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Marking time in June 2015

Saturday 27 June 2015

Benjamin Disraeli, flipped

I have often admired some portrait photographs of Benjamin Disraeli, the British politician, wearing a natty velvet jacket. The pictures were taken in 1868 by William and Daniel Downey and published in various formats and by various processes.

I was pleased to add one of these to my col­lec­tion. It’s a fine Woodburytype carte-de-visite, published by John Murdoch with proper acknowledgement of, and probably payment to, the original photographers. I mention these niceties because pirate copying of celebrity portraits was rife in the Victorian period.

The Earl of Beaconsfield [Benjamin Disraeli]. photograph by W & D Downey, 1868; Woodburytype carte-de-visite published by John G Murdoch

When I looked at it and compared it with other photos from the same session I noticed something odd about the sitter​—​his hair is parted on the wrong side and he’s looking in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion. I guess there was an error in the process of making the re­pro­duc­tion, but I am surprised it wasn’t discovered and fixed.

A photograph of Disraeli the right way round, published by the pho­to­graph­ers​—​a Woodburytype carte-de-viste in the National Portrait Gallery collection.

With a mistake like that, it could be worth a fortune. No, prob­ably not. But I am still happy with this quirky picture, and happy to imagine the scene when the photo was taken​—​with the help of this contemporary account:

It is just sixteen years ago, Mr Daniel Downey told us, since his brother and himself were called to Balmoral for the first time by order of Her Majesty; and although no one will deny that the firm has enjoyed opportunities which others have not been so fortunate as to secure, it must be remem­bered that it is not everybody who knows how to make good use of an opportunity. At that time there was no ac­com­mo­da­tion to be had near the Castle and grounds, and the brothers were glad enough to shelter themselves and their apparatus in a labourer’s cottage. But they did not want for personal comforts, for hardly had they arrived than the Prince of Wales, knowing of the strait the pho­tog­ra­phers were likely to be in, drove over in a waggonette to see them, and good-naturedly sent up provisions and wine at once for their especial behoof. The reception turned out to be one of good omen, and is likely to remain in the mem­o­ries of Messrs Downey many a long day.
          Everybody has seen the portrait of the late Earl of Beaconsfield in a black velvet coat taken by Messrs Downey. It was not an easy portrait to secure, and it was taken, it appears, some nine years ago at Balmoral, when the ex-Premier’s name was not Beaconsfield, but Disraeli. The Messrs Downey had just completed a spell of work at the Castle, and had made arrangements for a few days’ tour in the Highlands before returning to Newcastle. Ac­ci­den­tally the Premier ran down to have audience of Her Majesty, and the brothers had to be recalled from their pleasuring on purpose to photograph Benjamin Disraeli. Back they came, and in the morning Mr Disraeli walked into the improvised studio in a coat of azure blue and light trousers. They tried and tried again, but the photographs did not please. It had been difficult before to persuade the Premier to sit for his portrait, but he resisted all im­por­tu­ni­ties the next day. Lady Churchill did all she could, and only when the stubborn First Lord heard that it was Her Majesty’s keen desire to secure a portrait, did he consent to sit once more. Unfortunately, it was a dull rainy morning, and the natty velvet jacket in which he was now arrayed was a source of constant anxiety to Her Majesty’s Chief Minister; a few rain drops might spoil its gloss beyond re­demp­tion, and this care, together with the long exposures necessitated by the dull light, again prevented the pho­to­graphs being successful. The fruits of the second day were no more satisfactory than those of the first. As to sug­gest­ing further sittings on the third morning, it was more than any who valued peace of mind dared do. There was the Premier still at Balmoral, walking about the grounds, but who was to ask him? At last, Lady Churchill plucked up courage, and spoke once more to the First Lord of the Treasury. He was obdurate at first, but in the end he con­sented to give five minutes, but only five minutes. He ap­peared again in the velvet jacket, and in a very bad hu­mour; but the negatives secured on that occasion have become famous. Hundreds of thousands of prints have been circulated, and the negatives have been printed in silver, carbon, enamel, and both woodburytyped and collotyped. It was some time afterwards before the Messrs Downey consoled themselves for the loss of that Highland holiday of theirs, but they seem now, at any rate, to have quite got over the disappointment.


[H Baden Pritchard, The Photographic Studios of Europe (London: Piper & Carter, 1882), pages 21–22]

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