Victorian London in Photographs

At the London Metropolitan Archives: 5th May 2015 – 8th October 2015

This free exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives creates a visual insight into the lives of Victorian Londoners. Collating images of people, places, buildings and things, the exhibition explores what Victorian London looked like and what contemporary photographers wanted it to look like. It shows photographs of famous streets and structures built during the Victorian era, back-allies and working class communities long-since displaced, and portraits of actors, emigrants and patients from Colney Hatch mental asylum.

Victorian London in Photographs, London Metropolitan Archives

Victorian London in Photographs, London Metropolitan Archives

The exhibition nicely highlights how many of the photographs displayed were carefully constructed by those who took them, either in photography studios or on the streets, to present a particular image of Victorian London and its inhabitants. However, the images themselves still manage to provide interesting, often intimate and moving, illustrations of life in the nineteenth-century capital.

Perhaps most interesting for the editors of is the exhibition’s section on the Crystal Palace. Originally the Crystal Palace was constructed in Hyde Park and housed the 1851 Great Exhibition, the predecessor to the 1862 International Exhibition. Once the exhibition was over, the glass structure was moved to Sydenham were it was reconstructed and made into a pleasure palace for members of the public. The photographs of the Crustal Palace displayed at the London Metropolitan Archives were taken by Philip Henry Delamotte and are just a small selection from the collection of 160 photographs that he published in 1855 to illustrate Crystal Palace’s two year reconstruction process. These photographs are insightful and interesting for those concerned with experiences of International Exhibitions and the cultures that surrounded them because they not only show the physical structure of Crystal Palace or the stuff that was inside it or in its grounds, but also the workmen who worked on its re-construction. They remind historians of the constant presence of humans in these architectural narratives and demonstrate the need to consider how people saw and related to these massive exhibitions and the things they displayed.

Delamotte, ‘The Great Nave, Crystal Palace’, 1854, Photograph, Victoria and Albert Museum: 39:286, © V&A, 2014

Delamotte, ‘The Great Nave, Crystal Palace’, 1854, Photograph, Victoria and Albert Museum: 39:286, © V&A, 2014

Beyond thinking about photography as representation, the exhibition provides interesting explanations of the cameras and processing techniques used to produce photographs in the nineteenth century. It also explicitly presents photographs as material things with qualities beyond their representative purposes, showing how Cartes de Visites also functioned as business cards or adverts and how photographs were collated into material albums.

These more technical parts of the exhibition also make a small nod to the 1862 International Exhibition. One of the trade cards that they include is for the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Co. c.1890. Under its original title, The London Stereoscopic Company, founded in 1854, were responsible for taking stereoscopic images of the 1862 International Exhibition. Photographic views that became three dimensional when viewed in a particular way, these stereoscopic images provide incredible information about the lay out of the 1862 International Exhibition, how objects were arranged and how people were able to interact with things on display. Stereoscopic views fell out of fashion as the 1860s progressed, the London Stereoscopic Co. was rebranded and began to produce conventional photographs, sell photographic equipment and hire out photographic studios and dark rooms to amateurs.

Although presenting a huge range of different photographs, the London Metropolitan Archives make it clear that this exhibition is best considered a taster of the many other photographs held in their collections. As such, the editors of are looking forward to the potential photographic sources that the London Metropolitan Archives may contain!

© Ruth Mason, 2015

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