One of the joys of working for this museum is that I spend my day surrounded by experts with fascinating stories to tell. During a recent conversation with Colin Harding, Curator of Photographic Technology, he told me the story behind one of Roger Fenton’s masterpieces—’Pasha and Bayadère’.
Until recently it was believed that there was only one print of the ’Pasha and Bayadère’ image by Roger Fenton in existence. This was in the hands of the Getty Institute in Los Angeles.
Then another was discovered in the UK, but it was sold at auction in 2010 to a private buyer in the USA. We objected to its export, believing that it should stay in the country, it being one of the finest examples of Fenton’s orientalist studies. Our staff then worked tirelessly to raise the money to buy the print for our collection and, with the help of the Art Fund, was successful.
Roger Fenton is one of the most important and highly-regarded British photographers of the 19th century. He is best known for his photographs of the Crimean War, but during a photographic career which only lasted just over a decade, he mastered every genre which he attempted.
A hugely influential figure, Fenton was a founder member and first Secretary of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society) in 1853.
The photograph shows Roger Fenton as a pasha, an Ottoman official, watching a Bayadère or dancing girl. On the left of the photograph sits one of Fenton’s friends, the artist Frank Dillon. This print has been passed down through Dillon’s family.
For Victorian England this would have been quite a racy image. Many were fascinated by the mystery and exoticism of the East yet it would not have been acceptable for a British woman to have been photographed in this manner.
However, all is not what it seems. Fenton visited Constantinople on his travels yet this is not one of his documentary photographs—it was staged in his studio in London.
Just prior to the photograph being taken Frank Dillon had come back from a journey on the Nile and had brought back exotic (for the time) looking costumes and objects. The image looks like a snapshot of a relaxed scene yet if you look very closely you may be able to see strings attached to the dancing girl’s wrists. The exposure time would have been so long that the model’s arms would have begun to ache so it was necessary to prop her up.
’Pasha and Bayadère’ is part of our exhibition In the Blink of an Eye: Media and Movement because it illustrates the difficulties of capturing movement in early photography. This is the first time this image has been on display at the museum and we’re really proud to have saved it for the nation.