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Royalty and Photography in Europe, An Introduction
Dr Robin Lenman
Photography of, and eventually by, monarchs and their families in the 19th and early 20th centuries is a surprisingly large subject, involving dynasties not only in Europe but in places such as Brazil, Siam, the monarchical states of British-controlled India, and the Chinese and Ottoman empires. And, although some monarchies disappeared after the First World War, others survived into the era of mid- and late-20th-century mass-market photojournalism, paparazzi and global celebrity culture. However, this essay will concentrate mainly on Europe (including Russia) up till about 1920, though with occasional glances further afield.
One of the world‘s largest collections of private photographs belongs to the British royal family, which has included several keen photographers and been involved with the medium since its earliest days. Queen Victoria‘s consort, Prince Albert, daguerreotyped at Richard Beard‘s Brighton studio in 1842, became Britain‘s first royal portrait sitter. In the 1850s Victoria and Albert became enthusiastic collectors and patrons of photography, photographic facilities were installed at the royal residences and aboard the royal yacht, and Albert probably mastered the basic techniques, although no pictures by him survive. An important early royal photographer was Roger Fenton, who between 1854 and 1857 took both full-dress portraits and more informal images of the royal couple and their children. The domestic pictures were, of course, entirely private, as were those marking Princess Victoria‘s engagement to Prince Friedrich of Prussia (later Emperor Friedrich III) by the Aberdeen photographer George Washington Wilson at Balmoral in September 1855. By contrast, Wilson‘s 1863 photograph of the queen on her pony Fyvie, attended by her factotum John Brown, became both famous and lucrative. Two events had helped to make this possible: an official ruling in 1860 that royal portraits could be traded commercially, and Prince Albert‘s death the following year, which triggered an immense demand for commemorative photographs; the London publisher Marion & Co soon reported some 70,000 sales.
From the 1860s onwards, photographs of the British royal family and its Continental relations were part of a huge trade in celebrity portraits, fueled by international collecting-mania and including images of artists, actors, explorers, statesmen and writers. (Sometimes there were overlaps, with interest in beauties like Lillie Langtry and Cléo de Mérode doubtless enhanced by their status as royal mistresses). Although some collectors specialized exclusively in carte-de-visite (since 1854) or larger cabinet-format (1866) portraits of royalty, many more bought them simply as a patriotic addition to family albums, with demand periodically boosted by royal marriages, births and jubilees. By the 1890s royal visits to the provinces increasingly included both studio sittings and photo-opportunities for the press. Especially popular were Victoria‘s heir, Edward, Prince of Wales and Alexandra of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg who, after their marriage in 1863, became London‘s most fashionable and glamorous couple. The capital‘s major studios (Mayall, Maull, Dickinson, Bassano and others), and prominent out-of-town ones like Sarony of Scarborough, competed avidly for sittings, often registering large batches of photographs under the 1842 Copyright Act; publishers like Marion paid considerable sums (£185 for a single image of Edward in 1876) for saleable negatives. Smaller operators such as Alice Hughes of London‘s Gower Street specialized in portraits of the royal children. Although posing for all these pictures - in Alexandra‘s case, even while pregnant – was clearly a chore, it was doubtless perceived as a public-relations exercise; and autographed portraits in various formats, distributed to local mayors or deserving tradesmen, were convenient tokens of favour. Similar customs probably prevailed in other monarchical states.
The arrival of the Kodak era in the 1880s involved the royal family much more actively in photography, as Alexandra emerged as an enthusiastic and more than competent amateur. Starting with a Kodak Nr. 1 roll-film camera, she recorded life in her immediate circle, royal holidays at Sandringham and Balmoral, public occasions, and meetings – often with a nautical flavour – with her far-flung network of Danish, German and Russian relatives (including the equally snap-happy Romanovs). Princess (from 1901, Queen) Alexandra‘s increasingly ambitious approach and contacts with Kodak led her, from 1897, to participate in exhibitions and, in 1905, to publish pictures in The Graphic. In 1908 136 snapshots appeared in Queen Alexandra‘s Christmas Gift Book, a charity publication that became a bestseller. Most of Alexandra‘s photographs, of course, remained private, while the published ones were carefully selected and certainly far from intimate. Nevertheless, they seemed to offer glimpses into a previously hidden world and, in retrospect, began to blur the distinction between the public and private lives of royalty. It was probably no coincidence that their appearance coincided with the increasing nuisance of photojournalists eager to snatch images of royal activities, particularly abroad. ‘King Edward [VII]‘ it was reported in 1907, ‘has been much annoyed for the past two days at Biarritz by the unpleasant pertinacity of the photographers who spring out from behind doors or rocks as his Majesty is passing‘. Issues of privacy, intrusion, control and manipulation were emerging that would remain inseparable from photographs of royal families, especially the British one, throughout the 20th century.
