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Among the earliest enthusiasts to grasp the opportunity of experimenting with the new Autochrome process was Lionel de Rothschild, the eldest son of Leopold de Rothschild, a partner in the London banking house of N. M Rothschild & Sons.
Lionel was in his mid-twenties when the Autochrome process was first demonstrated in Britain in the summer of 1907. Already a keen and talented photographer, the comparatively high cost of the new process was no deterrent for a member of one of the wealthiest families in Europe.
Sometime during 1908 Lionel began to experiment with the Autochrome alongside his continuing black-and-white photography. For the next four years he would remain besotted by the process, before quite suddenly abandoning it. The results of that concentrated activities is preserved in almost 750 plates - the largest collection of plates by a single British photographer so far known to have survived.
But the value of Lionelís work lies not simply in volume. Lionel was an amateur - a keen one, but still an amateur. Yet it is clear, in looking carefully at his photographs, that his eye for the interest of a subject and the composition of an image rose well above the norm. In his best images, there is an arresting quality based on compositional strength combined with an innate and sensitive exploration of what colour can add to the image. To date, the Autochrome has most frequently attracted attention either for the experiments of the Photo-Secessionists, focused on emulating painterly qualities, or on large bodies of Ďdocumentaryí photographs like those of Tournassoud or the National Geographic. Lionelís work gives us an opportunity to see how the gifted man in the street viewed the opportunities offered by Autochrome colour.
In many of Lionelís plates one has a strong sense of him experimenting with the medium. The limitations of the process, in particular the need for long exposures and strong light, clearly were a key element in his decisions as to subjects. Lionel, in his mid-twenties, was already keenly interested in plants and gardens. His father was a passionate gardener with many acres to play with and later in life Lionel himself would go on to lay out his own magnificent garden. Many of his earliest plates were taken in the grounds of his fatherís houses, at Ascott in Buckinghamshire and Gunnersbury in West London. Plants and shrubs gave him Ė as they did most early colour photographers - the opportunity to observe and photograph combinations of colour in good light and to test the veracity of Autochrome colour. Lionel, combining a good eye with a love of the subject, fell with equal enthusiasm upon drifts of spring flowers beneath trees in blossom and on formal and sometimes blousy Edwardian bedding. But he also enjoyed closer studies of single flowers, often in combination with a stone garden feature or a terracotta pot. His trips to southern Europe enabled him to explore close-ups of more exotic plants: an orange tree set against a Mediterranean bay, a row of cypresses behind classical ruins.
Visitors to Ascott also found themselves willy-nilly the subject of his portraits, usually posed informally in a garden chair with the lawn and shrubs for background. Family and friends fell victim and the resulting plates have a relaxed air to them, the informality of an Edwardian weekend party. It is perhaps here that Lionelís photographs speak most directly to a modern audience. The subjects, part of that privileged group at the peak of Edwardian society and often dressed in elaborate fashion-plate costume, smile direct into the camera, at ease with their host-photographer, caught in the summer sunshine in a colour which is unfamiliar to us from this pre-War world. They are in the end, you cannot help but think, just like us, despite the passage of a hundred years. It is colour which bridges that gap of years, linking us to a world previously only glimpsed in monochrome. This feeling is heightened by the softness, sometimes remarkably ethereal, of Autochrome colour.
Lionelís motoring tours led him to scenes which demanded a photographic record. Keenly interested in the classical world, he shot extensively among Egyptian monuments and remains on a trip in 1910, returning to England and turning the best of his plates into a lecture which he delivered to villagers near his Buckinghamshire home. In 1912, on honeymoon in Italy with his new wife, Marie-Louise, he took the opportunity to photograph classical remains in Rome, Paestum and Pompeii. His lecture notes for a talk on Roman life still survive, together with many of the plates, some enhanced by him for projection with arched borders or oval masks.
Some of the most memorable photographs were taken by Lionel in the Zoological Gardens in London. A dozen or so plates survive, a penguin with his keeper, a couple of cranes in the bird enclosures, a family of giraffes, a zebra being led by his keeper, and two wonderful plates, shot through the bars of the tigerís cage, the tiger lying, languid and indifferent to the stares of the crowd who gaze through the further bars of the cage.
That Lionel enjoyed playing with the full scope of possibilities offered by the Autochrome might be suggested by the considerable number of stereoscopic plates he took in colour: about 150 or one in five of all the surviving plates. The combination of colour and stereoscopy provided the viewer with the most lifelike of images then available and hand-held stereo-viewers provided a way Ė already socially accepted - of presenting Autochrome plates to the light.
There also survive plates to give useful evidence of how Lionel struggled with the process, not always successfully. A colour cast, sometimes of yellow, or red, or blue, mars their freshness. Or they are simply too dark. Sometimes he deliberately pushes at the edge of the Autochromeís limitations. Experiments with sunsets over darkening landscapes usually fail, but just occasionally work to produce a haunting quality. At other times, and when there is no chance of repeating a shot, he plays safe. Only rarely in his travels does he choose to include figures in his images, avoiding the uncertainty of unposed figures who would probably fail to rise to the demands of the long exposure. Only three images are of interiors; the poorness of the light clearly led him to more certain subjects out-of-doors.
Lionelís Italian honeymoon in 1912 seems to have been the last occasion on which he took Autochrome plates. After this, photography seems to have played less of an important part in his life. A new wife and a new home occupied more of his time and life at the bank was undoubtedly absorbing him more as the three ageing partners (his father and uncles) came to need more and more support. In any case, within two years of his trip to Italy Britain was at War. In 1915, Lionel and his brother Anthony were made partners in the Bank and the pressures of the financial world closed in upon them. After the War, he continued to take photographs, but only in black-and-white. Now they were taken more hastily, as simple records of family holidays, with little of the thought for composition which had marked his earlier phase. A moment had passed.
[Contributed by Victor Gray, Project Consultant, The Rothschild Archive - June 2008]