Does the name Bassano ring a bell? For many of our visitors, the answer is probably ‘yes’. It has appeared in countless National Portrait Gallery displays over the years, features on some of our most popular greetings cards, and often pops up when searching the collection on our website. This is unsurprising considering there are more than 40,000 original negatives of numerous sitters by ‘Bassano’ in our collection, plus more than 3,000 original prints.

The story of the Bassano studio began in the early 1850s when Alexander Bassano (1829-1913) opened his first photographic studio in London. When he retired five decades later, he was one of the most important portrait photographers of the Victorian era and left a legacy that continued with the studio that used his name until the 1980s. With the centenary of his death this year, we wanted to draw attention to the man who started it all, focusing on the photographs produced during his lifetime in our display Alexander Bassano: Victorian Photographer, and drawing out the stories behind some of the sittings that contributed to his success.

To gain insight into this period, it was crucial to look at newspapers of the day. A report in The Times of 25 June 1881 provides us with more detail about Bassano’s sitting with the Princess of Wales, (later Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward VII) in the conservatory at Marlborough House, draws attention to Bassano’s role as a royal photographer and praises his technical skills

Eleven negatives were procured, and of these, it is understood, not one was unsuccessful. It would hardly have been possible to achieve as much as this away from the studio by the old wet collodion process; but Mr. Bassano, thanks to the sensitiveness of his gelatine dry plates, was as fortunate as he could have hoped to be. More or less excellent as likenesses, the photographs are remarkable in a high degree for artistic merit […]

One of these photographs appears in the display, while many of the other poses are also in our collection. A member of the public, Linda Mitchell, also recently brought to our attention a coloured version by the artist W.C. Bell, serving as a reminder of the many more Bassano photographs or inspired images in people’s personal collections.

Alexandra by Alexander Bassano, 5 May 1881 (NPG x137324)   Queen Alexandra by W.C. Bell after Alexander Bassano, 1881 or after    

Meanwhile, the first Director of the National Portrait Gallery, Sir George Scharf, provided a more personal perspective to Bassano’s story. In his diary entry for 5 June 1885, held in the Gallery’s archives, he wrote:

Cab to Bassano 1s[hilling]. His studio was intensely hot and the long way up stairs tried me severely.

He is most likely referring to the broad staircase at Bassano’s grand and impressive 25 Old Bond Street studio, a tangible measure of the photographer’s success. While there, Scharf made drawings in his sketchbooks of Bassano’s camera, and of his own hands that recall the poses in surviving photographs from the sitting.

Sketches made at Bassano’s studio by Sir George Scharf, Scharf Sketchbook 108, 1885, NPG7/3/4/2/123   Sketches made at Bassano’s studio by Sir George Scharf, Scharf Sketchbook 108, 1885, NPG7/3/4/2/123  

Stories such as these (and there are more) bring to life the portraits in this extensive archive, and enrich our understanding of how the name of this one man and the successive firm came to remain in our memory.

An additional display of works by Alexander Bassano can be seen in the Portrait Café.

Image Credits (from top to bottom)

Queen Alexandra by Alexander Bassano, 5 May 1881, NPG x137324

Queen Alexandra
by W.C. Bell after Alexander Bassano, 1881 or after

Sketches made at Bassano’s studio by Sir George Scharf, Scharf Sketchbook 108, 1885,
NPG7/3/4/2/123

Comments

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Peter Bassano

23 June 2014, 14:39

Dear Constantia I am most probably a co-lateral descendant of Alexander Bassano. As I'm sure you know he was the son of Clement Bassano, a grocer in the west end of London. If, as I believe, we share the same Venetian professional musician family roots,(five brother employed by Henry Vlll) three of Alexander's sisters shared this musical heritage because they were singers and attended the Royal Academy of Music. I have quite a lot of information about Alexander(did you know he went bankrupt?) but not the missing link between Clement and the earlier generation. I write to ask if there might be any clues to this in the documents that you have at the NPG? Best wishes Peter Bassano FRCM

Nigel

6 June 2014, 23:54

Dear Gail, The photograph concerning Marion taken by Bassano was the one of the postcard image that I emailed to you last year - probably from the same set that was used when she appeared in the Strand magazine for the article "Beauty and The Camera" c1907. I contacted this forum in an attempt to find if any further images existed. I agree, the contrast between those, and images by Rita Martin are striking. I emailed you over the past few days enclosing an photograph from a Paris fashion magazine of 1929. I hope you received them OK, if not please do get in touch.

Gail Weldon

27 May 2014, 14:08

Dear Constantia,
I'm sorry to have missed the display but will go on to the website. I do have a lot of information on Marion Lindsay (who was born Marion Weldon) and if you contact me directly I am happy to send you information.