It seems likely that within photography‘s first decade all or most of Europe‘s German-speaking monarchs sat for portrait photographs. On 2 August 1844 King Friedrich August II of Saxony arrived unexpectedly at Hill and Adamson‘s Calton Hill studio in Edinburgh and was calotyped by their assistant, Miss Mann. In 1847, the last year of his reign, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia sat for the Hamburg daguerreotypist Hermann Biow in a special studio set up in the Berlin Palace. However, the best-documented early royal involvement with photography was in Bavaria, where the art-obsessed King Ludwig I responded to the gift of three daguerreotypes from Louis Daguerre in August 1839 by having him made an extraordinary member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. (The previous month Franz von Kobell had demonstrated a local variant of the process to the queen). But royal portraiture in Munich really took off in the 1850s, during the reign of Ludwig‘s son, Maximilian II (reg. 1848-64), and was mainly identified with two outstanding photographers, Franz Hanfstaengl and Joseph Albert. The latter photographed not only Maximilian and his immediate family but also ex-King Ludwig, his second son, King Otto of Greece (also deposed), and many members of the extended Wittelsbach clan; in 1857 he became one of the first Germans to earn the socially and commercially valuable title of ‘Court Photographer‘. Like Fenton in England, Albert not only recorded formal portraits but also holiday scenes, at Hohenschwangau in the alpine foothills. Whether any of the latter were made public (possibly as propaganda for a ‘bourgeois monarchy‘ after the neo-absolutism of Ludwig I) is uncertain, but Albert‘s 1864 image of Maximilian on his death-bed was widely exhibited and sold. Albert‘s star continued to rise – he became one of the most successful photographic entrepreneurs of his generation – during the reign of Maximilian‘s ill-fated son Ludwig II, whose death in the Starnbergersee in June 1886 was one of the great sensations of the 19th century. By this time Albert‘s firm had completed a huge corpus of work, much of it technically very demanding, in connection with Ludwig‘s spectacular castle-building programme in southern Bavaria. But in the 1860s Albert had created numerous portraits of the still handsome young king, usually for the now routine purpose of presentation to family members, fellow-sovereigns, diplomats, and favourites like the composer Richard Wagner. Other images, enlarged to life size by means of an elaborate opto-mechanical device called a solar camera, were distributed to embassies, officers‘ messes and other formal locations, in some cases after being hand-coloured to look like paintings. (This was evidently a widespread practice by the mid-19th century, from Bavaria to Brazil). King Ludwig continued to have himself photographed through the 1870s, his photographic image becoming an eerie substitute for his actual presence as he became increasingly reclusive. One of the last portraits of the king, now visibly odd, was taken ‘incognito‘ in a commercial studio in Lucerne in July 1881 and showed him with a young protégé, the actor Joseph Kainz, both men looking stressed and travel-stained after an abortive tour of the alpine settings of Schiller‘s Wilhelm Tell.
If the first Hohenzollern emperor, Wilhelm I, had a generally unremarkable relationship with photography, the same was not true of his grandson, Wilhelm II, who reigned from 1888 until his abdication in 1918. While several members of his family dabbled in the medium, and his daughter Viktoria Luise became a prolific and capable amateur, Wilhelm himself rarely touched a camera, although he was characteristically generous with advice and criticism. (Among other things, he rejected the common practice of retouching, although because of his deformed left arm many pictures of him were undoubtedly manipulated in this way). By the turn of the century, he was probably the world‘s most-photographed monarch, and a huge and sycophantic volume about the imperial court, published in 1899, contained countless pictures of him, in military, naval, historical, military-historical, Scottish and occasionally civilian garb, taken either in the studio or on the parade-ground, hunting, at family get-togethers in Germany or abroad, or aboard ship. Leaving aside family snapshots – which were legion, given the number of camera-toting royal relatives in Russia, England and at home – ‘public‘ pictures of Wilhelm can be divided roughly between those taken by commissioned photographers, both in and outside the studio, and by photojournalists, for whom the flamboyant, hyper-active emperor was a prime subject. (In a category of their own were spectacular pictures of military manoeuvres, sometimes including Wilhelm, by high-speed photography pioneer Ottomar Anschutz). Both kinds of image were widely published: the former at first mainly in cabinet format but by 1900, on an ever larger scale, as postcards; the latter in the illustrated press, and frequently also as postcards. And, of course, subsidiary picture industries formed around Wilhelm‘s numerous siblings and children, and especially Crown Prince Wilhelm, who during the First World War became a kind of iconic substitute for his father.
