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Barber's first virtual exhibition is full of sights of wonder

by Theresa Thompson

Sights of Wonder: Photographs from the 1862 Royal Tour is the first online-only show organised by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts – an exhibition first planned as a traditional physical exhibition is now an interactive digital experience as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.

In 1862, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) undertook a tour of the Middle East accompanied by one of Victorian Britain’s pre-eminent photographers, Francis Bedford. Spanning 5 months, the entire trip was something of an early PR exercise, after ‘Bertie’ had been embroiled in a scandal involving a young Irish woman.

This was the first royal tour to be documented through photography and the exceptionally beautiful images Bedford took – today part of the Royal Collection - documented ancient sites that still, to this day, convey a sense of awe and wonder.

Bedford’s remarkable photographs not only documented the historical landmarks and biblical vistas the prince and his entourage encountered, they also became an important, early record of the Ottoman dominions and the Holy Land.Throughout, Bedford’s task was, as the Photographic News put it,to record scenes that were ‘fraught with historic and sacred associations.’

Each of these carefully framed views was painstakingly composed, and, in our own era of Instagram, online visitors will be able to draw immediate parallels and contrasts. 

Sights of Wonder is the third annual collaboration between the Barber, Royal Collection Trust and the University of Birmingham’s Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, a partnership which aims to train up a talented cohort of early career curators in a professional setting. As with previous years, a small group of University of Birmingham MA Art History and Curating students takes responsibility for all aspects of an exhibition, from selecting the individual objects from the Royal Collection, establishing key themes, researching and writing interpretation to devising and contributing to the public programme.


The exhibition can be enjoyed online as if we are accompanying the tour, following the trajectory of the journey, starting with Egypt. Here, we first appreciate the remarkable detail that Bedford’s lens captured in the ancient settings, from desert terrain to the finely carved texture of the stone blocks and pillars of the ruined temples of Karnak, in Thebes.

The entourage then moved onto the Holy Land, Lebanon and Syria. Bedford and the royal party would have been acutely aware of both the biblical history and contemporary politics of the region, the latter as turbulent in the 1860s as today. Two years before the royal tour reached Damascus, the escalation of the conflict between Maronites – a Christian group – and Druzes – a religious community associated with Shi’a Islam – saw the destruction of the Christian quarter and the slaughtering of thousands of Christians. Bedford took photographs which showed the aftermath, The Street Called Straight and The Ruins of the Greek Church in the Christian Quarter as well as a portrait of Abd al-Qadir (1808 – 1883), the Algerian religious and military leader who played a key role in helping Christians escape the massacre.

The tour then eventually travelled to the more peaceful but no less resonant city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and then on to Athens, whose illustrious past would have been deeply familiar to educated Victorians through the works of the great classical writers and philosophers.

The virtual exhibition also offers a range of extras to enjoy line, from an interactive map of the journey, to detailed video demonstrations of the photographic process used by Bedford. Further resources and activities designed for a variety of age groups and interests are available to use and share in the discovery section. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the ability to look at the photographs in detail by zooming in on them. The photographs are a wonderful historic record and to be able to examine the ancient sites so closely, really is an unforeseen blessing of a virtual exhibition.

Robert Wenley, the Barber’s Deputy Director, said “Bedford’s photographs were taken just a generation after the birth of the medium and yet they have a technical mastery and aesthetic impact that has rarely been matched. This is compelling in itself and arguably even easier to appreciate on screen than in a dimly-lit physical gallery, but the curators’ interpretation of these images takes us beyond their seductive surfaces, and opens up fascinating issues around the nature of empire and the resonance of biblical landmarks to a deeply Christian Victorian Britain. We are enormously grateful to both our student curators and Royal Collection Trust for working so fruitfully and energetically in partnership with us, particularly in such unpredicted and challenging circumstances.”

Alessandro Nasini, Curator of Photographs, Royal Collection Trust, said “Working with the students on this project has been an absolute pleasure and an enriching experience for all parties. The young curators had the challenging task of selecting a relatively small number of items from a large pool of material made available to them, analysing it, interpreting it and presenting it to the public. From my perspective, it felt like such a refreshing and stimulating experience, almost as if I were looking at some of Bedford’s photographs for the first time. I’d like to congratulate the students on their hard work on the exhibition and thank staff at the Barber Institute and at the University of Birmingham for supporting and facilitating this initiative and such a rewarding partnership.”

Alex Sheen, Art History and Curating MA student, University of Birmingham, added Curating in a crisis is definitely not something we envisaged at the start of this project, but the rapidly unfolding situation opened up a valuable opportunity to learn how curation can adapt to the changing world. Through creating the digital exhibition, we now have the benefit of offering greater accessibility and therefore reaching a wider audience. Working with the staff at the Barber and Royal Collection Trust, we’ve aimed to curate an innovative and immersive experience, which visitors can enjoy from the comfort and safety of their homes, wherever they may be.”

These photographs were seen in the exhibition Cairo to Constantinople, Francis Bedford's Photographs of the Middle East that was on at the Queen's Gallery a little while ago. This is a great opportunity for those who missed that exhibition to have a second chance to see some of these fascinating photographs again. For those particularly interested in the history of the Middle East, these photos are a wonderful record from the mid 19th century. The online exhibition also means that you can visit the exhibition any time you fancy, and as often as you like!


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