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.
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.
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,