Apart from the many foreign studios that photographed Wilhelm during his life, professionals all over Germany created portraits of him and his immediate family. They included Eugen Kegel in Cassel, where he was at school, and the Bonn firm of Theo Schafgans, which depicted him in the uniform of the Borussian student corps. However, most surviving pictures originate from professionals based in Berlin and nearby Potsdam, where competition for court commissions and privileges was intense. The volume Am Hofe Kaiser Wilhelms II, mentioned above, included pictures of the young prince and his mother Victoria by the firm of C. Grimm (formerly Theodor Prümm), which also took engagement photographs of him in 1881 with Princess Auguste Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. But the photogravure frontispiece of the book, showing Wilhelm as emperor in cuirassier helmet and cloak, was by J. C. Schaarwächter, whose large and technically sophisticated studio in the Leipzigerstrasse was probably the most prestigious in town, handling not only royalty but artists, actors and other celebrities. Also well represented was Reichard & Lindner, which had photographed Emperor Wilhelm I in his coffin in 1888 and, perhaps the same year, marketed a curious composite portrait of the old emperor, his son Friedrich III, grandson Wilhelm [II] and grandson and great-grandson [Crown Prince] Wilhelm. Other big firms included Loescher & Petsch (active between the 1860s and 90s), Edmund Risse (with branches in Bochum and the resort towns of Norderney and Bad Ems), W. Höffert and (in Potsdam and elsewhere), Selle & Kuntze, which photographed the imperial couple with their young children. Another Potsdam firm, Behrend, evidently specialized in military parades, a subject well suited to the stereograph trade. One of Wilhelm‘s most favoured studios throughout his reign was the long-established Jewish firm of Bieber, founded in Hamburg as far back as 1852 but also in Berlin since the 1890s. In general the poses and mise-en-scène were those of mainstream studio photography as it evolved between the 1870s and the 1900s. And, although Wilhelm appeared with overwhelming frequency in military or naval uniform, this was – with the significant exception of England‘s Edward VII – standard practice for monarchs of the period.
More needs to be known about the relationship between Wilhelm II and the illustrated press. Photojournalism was developing rapidly by the turn of the century, thanks to improved cameras and lenses and growing adoption of the half-tone reproduction process. Visual evidence, including cartoons, indicates that photographers were now a constant presence on public occasions, especially spectacular ‘Wilhelmine‘ events like the inauguration of national monuments, military parades, battleship-launches and naval reviews, which were invariably attended either by Wilhelm or other royal persons. (It would be interesting to measure the space given to royal images by the Imperial Navy Office‘s sophisticated public-relations machine). A classic example, recorded in numerous postcards and press photographs, was the emperor‘s envoi, on 27 July 1900, to troops leaving Bremerhaven to quell the Boxer Rebellion in China. Pictures taken from behind Wilhelm‘s improvised podium clearly reveal, behind the ranks of soldiers, a large group of reporters and photographers perched on the roof of the North German Lloyd Line‘s departure terminal. Although the event owed its main impact to Wilhelm‘s inflammatory rhetoric – the notorious ‘Huns of Attila‘ speech – the theatricality and busy militarism of his public appearances, prolifically recorded by the camera, doubtless contributed to his image as a restless and unpredictable factor in international politics. (Edward VII, by contrast, despite his sexual indiscretions, seems to have had a much ‘steadier‘ and more dignified reputation). In this connection it is intriguing to speculate whether the activities of the Berlin photographer M. Ziesler may have been part of an embryo imperial media strategy. Based in elegant premises Unter den Linden, Ziesler described himself as a ‘Moment-Fotograf‘, effectively a photojournalist. A striking 1888 photograph by him of the new emperor with Chancellor Bismarck in front of the latter‘s house in Friedrichsruh suggests a major symbolic encounter – ‘youthful energy salutes wisdom and history‘ – neatly stage-managed for the camera. During the 1890s Ziesler also accompanied Wilhelm II on at least one cruise aboard the yacht Hohenzollern, and on imperial hunting-parties. Although he cannot as yet be labeled as a ‘personal photographer‘, his presence possibly signifies hesitant steps towards systematic management of the imperial image.
