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Cast of Portico de la Gloria; Archivolt of Central Doorway, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    South Kensington Museum (This is one of three photographs by Cowper which were photographed from the casts of the portico installed in the South Kensington Museum. Copies of these were included in an album published by the Arundel Society with 17 other photographs by Charles Thurston Thompson taken at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain., photographed)
    Santiago (cast)

  • Date:

    ca. 1872 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Cowper, Isabel Agnes, born 1826 - died 1911 (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Albumen print

  • Museum number:

    73128

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Sir Henry Cole, the visionary first director of the Museum, saw early on the potential of photography to dramatically extend the visual range of resources available to artists and students. In 1856 he appointed Charles Thurston Thompson as ‘Official Museum Photographer’ and the ‘first museum photographic service’ came into being.

Photographs such as these were originally collected by the National Art Library as part of a programme to record works of art, architecture and design in the interest of public education, these photographs were valued as records and as source material for students of architecture and design. As well as being crucial records of the history of the V&A, and an important element within the National Art Library's visual encyclopaedia, these photographs are also significant artefacts in the history of the art of photography.

With the sudden death of Thurston Thompson in 1868, his sister, Isabel Agnes Cowper, assumed his position, possibility the first woman to hold such a role. Little is known about Cowper, but in her letter of resignation in 1891, she refers to herself as the Museum's 'Official Photographer. Cowper held the post for twenty-three years retiring in 1891. According to census records, as early as 1871, Cowper, a young widow, lived in the Museum residences assigned to staff with her three young children.

With maternal responsibilities, and subject to the social restrictions applied to woman in the nineteenth century, Cowper's freedom to travel was limited. As such, unlike Thurston Thompson, whose duties included travelling abroad documenting great works of art and architecture on dedicated photographic campaigns, the majority of Cowper’s work involved documenting objects in the museum collection and loans on display. This is just one of the thousands of Museum objects Cowper photographed in her role as ‘Official Museum Photographer’.

Physical description

A mounted sepia coloured photograph showing an intriquately carved archway featuring biblical persons installed in a museum gallery with installation and construction material scattered on floor in front of archway.

Place of Origin

South Kensington Museum (This is one of three photographs by Cowper which were photographed from the casts of the portico installed in the South Kensington Museum. Copies of these were included in an album published by the Arundel Society with 17 other photographs by Charles Thurston Thompson taken at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain., photographed)
Santiago (cast)

Date

ca. 1872 (photographed)

Artist/maker

Cowper, Isabel Agnes, born 1826 - died 1911 (photographer)

Materials and Techniques

Albumen print

Marks and inscriptions

'Santiago de Compostella: Cathedral. 'Peurta della Gloria'. Spain. Portal from the original in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, known as the Puerta della Gloria. The work of Master Mateo. About A.D. 1180 to 1190. H. 34 ft. 8 in., W. 58 ft. 6 in. Mr. D Brucciani. 2,300l. *'66-50.'
printed on label, lower centre mount

Dimensions

Height: 33 cm mount, Width: 27 cm mount, Height: 140 mm image, Width: 217 mm image

Object history note

These images were previously attributed to Charles Thurston Thompson. But as per text in an album of photographs of the cathedral which includes a copy of this image: 'From their position in the portico, the Archivolt and Tympanum of the Central Doorway could not be satisfactorily photographed; Nos. 12,13, and 14 were therefore taken from the Casts in the South Kensington Museum', it is clear that these images were taken at a later date. An entry in the Photography Register from May 22, 1868 provides a clue to their origin: '3 mounted photos. Santiago, Cathedral. Porta della Gloria, photographed from the cast in the S.K.M. [South Kensington Museum] by Mrs. I. A. Cowper'. It is now clear these photographs were taken after Thompson's death by his successor as Official Photographer at the South Kensington Museum, Isabel Agnes Cowper.

Descriptive line

Photograph, Isabel Agnes Cowper, 'Cast of Portico de la Gloria; Archivolt of Central Doorway, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain,' albumen print, ca. 1872

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

p. 38
Charles Thurston Thompson e o proxecto fotografico iberico La Coluna: Centro Galego de Artes da Imaxe-Xunta de Galicia, 1996
Vol. 1, No.2 (Spring 2000), pp.3-12
Accidental pilgrims: 19th-century British travellers and photographers in Santiago de Compostela United Kingdom: The British Art Journal, 03/2000 - 05/2000

Labels and date

Cast Courts Reinstallation, 27 November 2019

10.
'Cast of Portico de la Gloria; Archivolt of Central Doorway, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain'
Isabel Agnes Cowper, about 1872

Some casts were so spectacular they became almost as famous as the works from which they were copied. This image shows the cast of the Portico di Gloria in the process of being constructed. The photograph was taken by Isabel Agnes Cowper, the Museum's first female official photographer. In the foreground you can see building materials and tools. The width of the Courts was determined by the dimensions of this enormous cast.

REPRODUCED FROM
Albumen print
South Kensington, London
Museum no. 73128

[27 November 2018]

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Arches; Plaster casts; Carvings; Casts; Cathedrals; Porticos

Categories

Photographs; History of the V&A; Architecture; Photographs of plaster casts

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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