Carrying off the Palaces

Last week saw the launch of a superb book by Ken and Jenny Jacobson, Carrying Off the Palaces: John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes, Quaritch, 2015

The book begins with the astounding story of discovery of long-lost daguerreotypes.  The earliest form of permanent photography, in the form of one-off images produced on small metal plates, held a fascination for Ruskin between 1845 and 1858.   A lot described as a mahogany box containing 19th century photographs on metal, with an estimated value of £80, was bought by the collectors and photographic historians Ken and Jenny Jacobson for £75,000 at a sale in Penrith in 2006.  After nine years of research and the conservation of the 188 daguerreotypes, the Jacobsons have produced a magnificent account, together with a full catalogue of all 325 Ruskin daguerreotypes known to date, including those held by the Ruskin Foundation at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University.

The Ruskin Library holds 125 of Ruskin’s daguerreotypes, conserved between 2002 and 2005 with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Fund. These were purchased by John Howard Whitehouse in 1933 for £5 from Stevens and Brown, literary and art agents. Ralph Brown attended the Brantwood sale in July 1931, and purchased many items for Whitehouse, but also made other purchases for his firm, which he often resold at great profit. An annotated sales catalogue in this collection indicates that Brown purchased lots 134 and 320, two boxes tentatively identified in the Jacobsons’ book.

Lot 134 – described as ‘Mahogany Case with brass handles containing large quantity of photographic plates’, then in the Study – was sold on the first day of the sale for 6 shillings. Lot 320, from the Old Dining Room, was included in day two and listed as ‘Mahogany Brass fitted Box with numerous photograph frames’; it sold for 10 shillings. Both were bought by Brown, with whom Whitehouse had many dealings over the years.  Why he acquired only one of the lots, of 125 daguerreotypes accompanied by a brass-handled mahogany box with ‘Tuscany 1846’ on the lid, remains unexplained.  The recently discovered daguerreotypes, many in a box labelled ‘Venice’, can be presumed to be the second lot, having remained in Cumbria unappreciated for over 70 years.

The staff of the Ruskin Library have enjoyed working with Ken and Jenny in the course of their research, and look forward to reading the completed work in this wonderful book.

St Marks, Venice (Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Libtary, Lancaster University))

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