But in the case of Karl I, the last Austrian emperor (reg. 1916-18), the step was unambiguous and purposeful. During the 68-year reign (1848-1916) of Karl‘s great-uncle Franz Joseph, the depiction of the monarch in photographs and eventually motion pictures seems to have followed a pattern familiar elsewhere, with clusters of favoured commercial photographers in Budapest and Vienna churning out formal portraits and, from the 1890s, illustrated papers and film newsreels generating other kinds of visual coverage. Even before his accession in November 1916, however, Karl understood the propaganda value of photography, and in February 1917 a special press office was established to publicize the activities of the imperial couple. Discovered recently by the photo-historian Anton Holzer, a series of photographs by Karl‘s personal photographer, Ludwig Schuhmann, extensively documents the emperor‘s hectic travel-schedule from front to front; their theme, in Holzer‘s words, is ‘Karl, Karl, Karl‘. Once taken, they were efficiently distributed to the press and published in impressive numbers. The emperor himself, who had had the system created, also collaborated actively in the image-making process. In the event, of course, propaganda alone could not save the monarchy.
Meanwhile, two other emperors (whose reigns were also terminated by war) had used photography for a mixture of personal and propaganda purposes: Napoleon III of France (reg. 1852-70) and Nicholas II, Tsar of Russia (reg. 1894-1917). The French Second Empire coincided with the rapid diffusion of the wet-plate process, in practical terms far superior to the earlier daguerreotype and calotype, and with the related boom in stereoscopy and commercial portraiture. The improved medium was used by Napoleon‘s government to record a range of technical and social achievements, and more generally to project a modern, progressive image. The imperial couple, Napoleon and Eugénie, and their family were portrayed countless times, individually, together and in composite ‘photo-mosaics‘. Probably the most widely circulated portraits were those by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, who patented the spectacularly popular carte-de-visite format in 1854. But other photographers who joined in the lucrative celebrity and imperial portrait business included Olympe Aguado, Gustave le Gray (the emperor on military manoeuvres, the empress at prayer), G. Pilot (a graphic and photographic composite of Napoleon III and Napoleon I, both with their sons), Meyer & Pierson (a stereo portrait of the emperor on his 50th birthday in 1858), and the Paris-based Russian Sergei Levitsky. By the time the empire collapsed in 1870, Levitsky had returned to his pre-established portrait business in St Petersburg, and eventually became titular Court Photographer to the Romanovs. Before his death in 1898, however, his role had been taken over by A. K. Yagelsky of the firm of C. E. de Hahn, who accompanied Tsar Nicholas II on official trips, photographed the imperial family in private and gave instruction to the children, most of whom, like their parents, became keen photographers. Interestingly, some of Yagelsky‘s ‘private‘ pictures were published commercially, alongside the standard plethora of formal imperial portraits; although, once again, the extent to which this reflected an emerging ‘media policy‘ remains open to question. The execution party which massacred the imperial family at Ekaterinburg in July 1918 was, by a macabre irony, led by a former professional photographer.
The formative decades of photography‘s history ran parallel to, and influenced, the changing public role of monarchies in Europe. Already in the 1850s, when the carte-de-visite marked a step-change in the commercialization of the medium, kings and emperors and their families were rubbing shoulders, as it were, with writers, statesmen and actresses, whose images sometimes became much more sought-after and profitable than those of royalty. From the 1880s onwards, at least in theory, anyone with a camera at the right place and time could take a monarch‘s picture, with no guarantee that it would be either flattering or politically convenient. By the turn of the century, photojournalism, illustrated newspapers, and the extension (since it already existed for portraits) of an international picture market was turning the gathering of indiscreet photographs into a major business. As we have seen, this made control or management of the royal image a problem. Only in wartime Austria-Hungary – past the point of no return for the Habsburgs – did a clearly articulated system of monarchical photo-propaganda emerge. In Imperial Germany something comparable may have existed in embryo. In England, a policy of trading royal photo-opportunities for family privacy came into being under Edward VII, presaging – though distantly – the struggles over the royal image in the paparazzo era.
© Robin Lenman 2007