Camille Silvy

French photographer Camille Silvy was born in 1834, near Chartres. He began his career as a diplomat having trained in law.

Silvy took up photography as an amateur in 1857 while he was a government diplomat. He was sent to Algeria to draw and document buildings and scenes but soon realised that he couldn’t actually draw very well and turned to photography.

Like Constable, Silvy liked to represent his local countryside and one of his most famous prints is called ‘River Scene, France’, taken in 1858 from a bridge over the River Huisne that runs through his birthplace Nogent-le-Rotrou. It was described as a “triumph of the art” when it was exhibited in France the same year at the first exhibition to include photography as fine art.

“One critic said of his landscapes: “It is difficult to obtain a greater finesse in the details with such grand and well combined effects of light.””


Elizabeth Martin, Senior Conservator at the V&A explains that two negatives would have been used to make the image, one for the foreground and one painted with the clouds and river reflections (this was because the wet collodion process was overly sensitive to the blue part of the colour). Under high magnification she located the join in the poplar trees. She was also able to enhance the two figures in the image so that their outfits could be dated. She says that, “Excitement set in when a hitherto undetected ‘man in the bush’ was found.” What a naked man was doing in a bush can only be speculated about but perhaps a nude sunbather chose to save any blushes when a photographer began setting up nearby.

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The farm workers (actually railway workers) and the wealthy couple about to go boating were paid to be in the picture. It was an idyllic scene set-up to illustrate the division between rich and poor.

Another well-known photograph is of men reading an Order for the Day sent by the Emperor Napoleon III from the frontline in Italy and posted on the streets of Paris. It was to his army and reminding the people that he was still in charge.

Silvy gave up his diplomatic career in the late 1850s and moved from Paris to London where he opened a photography studio at 39 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater. The yard at the back was used to print the photographs out using sunlight. The building included finely decorated recption rooms, a dressing room and even a ‘Queen’s Room’ in case Queen Victoria ever came to call. Although she never came herself Prince Albert was photographed by Silvy as were other royal friends and relations. It was close to Hyde Park where, as a keen horseman he was able to make equestrian portraits which were particularly fashionable at the time.

When setting up, Silvy needed people to take photographs of, so he sought out actors and performers who wanted to sell their photographs to fans. this was a great tactic and helped spread the word about him across the city and beyond. One of his most famous performer subjects was opera singer Adelina Patti who he photographed in many of her roles at Covent Garden recreated in his studio.

Generally, two poses were recorded, three times each, on one glass negative. When the sitter had chosen which they preferred, the portraits would be printed, gold-toned, trimmed, mounted on card and dispatched by post. Over 17,000 portraits were made here (up to 30 a day) between 1859 and 1868, and over a million prints produced for sale.

“The great French photographer Nadar described Silvy as a “formally clad, white-tied charmer who – as each client entered the studio – would negligently cast a pair of white gloves into an already overflowing basket, and don another, irreproachably new pair… “”

Silvy took many of the portraits for carte de visite or calling cards. People would create albums of these cards and show off about who they knew. Some of Silvy’s photographs were even of people involved in creating these albums.

A series of 3 photographs taken in 1859 called ‘Studies on Light’ used a number of groundbreaking photographic techniques and manipulations to create them. Scholars suggest that up to four negatives were combined to create the photograph entitled Twilight. It is also thought that this picture is one of the first to deliberately use blur to suggest movement.

Photographic portraits was not Silvy’s only business venture. He established a Librairie Photographique in 1860, photographing and restoring manuscripts. He also published a magazine called the London Photographic Review.

Silvy met and married Alice Monnier in 1863.

Silvy’s self-portraits show him, and his wife, to be very handsome and fashionable. One particular portrait shows him four times, reminding viewers of an Andy Warhol print and like Andy Warhol I understand that Silvy turned his studio into a bit of a photography/portrait factory.

Silvy developed a panoramic camera in 1867 and demonstrated it by taking a 360 degree panorama of Paris taken from the Champs Elysees. Most cameras prior to this involved swinging the camera around and taking a series of photographs that were then stitched together in the darkroom. There were many problems with this so Silvy’s design involved a photosensitive sheet that was slowly unwound from a spool through the camera.

Silvy ended his photographic career early, in 1867 due to ill health. The London smog didn’t suit him and photographic chemicals didn’t agree with him. Still at aged just 35 years he returned to France and fought in the Franco-Prussian War.

In his later life Silvy suffered from manic-depression and spent many years in and out of psychiatric hospitals before he died in 1910.