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Friday, 6 August 2010

Camille Silvy at the National Portrait Gallery

I must admit I was initially drawn to the Camille Silvy exhibition because of our name share, my full name also being Camille.

Camille Silvy was a pioneer of early photography and established himself as one of the leading portrait photographers in London, to which he moved in 1859. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery displays many incredible images, some of which have not been shown since the 1860s.

Silvy spoke of his passion: ‘ when I realised the inadequacy of my talent in obtaining exact views of the places we travelled through, I dedicated myself to photography and ... concentrated especially on reproducing everything interesting – archaeologically or historically – that presented itself to me.’

The show begins with a collection of photographs taken in France. Quiet and serene these photos have a nostalgic feel, they capture the street life in the most natural way. The motif of horses recurs throughout the exhibition, a subject close to Silvy’s heart. He was a keen and knowledgeable horseman, as shown in the painting of him included in the collection. Later there is a series of very romantic photographs taken in London. These are intimate studies of delicate light and dark. My favourites were ‘Fog’ and ‘Twilight’, both taken in 1859. These hazy shots depict mysterious secrets in the shadows of London.

As the exhibition continued I realised Camille Silvy and I had more in common than I had originally thought. Like me, Silvy loved fashion and the theatre. His wife often modelled for him in the latest Parisian fashions; one of her more outrageous dresses is displayed. She was a useful part of the process, Camille could try out all his new ideas in the photographs he took of her. The final rooms show Silvy’s obsession with the magical opera stage. The main focus of his attention was the international operatic star Adelina Patti, and it has been said that as a model she brought out the best in his talent.

It’s sad to think that Camille Silvy has been left unnoticed for so long, he is a modern master worthy of rediscovery.

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