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Robert MacPherson was born in Edinburgh in 1815 to a well-off family. He graduated in medicine and began his professional career as a surgeon. He also painted during this period with a certain success. He was of a fanciful character, at times eccentric, and suffering from rheumatic troubles he felt that travel to a warm and dry climate would be beneficial to his health and art. He abandoned medicine and in 1840 arrived in Rome where the climate and light improved his health and he decided to stay opening a painting studio at 48 Via Gregoriana. He frequented the Roman Museums to draw the masterpieces where he was recognizable for his tall slender figure, long red hair and traditional Scottish kilt. In the years between 1840 and 1872 he had at least eight addresses in Rome.
During his first years in Rome he frequented the Caffé Greco where he knew the young photographers of the Roman School of Photography. Coming from the middle class himself he mingled with the Roman and English nobility and people of the highest social classes, becoming friends with the Marquis of Northampton, the Duke of Hamilton, the Count of Dudley and the Browning family. He knew the niece of the English writer Anne Jameson, Geraldine "Geddie" Bate whom he married in September 1849 and they had four children, Aida, Giuseppe, Francesco and William. In his early years in Rome as a painter he devoted himself to the studies of antiquity where, thanks to his superior culture, he succeeded in realizing some significant discoveries. The most unbelievable was certainly - as told by Cecil Gould, specialist in Renaissance painting and former keeper and deputy director of the National Gallery in London - the 1846 purchase, from an itinerant seller of hardware and groceries, of a table on which the merchant displayed his merchandise. MacPherson, noticed among old irons and other goods some figured spaces, he purchased the table and took it to his studio where he cleaned it revealing a beautiful painting by Michelangelo called "the Deposition of Christ". This painting is now exhibited in the National Gallery in London. This is another version of this discovery which is less adventurous but just as fascinating. He may have found the work in the storage deposit of a Roman antiquary who had not appreciated the significance of the work.
In 1851 MacPherson entertained in his house Dr. J. Clark, a friend, physician and an amateur photographer who had come to Rome on vacation and to be introduced to photographers active in the city. Robert immediately appreciated the new art and shortly afterwards became a teacher of it as his chemistry background from his medical studies and his abilities in artistic composition as a painter gave him the essential skills. As he improved as a photographer he was in competition with his contemporary James Anderson and they become the point of reference for foreigners arriving in Rome; MacPherson had more of an Anglo-Saxon clientele whilst Anderson, who sold his works through the Bookstore of Joseph Spithover, was preferred by Germanic tourists.
For his earliest photographs Robert MacPherson probably used the paper negative passing on the more engraved albumen plate (procedure of Niepce de St. Victor) and subsequently, from 1856, he used the new Taupenot technique, a combination of collodion and albumen to slow desiccation that despite the slow exposure time gave amazing tonal results. His positives are printed on salt paper and then dilute albumen prints or coated albumen prints and finally to albumen print. He declared in 1862 to the annual reunion of the Photographic Society of Scotland that with the method of Taupenot despite the long exposure to get a good negative, from five minutes for well sunlit landscapes to hours for the poorly illuminated statues in the galleries of the Vatican Museum, they allowed him to get an extremely clean result and at the same time to give a certain plasticity and softness to the photograph.
In 1853 he asked for and received a brevet for an invention that allowed him to get on lithographic stone or on metallic plates photographic images than could be printed.
In 1856 a photographic work by MacPherson of the famous "Laocoonte" sculpture was sent on behalf of the Pontifical Government to the academy of the Sciences in Paris to show the high quality of photography in Rome. In 1857 he exhibited to the Photographic Society of Scotland and in 1858 he published his first catalog containing 163 photographs, at that time his studio was at Via di Ripetta 192.
By this point he was fully committed to photography as his profession and decided to widen his catalog of photographs of Roman monuments to include other significant locations taking beautiful images of Tivoli, Norcia, Perugia, Frascati, Orvieto and Capri amongst others. He also took photographs of the principal sculptures of the Vatican Museums using the method of Taupenot.
In 1863 MacPherson published a new catalog from his study in Vicolo d'Aliber (via del Babuino, near the Piazza di Spagna) in which he listed 305 photographs showing his work on the outskirts of Rome and the statues of the Vatican Museums. The same year he published in England a catalog of 125 photos "Vatican sculptures, selected, and arranged in the order in which they may be found in the galleries, briefly explained by Robert MacPherson". In 1871 he published his last catalog of views and sculptures and it included 278 descriptions of the statues of the Capitol Museums and 357 descriptions of views, the most greater part of these are from Rome but it also included cities of the Roman republic such as Ancona, Gubbio etc.
In 1872 he changed studios for the last time and moved to the Via Flaminia, near Porta del Popolo; shortly afterwards on the 17 November of the same year Robert MacPherson died from an attack of malaria.
The photographs of MacPherson were normally mounted on board and included in great albums; they often have in the center of the lower part the photographers blind-stamp and in the center of the stamp was written in pencil the catalog number. The size of the photographs of MacPherson is normally 25 x 35 and the 30 x 40 cms inclusive; sometimes in panoramas the format has lengthened but it does not exceed 40 cms in length and at other times, particularly in some landscapes of the Roman countryside, the format is oval. The photos of the statues of the Vatican and Capitol, taken in his early years especially, may be smaller.
He was considered by Helmut Gernsheim as one of the more important photographers of the nineteenth century and the "true interpreter of Pontifical Rome".
[Kindly contributed by Marco C. Antonetto, Feb 11, 2008]