The Royal Photographic Society Collection: Drawn by Light at the Science Museum

By Ben Miller | 12 January 2015

A decade after photography was invented, it became an obsession and part of a cross-disciplinary wave of Victorian exploration and adventure

Click on the picture to launch

A constant sense of bold wonder and spirited adventure flows through the Science Museum’s survey of the Royal Photographic Society’s past, launched by Roger Fenton in 1851 in line with the traditional Victorian idea of a learned society and amounting to more than 250,000 works when it was transferred to Bradford’s National Media Museum in 2002.

Around 200 of them feature here, in turns amusing (Angus McBean’s surreal portrait of Audrey Hepburn, used to advertise a skin cream in 1950), enlightening (the experimental cameras of Fox Talbot, using little camera obscuras in 1835) and impish (Madame Yevonde, who is shown carrying a 12-pound camera twice the size of her face, made brilliantly worthwhile by her lavishly colourful Vivex prints, created from three separate negatives from a single shot exposed through different colour filters).

A black and white photo of a female actress's head protruding in front of statues
Audrey Hepburn (1950)© Angus McBean
Within the Society, the Photographic Society Club was set up for the elite, its membership limited to 21 leaders including Hugh Welch-Diamond, a psychiatrist who portrayed his patients at the Surrey County Asylum in the belief that photography could help.

Oscar Gustave Rejlander was a Swede who began his career in Rome almost two centuries ago before becoming a portraitist in Wolverhampton.

The Two Ways of Life, his best-known work, is viewable here as part of a screen through which photos typical of a grand Victorian exhibition of the sort which attracted royal buyers during the mid-19th century can be picked.

The sheer onerousness required to create the photomontage, made from more than 30 images in a crowded gaggle of ghostly figures offering a path between righteousness and evil, is a tribute to Rejlander’s skill and inexhaustible patience in an age long before technologies made these techniques so straightforward, while he also shows a wit and flair for composite in an 1871 print in which the artist introduces his alter-ego as a prize-winning marksman for the local Rifle Volunteers.

According to Elizabeth Eastlake, an eminent art critic and historian whose husband was Director of the National Gallery, photography had become “a household word and a household want” by 1857, found in saloons and attics, kept by detectives and detainees.

Inevitably, then, its rise is also a journey through the era, with its beginnings – the Society was formally founded in 1853, becoming Royal 41 years later – coming at a time of social, economic and political advancement, evolving communications and rule by the Royal Navy across the seas.

A black and white photo of a photographer holding his camera in front of barbed wire
Larry Burrows on assignment in Vietnam© National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - Lewis Carroll - concocted the weird and marvellous The Dream in 1863, where a slumbering child imagines her hand at an easel in an image straight from the tumbling realms of his words.

The curation stands out throughout, particularly in the section where individual works by different photographers and groups are paired together to bridge the divides of time and societies.

Of the iconic works, Yousuf Karsh’s portrait of a stern Churchill, taken during the Prime Minister’s visit to Canada in 1941, is perhaps the only one which could have held its own next to Hepburn.

The backstory is bulldoggish: Churchill told Karsh he had two minutes to get his picture, at which point the photographer decided to pinch the cigar his sitter had refused to stop smoking, ensuring the glowering resultant shot.

Three of the oldest photos in the world, spawning the title of the show, but also “drawing with the sun”, as the exhibition puts it, are probably the most captivating in their hallowed enclosure.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s spectral heliographs, made by the Frenchman in a spectacularly ingenious 1827 idea involving an asphalt solution which was exposed and then washed in lavender oil and turpentine, are faintly discernible outlines from a soldier and scientific researcher who has a crater on the moon named after him. As symbols of the collection’s breadth of curio, they work perfectly.

  • Drawn by Light: The Royal Photographic Society Collection is at the Science Museum, London until March 1 2015. Tickets £4.50-£8 (free for under-12s, family ticket £14.90-£21). Then National Media Museum, Bradford, March 20 - June 21. Follow the museum on Twitter @sciencemuseum and use the hashtag #DrawnByLight.

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