Cairo to Constantinople: London photo show frames Victorian travels

The Prince of Wales and his entourage on camels posing for camera in front of Pyramid of Cheops and Pyramid of Cephrenes, Giza, Cairo. (Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

A new exhibition entitled “Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East” is currently showing at The Queen’s Gallery, in London’s Buckingham Palace. It’s a collection from 1862 which documents the first-ever visual record of a royal tour, when photography was relatively a new invention.

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

It explores the four-month “educational tour” of the Middle East embarked on by the then 20-year old Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, who was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The addition of Francis Bedford, one of the most prominent early photographers of the time, to the expedition team, was inspired and planned by the royal parents because of their interest in the medium of photography.

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

A journey, captured in over 100 spectacular photographs, took the Prince of Wales through Egypt, Palestine, the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece and was designed to enhance Prince Edward’s understanding of a region which was on the cusp of transition. According to the exhibition organisers: “the cultural and political significance Victorian Britain attached to the region... was then as complex and contested as it remains today.”

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

The royal tour consisted of an ambitious itinerary, planned in advance by scholars and politicians, that included visits to archaeological sites, such as those at Luxor along the Nile. After travelling through Egypt, the prince continued to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Hebron, significant because of their associations with biblical events. Bedford was one of the first photographers allowed to take pictures at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

Speaking to Al Arabiya News, Sophie Gordon, who is the curator of the exhibition, explains: “Today Royal tours are widely photographed, and the pictures are transmitted instantly around the world. Bedford’s photographs were not seen by the public until over a month after the Royal party’s return to England, but his presence on the tour was widely reported in the press. The intense interest in his work at the time shows just how innovative and groundbreaking and move it was to invite Bedford to accompany the tour.”

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

Whilst the prince only appeared in three of the 191 surviving photographs, the main purpose of Bedford’s work was to capture historic and sacred landscapes. Bedford captured Edward in front of the pyramids of Giza and at the Temple of Amun at Karnak, ancient Thebes. In the third, the prince is having lunch under a fig tree at Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Unusual for royalty at the time, the prince travelled by horse and camped in tents. His own personal accounts of the journey were recorded in a private journal. This will also be showcased for the first time at the exhibition.

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

During the visit to Damascus, the Prince of Wales also met Abd al-Qadir, the exiled Algerian freedom fighter who was widely admired in Europe at the time for having protected a group of Christians in his home during time of unrest between the Christian Maronite community and the Druze community. The exhibition displays a photograph of Abd Al-Qadir captured by Bedford.

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

Bedford would have had to take a large amount of equipment with him, including plates, tripods, lenses, chemicals and a dark room as well as the camera itself on tour. The tour was well documented by the press in the United Kingdom and the photographs were placed on display on his return at an exhibition in London in 1862. The British Journal of Photography described the exhibition as “perhaps the most important photographic exhibition that has hitherto been placed before the public, whether we regard it as an aid to history or as a collection in which unity of design has been a ruling principle in the artist’s mind.”

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

(Francis Bedford/ Royal Collection Trust)

Last year the photos were also exhibited in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the Scotsman, an Art critic describes the significance of the collection as: “Indeed all these remarkable pictures and the prince’s journey itself seem topical. The journey was undertaken in the knowledge that the Ottoman empire was on the point of collapse. This did not come finally until 1918, but its aftershocks still shape our world today. In a small way, the prince was sowing the wind. We are still reaping the whirlwind.”

The exhibition ‘Cairo to Constantinople: Early Photographs of the Middle East’ is currently showing until 22 February 2015 at London’s Buckingham Palace. For more information about the exhibits, please visit the official website.
 

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:45 - GMT 06:45
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