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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,


Got something to say?

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.

Peter Mitchell

05 August 2013, 23:44

Hi Constantia,

I'm still plugging away on the book and I have a question for you relating to the photographs of Sir John Kirk (the philanthropist; not the adventurer).

Both Kirk sittings are credited to Bassano. The first sitting was in 1911; and the second was in 1920. Both sittings occurred after Bassano had retired (and the second one a full seven years after he passed away.) Did Bassano have a son that carried on his father's work? Is there any way of tracking down the photographer? And for the sake of crediting the proper information on my part, can I still credit Bassano as the photographer? Or should I credit "Bassano Limited"?


Disappointed I'll be missing the display. You have to promise me even better ones when I finally move back next year. :)

Take care,

Constantia Nicolaides

16 May 2013, 15:40

Constantia Nicolaides replies to Edwardian Photo researcher Bassano’s photographs were often reproduced in the illustrated press, and through this exposure they gained longevity and did become iconic. We also have examples in our archives of poses from the 1881 sitting with Queen Alexandra being reproduced in the ‘Supplement to The Graphic’ on 22 December 1883 and decades later in ‘The Gentlewoman Supplement’ on 28 November 1925. This repeated appearance is found with other portraits by Bassano too, notably those of Queen Victoria. Bassano himself highlighted the extent to which his portraits had become known and used as he proudly stated in an article in ‘The Sketch’ (3 July 1901): ‘Many of my photographs have been used by world-famed artists as bases for portraits which are now of priceless value, notably those of von Angeli and Benjamin-Constant, whose remarkable picture, which was, by his own acknowledgement, inspired by and based upon a photograph of mine of the late Queen’. Meanwhile, we also have an image in our archives of a china plaque produced for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 that used one of Bassano’s photographs of the Queen, so you can also see how his photographs penetrated varying ends of the spectrum of visual culture.

Edwardian Photoresearcher

09 May 2013, 13:25

Have just come across a full page reproduction of Alexander Bassano's 1881 portrait oif Queen Alexandra that you include in your blog in a special supplement to The Sphere on February 2 1901 . It seems strange that they chose this twenty year old image (albeit very striking and festooned in jewels) of her to announce the new reign of Edward V11 after the death of Queen Victoria. Did this often happen to Bassano's portraits? or was it because Bassano's images were thought iconic.


25 April 2013, 20:56

looks very impressive will definately be visiting the gallery to have a look at the display

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