Guest Article - early photography in the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

By Culture24 Staff | 26 October 2009

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of the hidden treasures of the collection.

As Lady Eastlake observed in 1857, “The chief aims of Niepce in the "humblest dawn of the art" had been “to transform the photographic plate into a surface capable of being printed.”

The major limiting factor on the photograph’s influence was its incompatibility with the printing press – photographs and type could not be produced together in a single operation and on the same paper.

Various means were adopted to overcome this handicap but at the most rudimentary level photographs were simply pasted onto the printed page. This was a cumbersome, labour-intensive and therefore expensive process and the fact that a significant number of architectural books were produced in this way testifies to the importance of photographs in the communication of architectural ideas.

The finest example is undoubtedly the deluxe four volume Reports by the Juries (1852) recording the building and exhibits of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Only 140 copies were produced, each illustrated with 154 salt prints.

This meant over 20,000 prints had to be made for this single publication – a prodigious undertaking. On a more modest, but often still costly, scale some of the best examples of photographically illustrated architectural books were issued by the publishers, Alfred W. Bennett.

Chief among these was William and Mary Howitt’s Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain which first appeared in 1862 with a second series following two years later.

a black and white photo of an ornate building with turrets


Featuring images by photographers such as Francis Bedford and Roger Fenton, the publication exploited the seemingly insatiable appetite for picturesque views of the great monuments of the past.

The practice was however put to its most fecund use by the architectural historian James Fergusson (1808-1886) who was one first writers to employ photographs in a systematic manner that allowed him to fashion a new form of comparative history, drawing parallels “between types of buildings usually regarded as far remote from one another, architecturally as well as topographically.”

In 1866 under the auspices of the Committee of Architectural Antiquities of Western India Fergusson produced three monumental volumes – Architecture at Ahmedabad, Architecture at Beejapoor and Architecture in Dharwar and Mysore – all of which were illustrated with tipped-in photographs by army photographers, graphically illustrating the country’s sadly neglected architecture.

Significantly, however, Fergusson abandoned this laborious procedure when he published his History of Architecture in All Countries from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1865-1867).

Although many of its illustrations were based on the large collection of photographs Fergusson had assembled, these were more cheaply translated into wood engravings.

The problem of photographic reproduction in books and journals was only finally resolved with the introduction of halftone printing in the late1880s. Its immediate effect was the foundation of a crop of new architectural magazines established specifically to exploit the novel technology such as Architectural Review (1896) and Country Life (1897).

These magazines were henceforth to be the driving force behind developments in architectural photography, employing the leading practitioners and promulgating their work to a much wider audience and thus ensuring the camera became the supreme mediator of architectural endeavour.

For more information on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection follow the venue details below or browse the RIBA Library Photographs Collection online at

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