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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Alexander Bassano

Dates:  1829, 10 May - 1913, 21 October
Active:  Great Britain
 
  
British portrait photographer. He opened his first studio on Regent Street in London in 1850 and in 1876 moved to 25 Old Bond Street where the firm continued until 1921. Perhaps his most memorable portrait was the one of Lord Kitchener that was used for one of the most famous recruiting posters of the First World War - "Your Country Needs You.". Bassano is well represented in the collections of National Portrait Gallery in London (UK).
 


 
27 February 1880, The Photographic News, pp. 98-99
 
Mr. Alexander Bassano at Old Bond Street.
 
Mr. Bassano’s gallery in Old Bond Street at once impresses you with this idea: it is exactly the sort of studio we should all of us like to have. A handsome suite of rooms on the first floor in a fashionable thoroughfare, a clientele that troubles you only in the season, and sitters who do not object to pay well for the attention they receive. Listen to this, good friends, who believe that photographic portraiture is no longer worthily recompensed. “Mr. Bassano’s terms are: Two guineas for the sitting, which sum entitles the sitter to either twelve cabinets or twenty cartes-de-visite photographs.” This we take from Mr. Bassano’s card, and another little bit of pasteboard in our possession, “Appointment for sitting,” says: “Should it not be convenient to keep the above appointment, notice must be given to that effect by return of post, otherwise the fee for the sitting will be charged; or the appointment card may be transferred to a friend at the option of the intending sitter.”
 
Mr. Bassano was not only good enough to inform us freely on these points, which may be regarded as the governing principles of one of the model establishments of the West End, but, in reply to further enquiries, expressed a firm belief that if photographers in general would but act as he did, charging a fee for the sitting, and not at the rate of so much per dozen copies, their status would thereby be maintained—an opinion in which we fully concur. Mr. Bassano gives his opinions, as he says, for what they are worth, and, at the outset, we here thank him heartily, in the name of our readers, for placing his experience unreservedly before them.
 
The reception rooms in Bond Street are a series of well-appointed drawing rooms in which sitters and callers may lounge at leisure. Everything here is quiet and subdued, and if any fault can be found, it is rather that the elegant furniture and soft carpets are a little too quiet. Some magnificent carbon enlargements adorn the walls, rather larger than life-size, we should say, for they are mostly three-quarter portraits, and taken on plates 48 by 36. “People are beginning to find out that silver pictures are not permanent,” said Mr. Bassano, “and every day carbon pictures are making headway.” A magnificent picture of the Duke of Connaught, and another—this one especially fine—of the Duchess de Marino, may be mentioned as masterpieces, while, almost as a matter of course, there are oil paintings and crayons to be seen, all executed upon a photographic basis. In one corner of the room are three busts, the Duke of Connaught, the Prince Imperial, and John Evelyn, of Wooton, a lineal descendant of him of the Diary, all the personal work of Mr. Bassano, for, like his Parisian confrére, Adam-Salomon, our host is a sculptor of some note. But a few minutes before our visit, indeed, the Duchess of Connaught had paid a private call to see her royal husband in plaster.
 
Mr. Bassano is introducing a new portrait which he terms the Holbein, and which he considers is calculated to show both a full and half-length portrait to advantage; the size is 7% by 5 inches, and the proportions are certainly very handsome. Photography cannot idealise, but should be “nature apprehended in its most intellectual phase,” is Mr. Bassano’s view; and there will be but few who do not agree with him. Nothing idealistic ought to be attempted, since the photographer is sure to fail; his province is rather to make a graceful and happy portrait, and with this he should fain be content. A stout scrap-book of large dimensions, such as would not suffer if handled a bit roughly, stands convenient to visitors, and here they can at once see how far Mr. Bassano is true to his principles. It contains a whole series of Zulu heroes: Sir Thomas Pearson, a bluff British colonel; Redvers Buller, V.C., longheaded and intellectual; Chard, of Rork’s Drift, the beau ideal of a dashing young officer, &c., &c. A stout scrap-book of this nature is, our readers might note, an interesting item in the reception room.
 
There is a charming Rembrandt portrait of Mrs. Langtry, a bold picture of HRH. the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief, and of other illustrious personages worthy of note. But we must go upstairs to the studio. We leave the comfortable reception rooms—having first signalled our coming above at one of a series of ivory whistles, which plainly betoken system and order—and ascend a broad staircase. We peep into the dressing rooms on our way—all of them apartments of considerable dimensions, for ladies, if in court dress, like plenty of room for their trains and feathers—and then mount once more. There are two studios, lighted from the same direction, NE. and S.E., so that both ends of the studios may be made use of. In the principal studio—26 feet in length—there was but one background. But it was a long one. It measured no less than 80 feet, and was mounted on perpendicular rollers like a panorama. Its handiness was obvious. As it was deftly passed in review, the tint changed from warm to cold, the scene from outdoor to indoor, and, in a word, progressed through every phase. Mr. Bassano permits the sitter to be in his studio half an hour, and as several pictures are taken, this period he holds to be quite brief enough. It is another matter with a vignette, where, perhaps, but a turn of the head is necessary to alter the pose; but with full or three-quarter length portraits, much time is necessary. Moreover, he believes that the trouble taken 1s not thrown away, for if you please a sitter, he generally holds to the same portrait year after year, and asks for it to be printed in this style or that, rather than go to the trouble of a fresh sitting. The cameras, by the way, are provided with a square hood or funnel of black, projecting twelve inches beyond the lens, to shade this from the light.
 
Another point that struck us in the studio was the presence of nought but real furniture. The tables, chairs, and bookcases were real, the piano was real, the Persian carpet was real. The illumination was a high side light, the skirting board coming up about two feet six inches from the floor, and the curtains of blue linen were so arranged that by the lower ones being permitted to rise and the upper ones to fall, you could light the sitter by a central illumination, which central illumination could be high or low as occasion required. Mr. Bassano permits the sitter to be accompanied by his or her friends into the studio; he makes no restriction; they may do as they please. There is a portion partitioned off by curtains where friends may sit, and whence issue the dark rooms.
 
Of course, Mr. Bassano is fully alive to the advantages of gelatine plates, and considers they were sent as a sort of providence during the recent heavy fogs. But the gelatine films are difficult to retouch upon. Mr. Bassano’s work requires a staff of three artists to be constantly engaged on the work of retouching negatives. The ordinary retouching frames are used, and a sharply-pointed pencil, either Wolff’s or Faber’s. But a B or HB won’t do upon a gelatine film. A HHHH pencil was being employed by one artist, and on our enquiring of another if he were using the same, he replied, “No, I am employing a five H point.” To give tooth to the film, a little turpentine rubbed on with the finger is found to be most efficacious. The quality of the gelatine negative was exceptionally fine, the film as smooth and harmonious as that of the best wet collodion plate.
 
Mr. Bassano reserves his Bond Street establishment for photographs taken by appointment, while a second gallery in Piccadilly takes the impromptu work. In Piccadilly there is little else but top light available, but since the pictures taken there have made Mr. Bassano’s reputation, we may assume that something besides light is necessary for successful portraiture. The printing establishment, where negatives are sent as soon as retouched and thoroughly approved, is at Kilburn, where a considerable staff of employees are engaged.
 
“Secrets? Lord bless you! I have none, I may reply with Addison's, knife grinder,” was Mr. Bassano’s remark, when we asked but for a general view of his establishment. “I have met with some success, but the only secret which has tended to it has been that I have brought to bear upon my work whatever art cultivation, inclination and circumstances have fostered.” We have only to assure our readers that what we saw at the Old Bond Street Gallery practically confirms these words.

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