Camile Silvy - Royal Photographer

Actress Adelina Patti (1843-1919)

After reading a bit about the Exhibition on Camile Silvy running at the National Portrait Gallery 15 July - 24 October 2010, I was prompted to do a bit of research into the man. Camile Silvy was a pioneer of early photography and one of the greatest French photographers of the nineteenth century. This exhibition includes many remarkable images which have not been exhibited since the 1860s.
The Exhibition contains over 100 images, including a large number of carte de visites, focusing on a ten-year creative burst from 1857-67 working in Algiers, rural France, Paris and London, and illustrate how Silvy pioneered many now familiar branches of the medium including theatre, fashion and street photography and early image manipulation and photographic mass production.
Working under the patronage of Queen Victoria, Silvy photographed royalty (Prince Albert, at left) aristocrats and celebrities. He also portrayed uncelebrated people, the professional classes and country gentry, their wives, children and servants. The results offer a unique glimpse into nineteenth-century society through the eyes of one of photography's outstanding innovators.

Silvy became a member of the Société Française de Photographie in 1858. By 1859, he had moved to London and opened a portrait studio producing cartes-de-visite, the small, calling card-sized photographs invented by André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. At the height of ‘Cartomania’ in the summer of 1861, he was personally conducting as many as forty sittings a day, but the following year he began the habit of leaving the studio in the hands of others during the winter months, at first in those of his partner, Auguste Renoult, and then, after the partnership was dissolved in May 1864, in those of other members of his staff. 
Silvy kept record books in which he recorded the day-to-day business of the studio, as well as one unmounted print from each sitting, placed four to a page, with the name of the sitter entered above. From volume two onwards, the date was also recorded daily. There are some seventeen thousand sittings, spread over twelve volumes, acquired by The National Portrait Gallery in 1904.

Silvy continued to make and exhibit extraordinary larger photographs, some of the best being views taken immediately outside the studio. One of these from 1859 or 1860 (now in the J. Paul Getty Museum) shows a man buying an evening paper from a boy who leans against a lighted gas lamp on a misty afternoon. A figure hurrying along the pavement is caught in a blur—probably used deliberately for the first time to suggest rapid movement.

Lady Elizabeth Hay, the 2nd Duchess of Wellington

Lord Palmerston

Lord Dufferin

Earl of Essex

 In 1868, when the popularity of the carte-de-visite had waned, Silvy sold his London studio and returned to France. In 1869, at the age of 35 Silvy abruptly retired from photography. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 before being diagnosed with manic-depression in 1875. Silvy would spend much of the next three decades in various psychiatric asylums. With his health wrecked by poisoning from photography chemicals, he succumbed to bronchopneumonia in the Hôpital de St Maurice, France in 1910.  Silvy died at age seventy-five.

Camile Silvy - Self Portrait
Photographs appearing in this post are copyright Luminous Lint or the National Portrait Gallery or Paul Frecker London