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'Brooch or Fibula, gold, in form of bird, Byzantine Gothic, late 5th century

  • Object:

    photograph

  • Place of origin:

    South Kensington Museum (photographed)

  • Date:

    1868 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Cowper, Isabel Agnes, born 1826 - died 1911 (photographer)
    Arundel Society (publisher)
    Bell & Daldy (publisher)
    Department of Science and Art of the Committee of Council on Education (commissioned by)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    albumen print

  • Museum number:

    65873

  • Gallery location:

    National Art Library, case 92.D.29

Photographs and photographers were present from the very beginning of the V&A's history and the Museum has an extensive collection of images from the 1850s through to the present which documents objects in the V&A collection, loan objects, topographical views, examples of design and architecture, and the construction and development of the V&A and the South Kensington site.

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. As well as being crucial records of the history of the South Kensington Museum (now 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.

Isabel Agnes Cowper (1826-1911) worked as the the South Kensington Museum's Official Museum Photographer from 1868 until her retirement in 1891. The daughter of renowned engraver, John Thompson, she originally trained as a wood engraver, engraving illustrations for volumes by John Ruskin and Henry Cole, the V&A's first Director. Examples of her engraving work entered the V&A collection some time in the late 19th century.

In 1868, Cowper, a widow, took on the role of Official Museum Photographer upon the death of her brother, Charles Thurston Thompson, who was the V&A's first Official Museum Photographer. It is likely that Thurston Thompson passed on to Cowper his knowledge of photography and she would have also been exposed to the medium through her husband, Charles Cowper, who held various photographic patents in his name. Recent research confirms that there are thousands of photographs by Cowper in the collection.

This album is an example of some of the first recorded photographs taken by Cowper. The art press from the time reported that the photographed objects came to the Museum in December 1867 and remained on view for six months. The negatives were registered in the Museum ledger on April 1868, and many of those negatives that survive have Cowper's signature etched into collodion emulsion.

Cowper lived and worked at the Museum with her four children and another brother, Richard Thompson, the South Kensington Museum Assistant Director, in accomodations reserved for senior staff. Up until recently, little was known of Cowper but ongoing research has reavealed that she played an important role in the early history of the V&A and the Museum's early uptake of photography to document the arts.

Physical description

A sepia-coloured photograph bound in an album of a form of a bird with hawk's head, wings closed. Two crystals hang from two chains. The neck is pierced with heart-shaped openings. A printed label is affixed to the bottom of the page.

Place of Origin

South Kensington Museum (photographed)

Date

1868 (photographed)

Artist/maker

Cowper, Isabel Agnes, born 1826 - died 1911 (photographer)
Arundel Society (publisher)
Bell & Daldy (publisher)
Department of Science and Art of the Committee of Council on Education (commissioned by)

Materials and Techniques

albumen print

Marks and inscriptions

'TREASURE OF PETROSSA. / No. 8. BROOCH OR FIBULA; gold, in form of a bird, set with oriental carbuncles; pendants of rock crystal. / Byzantine Gothic. Probably latter part of 5th Century.'
printed label, bottom of album page

Object history note

This album of photographs includes a group of late fourth-century gold and jewelled objects owned by the Romanian Government and displayed in the 'Histoire de Travail' section of the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867. In December 1867 the objects arrived at the South Kensington Museum, where they were photographed as part of a loan display.

Plates 1-10 in the album show twelve objects known as The Treasure of Petrossa, a group of late fourth-century gold and jewelled objects owned by the Romanian Government and displayed in the 'Histoire de Travail' section of the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867. According to the introductory notice accompanying the photographs, and written by Robert Henry Snoden Smith, Keeper of the National Art Library, the objects were originally discovered by Romanian quarrymen working near the village of Petrossa (now Pietroasa) in the month of March, 1837. Smith writes that the 'ignorant peasants could not be expected to recognize any worth higher than that of the metal and the glittering stones', and the find 'fell into evil hands', including a Greek mason named Verussi.

Smith continues that the treasure might have remained hidden for ever 'but that the precious stones which Verussi rejected as worthless became the playthings of some children, and thus a whisper of the extraordinary discovery got abroad; inquiries were made, and the whole affair came to light'. Vertrussi was denounced to the authorities, a 'rigid investigation by the Government followed, punishments were liberally dispensed, and after many monthys, twelve pieces of the original twenty-two, and a few fragments, were at length recovered....Throughout the inquiry, which lasted until 1842, Verussi constantly maintained that the bulk of the remainder had been swept away in a flood of the river Calnau...but to his assertion little credit could be attached.'

The remaining 10 plates represent examples of Romanian goldsmith's work from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which were also part of the loan.

Descriptive line

Photograph by Isabel Agnes Cowper, 'Brooch or Fibula, gold, in form of bird, Byzantine Gothic, late 5th century', albumen print, 1868, from the album The Treasure of Petrossa and other Goldsmith's Work from Roumania, published by the Arundel Society, London, 1869

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

Soden Smith, Robert Henry. The Treasure of Petrossa and other Goldsmith's Work from Roumania: A Series of Twenty Photographs of Ancient Gold Vessels, Fibulae, Neck-rings, etc. found near Petrossa in Roumania, in 1837, and shown in the "History of Labour" Section of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867, and Examples of Goldsmith's Art in Roumania with Description and Introductory Notice. London: Arundel Society for Promoting the Kowledge of Art, Bell and Daldy and Under the Sanction of the Science and Art Department, 1869.

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Photography; Albumen process

Subjects depicted

Brooches; Birds

Categories

Photographs; Metalwork

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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