egyptian sun god. There are also several examples of pottery. A marble bust of Princess Alexandra, who married the Prince, shows her wearing a brooch set with a scarab collected by the Prince.
The Prince’s tour covered a wide sweep of the Eastern Mediterranean and Francis Bedford’s excellent photographs, taken so long ago, gave much new information, at the time, of splendid archaeological sites. The exhibition honours his fine work and choice of subjects.
Cairo to Constantinople: Photographs of the Middle East.
Until February 22 2015