Guest article: Bedford Lemere & Co and the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

By Robert Elwall, assistant director at the RIBA Library Photographs | 07 May 2010
a black and white photograph of the interior of a room

Eaton Hall, Cheshire (1883), Architect: Alfred Waterhouse, Photographers: Bedford Lemere & Co. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection www.ribapix.com to bring you a series of features highlighting some of its hidden treasures. Robert Elwall, assistant director at the Collection, discusses the work of Bedford Lemere & Co...

During the first two decades following the invention of photography there were surprisingly few photographs taken of contemporary architecture in Britain.

There were two main reasons for this – the perceived lack of a market and the continued dominance of a picturesque aesthetic that, in the words of the influential commentator Thomas Sutton in 1854, reckoned “the true poetry of photography” to lie not in “spick and span modern buildings, but such great scenes or artistic sites as a painter would select.”

It was only in the 1860s as the pace of Victorian rebuilding intensified that the first photographic firms recording contemporary architecture sprang up.

Chief among these was Bedford Lemere & Co, founded in the early 1860s, whose specialisation in architecture gained added impetus when the owner’s son Harry Bedford Lemere (1864-1944) joined the company in 1881.

Employing at its peak four photographers and covering the work of many leading architects of the period, it is this firm’s pictures that have done the most to fix our image of late Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

These photographers worked to a strict formula that usually involved photographing early in the morning when there were few people about and under a wan sky that ensured there was an even light over the whole building and no strong cast shadow that would obscure vital details.

Their use of large 12x10 inch glass plates also ensured sharp definition and the rendition of fine detail. This gave their prints the air of documentary authenticity that greatly appealed to their clients – architects, contractors, building owners – who above all wished to obtain a legible record of their achievements.

a black and white photograph of a street

11-17 Waterloo Place, Regent Street, London (1910) Photographers: Bedford Lemere & Co. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Such photographs, however, did not only appeal to those directly involved with the building portrayed. The firm was very astute in selling large numbers of its images to architects and craftsmen who wanted to appraise themselves of what their colleagues were doing or build up a body of visual examples for use in their own work.

In 1895 the firm advertised no fewer than 50,000 prints for sale, singly or in sets, while an advertisement of c. 1875 listed seventeen Uniform Series of English Architectural Photographs embracing a wide range of topics including decorative and antique furniture; views of London and its environs; Classic, Romanesque and Renaissance details; English churches; and English stately homes.

The number of photographs in each series varied from 160 to the 4,000 in the series devoted to Town and Country Houses and Mercantile Buildings.

In this way, rather like contemporary Italian view-making firms, such as Fratelli Alinari in Florence and Anderson in Rome, the firm acted as a highly organised picture agency supplying a wide range of clients at home and indeed abroad through agents such as Albert Levy, the noted architectural publisher, who maintained offices in Paris and New York.

In order to widen their geographical coverage, the company also adopted the common 19th century practice of swapping prints with other photographers and issuing them under their own name. Such arrangements existed with Thomas Annan of Glasgow and Alfred Noack of Genoa. Hugely influential, the work of the company deserves to be better known.

For more information on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection, browse the RIBA Library Photographs Collection online at www.ribapix.com.

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