Robertson of Constantinople

By Victoria Khroundina | January 11, 2014


Though he was the chief engraver at the Ottoman Imperial Mint for over 40 years in the mid-19th century, James Robertson (1813–1888) is remembered in the history books by a different title: Robertson of Constantinople. It was not his engraving but his photographs of Istanbul that earned him this name – images that showed both ‘the architectural marvels of the place and the mundane life swirling around them,’ as Bridget and Heinz Henisch so eloquently put it the Encyclopaedia of Nineteenth-Century Photographers.

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Research Centre for Anatolian Civilizations is hosting an exhibition bringing under the spotlight Robertson’s talents in photography and painting. Curated by Bahattin Öztuncay, an expert on 19-century photography in the Ottoman Empire (he has written books on Ernest de Caranza and Vassilaki Kargopoulo, as well as Robertson), all the photographs and watercolours in the exhibition are on loan from the Ömer M Koç Collection.

James Robertson, Abdullah Brothers, CA. 1875

Robertson (above) received his vocational training at the London Royal Mint and then served four successive sultans, including Abdülmecid and Abdülaziz, at the Ottoman Imperial Mint. There he prepared designs, moulds and models for gold and silver coins – as you discover when you enter the exhibition and find yourself facing a wall of mega-sized reproductions.

One of these is a medallion designed by Robertson in 1849 to commemorate the restoration of Haghia Sophia by Gaspar Fossati (above) – significant in that it is one of the only coins actually bearing Robertson’s signature.

In the early 1850s Robertson started to develop an interest in photography. His images of Istanbul went on to win acclaim in London and Paris, and a selection was even purchased by Prince Albert (allegedly the first photographs to be ever purchased for the Royal Collection). He was the first photographer working in Istanbul to take 360-degree panoramic photographs of the city, and the main image shows his panorama of Istanbul (comprised of 12 sections) taken from the Beyazıt Tower in 1854. He took another panorama from the same vantage point three years later. The exhibition displays both, with the 1857 panorama (above) encased in a light box to magnify the detailing in this phenomenal photograph.

The exhibition takes the viewer through Robertson’s Istanbul snaps, as well as some taken in other cities. On a trip to Athens in 1854 he photographed the city’s archaeological and architectural gems, and some of these pictures appeared in an Istanbul publication entitled Grecian Antiquities. The above image shows the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus and its surroundings as seen through Robertson’s lens.

In Cairo, Robertson and his business partner and brother-in-law-to-be, Felicio Beato (with whom he opened a studio in Pera in 1854) did not limit themselves to photographing Egypt's ancient artefacts, as many of their contemporaries did, but broadened their area of interest to include Islamic architecture. The above photo, taken in 1857, shows the tombs of the Mamluk Sultans.

In the same year Robertson and Beato also visited Jerusalem. The above shows the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives.

Robertson's Crimean War series, taken between 1854 and 1855, earned him the title of the first war photographer. Interestingly, Robertson’s earliest photographs relating to the Crimean War were taken in Istanbul. After Britain’s declaration of war on March 27, 1854, British and colonial forces gathered at the Selimiye Barracks in Üsküdar in April and May, and Robertson was there to document the scenes of the camped-out British soldiers. A steamship could reach Crimea in two days, making it relatively easy for Robertson to travel between Istanbul and Crimea. Some of his most striking photographs of the Crimean War are those taken during his second trip, after Sebastopol had fallen to the Allies on September 8, 1855. The above, for example, shows the Allied fleet at Balaklava harbour in 1855.

But it is his photographs of Istanbul that really impress. Some of his earlier work shows scenes of the Old City, as in the above image, which reveals the Obelisk and other monuments at the Hippodrome as they looked in 1853. ‘As far as possible [Robertson] tried to isolate the venerated subject matter from the distractions of contemporary life, with just a few small human figures to give a sense of scale,’ write Bridget and Heinz Henisch. This photo is a clear testament to this.

I particularly like the above photograph of the Ayasofya and surrounding wooden houses in the Hippodrome, taken in 1853.

A certain confidence shows in his later work. Robertson’s 1857 photograph of the Galata Tower is almost mystical and a tremendous example of foreground and background.

Back when there was waterway in front of the Kılıç Ali Pasha Mosque in Tophane, Robertson and Beato captured the fishermen boats docking there in 1857.

A stunning photograph of the Rumeli Hisarı, taken by Robertson and Beato in 1857, highlights the fortress, but the main attraction is obviously the Bosphorus.

The final section of the exhibition – at the far end of the gallery space – showcases Robertson’s muted watercolours of costumes and professions, produced between 1853 and 1856. He either painted or overpainted photographs he took of the common professions of the day such as Persian carpet and sahlep sellers, dervishes and scribes, as well as women dressed in traditional costumes. The above shows Robertson’s depiction of a porter – a watercolor overpainted salt print from 1855.

And finally, one of the man himself. The above is a self-portrait of Robertson sitting next to Beato, dressed in traditional Turkish costume – also a salt print painted over in watercolours, completed in 1855.

Robertson most likely gave up photography in the 1860s – the Robertson & Beato Company was dissolved in 1867 and he returned to work as an engraver at the Imperial Ottoman Mint until his retirement in 1881 (although he went on to display his paintings until 1881). His reason for giving up professional photography is unknown, but the works he did produce produce demonstrate his obvious talent and quiet achievement.

The exhibition has been extended until February 20, 2014.

All photographs courtesy of the Ömer M. Koç Collection (images 5–8 taken by Victoria Khroundina at the exhibition). The catalogue, ‘Robertson, Photographer and Engraver in the Ottoman Capital’, is available from the Cornucopia store. Tim Cornwell reviews the catalogue in Cornucopia 50.

Posted in Exhibitions, Fine Art, History, Photography
More Reading
Current Events