“Of Mr.Rejlander’s pictures (for such we may justly call them), we have no hesitation in saying that they are full of beauty and full of mind.”
Anonymous reviewer in the Art Journal for 1868
The National Portrait Gallery in London has recently acquired these very different pictures from an album of the mid-1860s (holding both well-known and unknown studies) by Oscar Gustav Rejlander after a successful export block. The watermarks you see on the scans are those of the auctioneer Morphets of Harrogate who sold the album for £70,000 in late 2014. The estimate had been £7000-£10,000. The necessary funds to cancel the proposed sale and make it instead a public purchase were raised with the help of the Art Fund and of National Portrait Gallery supporters.
This modest little story is presented here as something of a mild inoculation against the fever of museum closures or failures in UK photography. We have seen the absurd mistreatment of the Birmingham Library archives in photography, the grave mishandling of the transfer of a number of collections from the National Media Museum in Bradford to the Victoria & Albert Museum and a number of other failures. We are told to expect the closure of the expensive Media Space in London almost before its fancy paint has had time to dry. The national collections in photography are, to say the very least, not receiving the very highest level of care and attention in the period we are living through.
In that context, it is salutary to see the ordinary work of national collections proceeding in an orderly way. An important album comes up for sale. Its value to scholarship is patent. The export is halted pending an opportunity to raise the necessary funds, and when those funds are quite properly made available, the album is bought for the nation.
No doubt there is a very disappointed overseas buyer. That buyer may be a private collector, or perhaps more likely, an agent acting on behalf of another institution. Whoever she is or represents, that buyer feels (as buyers always do in these circumstances) that her cup has been unfairly dashed from her lips. That buyer will feel that she had found the thing, had the courage to bid high, and should be allowed to march off with it. We can sympathize.
At the same time, if due process has been observed, we can also feel that the greater right has prevailed, and be very glad that the album is now in a place where schoolchildren can see it from time to time, and where scholars can use it to change once again our perceptions of Victorian art, of photography, of the history of dress and of dressing up, of social mores and much, much more. One of the things about national collections is that no generation can know what will be of interest to future scholars, so you carefully keep things whose value may not be obvious against the time when someone will scrutinize them from a perspective that we cannot predict today. That costs money, and therefore needs to be justified against other claims on the public purse. But when it is done right, it is a civilized process and one that can be applauded.
Phillip Prodger, curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery was quoted (in one of those bland quotes people are asked to produce at such times) as saying the album “transforms the way we think about one of Britain’s great artists”. It remains for Dr. Prodger to show us the early fruits of the scholarship he now has the opportunity to turn to this acquisition. We should look forward fairly promptly to a display of the album, washed in the light of that scholarship. That, on a small scale, is the normal functioning of a properly handled national collection, something British people interested in photography may be forgiven for imagining they no longer had.
I followed the story of the Rejlander Album on the excellent British Photographic History blog, which has covered it from before the auction sale through to the successful incorporation into the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Persons interested in the subject are well advised to subscribe to this free source of impressively curated information.
The full Rejlander album is still visible thanks to Morphets Auctioneers who took the trouble to scan it and still have it open to view. Again, this seems a normal proceeding at that juncture where the commercial world of art and antiques meets the scholarly world of museum collections and of those who use them. It even might be good if the Harrogate auction house could be persuaded, in a small further step, to keep the scans permanently available, perhaps if necessary by transferring them to the National Portrait Gallery’s website. That would represent a trivial cost but a non-trivial commitment to scholarship. No doubt their respective information technology systems may have difficulty in corresponding, but the idea seems a good one and one that might become routine with a little bit of tweaking.