Hidden Treasures of Our Collection: Snapshots of the last Tsar
Kendra, our Collections Assistant, shares an exciting discovery from the museum’s print archive: snapshots from the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II in May 1896.
July 2018 marks the centenary of the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family at the hands of the Bolsheviks. I’m a bit obsessed with the tragic personal saga of the Romanovs; Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra is probably the best biography I’ve ever read. So, imagine my excitement when the Collections Services team undertook a recent renovation of our Print Archive and I stumbled across a series of snapshot photographs taken during the Tsar’s coronation in Moscow in May 1896.
The photographs were taken by British photographer George William Tottem using a Kodak Bulls-Eye No. 2 handheld camera. Manufactured by Eastman Kodak between 1895 and 1913, Bulls-Eyes had a fixed focus lens and captured 3.5” square images. Tottem’s snapshots are presented in two square shaped ‘Bullet Picture’ albums, also marketed by Kodak.
George Tottem resided in Kennington, in South London, and was associated with the glass merchant and photography equipment manufacturer George Houghton & Sons. He was named a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1895. He also participated in the Photographic Club, described by the RPS as ‘a gathering of around a dozen photographers or “gentlemen amateurs” who met regularly to discuss their experiments in photography and to exchange photographs.’
It’s not clear what led Tottem to Moscow in 1896. An inscription on the inside covers of the albums indicates that several of the photographs were published in The Kodak News in October 1896. Unfortunately, the article gives no information about the photographer or how he found himself with a front-row view of this historical event. It’s possible that Tottem was commissioned to produce the images. Or perhaps, being an active amateur photographer, he travelled for leisure and submitted his photographs with the hopes of having them published. Close-up snaps of visiting royalty and dignitaries such as the son of the Khan of Khiva and Russian officers attached to the suite of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, suggest Tottem had some level of special access during the festivities. All we know for certain is that these images were published to promote the use of Kodak ‘pocket cameras’. The snapshot craze was just around the corner and Kodak wanted to show that you didn’t need to be a professional photographer to take interesting pictures.
Tottem’s photographs contrast nicely with a series of snapshot albums compiled by Herbert Galloway Stewart which are part of our Ricketts Collection. Stewart, the English tutor to Nicholas II’s nephew Prince Andrei Alexandrovich, had intimate access to the royal family’s day-to-day life. It turns out, royals—they’re just like us… kind of! Viewed together, the Tottem and Stewart albums offer fascinating glimpses into the public and private spheres of the Romanovs before the Russian Revolution.