Constantia Nicolaides

27 May 2014, 11:31

Dear Gail,
Unfortunately, the display was deinstalled in November 2013, but a brief introduction to the display is available on our website here:
http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2013/alexander-bassano-victorian-photographer.php
Furthermore, photographs by Alexander Bassano and the subsequent Bassano studio can still be searched and viewed on our website, while individual prints can be seen by appointment in our study room.
We do not seem to have much information about Marion Lindsay and so if you have further details of her biography, we would be interested in hearing more.

Gail Weldon

27 May 2014, 07:19

To Nigel and Constantia I was extremely interested Nigel to see that you have been looking for images of Marion Lindsay who was my great aunt. Which Bassano image is it that you say was famous? I haven't any postcards of the Bassano photos (I do have of Rita Martin) but have seen a number online and am fascinated by the difference between the two photographers. I live in South Africa but will be in London this week and look forward to the exhibition if it's still on.

Last Edit: 27 May 2014, 09:57 by admin

Constantia Nicolaides

23 April 2014, 13:08

Dear Nigel,
Thank you for your message. While we have an extensive collection of negatives and prints by the Bassano studio, it does not quite represent the studio’s entire output. The 1900s is a period where there is a particular gap in our holdings, with only a handful of negatives and a good many postcards. We do have three postcards of Marion Lindsay by Rita Martin in our collection:
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp128998/marion-lindsay?search=sas&sText=marion+lindsay
But unfortunately none of her by Bassano. However, it may be that other postcards turn up in the future, so it is worth always keeping a lookout. Ebay and postcard fairs can be a good way of finding images, as well as checking for newly catalogued objects in online collections.

Nigel

15 April 2014, 23:08

Hi Constantia,
I was very interested to read the information you supplied about Alexander Bassano. When I was searching for images of an Edwardian stage actress named Marian Lindsay, I noticed the famous postcard image of her when she sat for Bassano studios (c1907) is not feature on your website. Given that you state that 40,000 negatives and 3,000 original prints exist in the collection, is it possible that other prints/negatives exist from that sitting? If so, how would I go about finding out? I would love to discover further images of her by Bassano.
Any pointers would be gratefully appreciated

Constantia Nicolaides

21 August 2013, 11:44

Thanks Peter. If you do come across anything, it would be great to hear!

Peter Mitchell

17 August 2013, 15:41

Thanks Constantia; once again, you are awesome! :) As Kirk was just a middling historical figure, the name or names of the actual photographers may forever be lost in the mists of history. (But being prevented from accidentally attributing photographs to a dead man is a huge bullet-dodger!) That said, it's possible a name or two may appear in one of Kirk's journals, the RSU minutes, or a newspaper report of the time. I'll keep my vigilant little eyes open and promise to share anything I find that may be of value to you. Thanks again! :)

Constantia Nicolaides

13 August 2013, 12:02

To Peter:

Alexander Bassano did have one son, Clement, and he is also listed in the 1891 England census as a ‘Photographic Artist’. However, Clement died before his father in 1899, and therefore could not continue the family business.

Various sources provide us with the names of a few individual photographic operators and managers who worked for the studio after Alexander Bassano retired from the business: West Fenton de Wend Fenton (1881-1920) was studio manager in around 1902. ‘John Croal, Operator’ appears as the author on the copyright forms registered at the Public Record Office for the studio’s portraits of Lord Kitchener in 1911. A number of our photographic prints from 1919-1923 identify the photographer as H.R. Wicks, while others from 1939 are known to be the work of Harry Hammond (1920-2009). Hammond joined the studio in 1938 and worked there briefly as an operator before becoming a renowned pop photographer. Meanwhile, Leslie Sansom’s article about the studio ‘One Hundred Years of Portraiture’, published in the ‘British Journal of Photography’ (14 May 1965), mentions J.R. Walmsley and B.S. Taylor as the directors of the business at the time of writing, Arthur Lewis as a former apprentice to Alexander Bassano himself and Norman May as a Bassano operator Lewis learnt from.

Unfortunately, we do not have more complete staff information, and so in almost all cases, we can only attribute the photographs to the studio’s name. The name did change throughout the studio’s history, but ‘Bassano Ltd’ is the name the studio was known as from 1891 until 1962 when it incorporated Elliott & Fry and partnered with the Vandyk studio, so this attribution would apply to the Kirk sittings.

Of course, if any other researchers or members of the public know anything more of past staff members of the Bassano studio, then we would love to learn more.

I am sorry you will miss the display, but we have images and text if you are interested.

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