A Near Approach to Greatness: Meet Victor Albert Prout

Victor Albert Prout. Pangbourne, Before 1862. Courtesy Hulton Archive.

Victor Albert Prout.
Pangbourne, Before 1862.
Courtesy Hulton Archive.

A few months ago I had again the pleasure of spending a day at the Hulton archive in West London, the former Hulton Picture Library, long since a part of Getty Images. There I was introduced by Sarah McDonald, the curator of the archive, to a series, unfamiliar to me, of panoramic views of the Thames by Victor Albert Prout, a photographer I’d heard of but only barely. A single picture from the Thames series is reproduced in the first volume of Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s the Photobook: A History[i], for example. I’d seen that and vaguely remembered having done so and it was easy to find again. But I liked the pictures in the Hulton Archive very much and kept them both in mind and on my iPhone. So I was pleased recently when the British Photographic History blog carried a small announcement that Joan Osmond, a direct descendant of Victor Prout, had produced a biographic volume[ii] which would shed more light on the little-known author of this fine series of pictures. Continue reading

A Question of Placement

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery this weekend to see the (splendid) Thomas Lawrence exhibition, I noticed that the lay-out once again placed the micro-shop dedicated to selling the catalogues and other material in the middle of the exhibition. It is a separate space and clearly identified as such, but there is no way to see the entire exhibition without being channelled through it. Nothing wrong with museums and galleries striving to generate as much revenue as possible, and in Britain today perhaps more than elsewhere.

But the National Portrait Gallery went too far the other day. The terrific exhibition devoted to Camille Silvy, swansong of the distinguished photo-historian and curator Mark Haworth-Booth, had a shameless glass case right in the middle of the show, looking for all the world like one of the exhibits. Except that it wasn’t. It contained only samples of the material on sale in the bookshop elsewhere. This time, it wasn’t distinguished as being a specifically commercial space. On the contrary, it was camouflaged as part of the exhibition.

We can have some sympathy. The NPG must be desperate for every penny of revenue. But not that much sympathy. If the marketing and commercial people can’t see where they should back off, we have a serious problem of containment. Curators need plenty of courage to hold these commercial forces back, but hold them back they must. The Camille Silvy show was a grand demonstration of what public museums can do. But that one glass case was a disgrace. We need to notice these infringements or one day it will be too late.