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  • Place of origin:

    South Kensington Museum (photographed)

  • Date:

    ca. 1880 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Cowper, Isabel Agnes, born 1826 - died 1911 (photographer)
    South Kensington Museum (commissioned by)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    albumen print

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 101, box B

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 of metalwork with printed descriptive label on mount.

Place of Origin

South Kensington Museum (photographed)


ca. 1880 (photographed)


Cowper, Isabel Agnes, born 1826 - died 1911 (photographer)
South Kensington Museum (commissioned by)

Materials and Techniques

albumen print

Marks and inscriptions

'Science and Art Department / National Art Library'
blindstamp, upper centre mount


Height: 34.5 cm mount, Width: 23.5 cm mount, Height: 15.5 cm image, Width: 10.5 cm image

Descriptive line

Photograph by Isabel Agnes Cowper, metalwork, albumen print, ca. 1880




Photographs; Metalwork; Sculpture


Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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