Several years ago, Luke Archer came across an antique camera in his mum’s shed. It was in amongst heaps of equipment from his grandfather’s studio, who was also a photographer, and originally belonged to Alexander Bassano, a Victorian society photographer. Out of this discovery, Inheritance was born; a project about the hereditary peers whose ancestors were pictured by Bassano but also about the portraitist tradition itself.
The House of Lords is a pretty baffling institution, but Luke’s portraits offer a rare insight into the personalities of the peers. Out of 50 or so peers invited to sittings, in the end he photographed 26 either at the House of Lords or in their homes. He used Bassano’s 100-year-old camera to document these men, who could be the last of their line.
Intrigued, I asked Luke a few questions about patronage, power and portraits.
Do you have to research anything about a person before taking their portrait? Or is it best to treat them purely as a face and a personality on the day?
I always try to find out a bit about whoever I am photographing; it helps to be able to put someone at ease by talking about an area they are interested in or a recent experience you know they have had. I think people respect that you have taken the time to find out about them and that they are more than a face to you. For me establishing a good rapport always results in better images, plus there is nothing worse than trying to photograph in awkward silence.
“When you are working with a fairly temperamental camera you don’t really have time to get into an argument about fox hunting!”
Did you get to learn much about them, get a sense of their daily lives?
When I photographed at the House of Lords the sittings were often very short, held in-between debates or meetings, however spending so much time there gave me an insight to how it all works. It’s pretty social for them, as you walk around they all greet each other, many of them have been friends a long time, from school or studying together at university, mainly at Oxford or Cambridge. It was encouraging to see lots of the Lords do take their responsibilities very seriously, although I suppose I didn’t meet the ones who don’t as they wouldn’t have visited the House of Lords regularly enough to pick up my invitation!
When I photographed the peers at their homes it was generally more relaxed and I had more time to have a cup of tea and get to know them. They were all very generous with their time. Most of the peers who sit in the House of Lords have a London residence where they spend the week and a country residence for the weekends. I saw some very lovely places but only two stately homes! As far as I could see the peers all lived very busy and comfortable lives.
Did you speak to any of them about their political views?
The conversation did sometimes turn to politics; I would often ask them what was being debated or their views on a certain issue. I photographed lords from all the parties and some cross-benchers so I heard the full spectrum of opinions.
I had to bite my lip once; when you are working with a fairly temperamental camera you don’t really have time to get in to an argument about fox hunting!
It was interesting to hear their views on the lords system; one lord who had lost his seat because of the 1999 Act seemed very bitter about it, but another who was currently sitting believed that more reform was definitely needed.
Did you treat the lords any differently from any other sitter?
No not all, I would say other factors affect your manner. For example if I had 15 minutes I would be less chatty and more instructional whereas if you have two hours you can afford to be a bit more relaxed. A big part of it is also the age of the person you are photographing. If someone is elderly as some of lords were, you have to think about what is comfortable for them, especially when using a camera that is so slow, hence a lot of people sat down! I certainly wasn’t affected by their status as a “lord” – we are all human after all – however I was pretty nervous about photographing Tony Benn (the first peer to renounce his hereditary title). I really wanted to get a good shot and I didn’t know how he would be in person; predictably he was absolutely lovely, a true gentleman.
Tell me more about Alexander Bassano.
Not much is known about Alexander Bassano. I think he had fairly humble beginnings as the son of an Italian fishmonger. No one knows how he became a photographer but in the end he had a huge studio with painted backdrops on a roller system and he had lots of people working for him with a separate premises where people processed and retouched the glass plates.
Bassano was well respected and famous at the time; he photographed an incredible range of people including Cetshwayo, the last Zulu King, on his visit to England. It was remarked at the time how good his portraits of Queen Victoria were. I imagine he got on well with the royals as he did get a royal warrant. Interestingly it was his picture of Lord Kitchener that was adapted for the famous and much spoofed – “Your Country Needs You” poster.
After his death the studio continued to use his name. It had many owners including my late grandfather who was a Fleet Street photographer. I think he liked the history of the studio and saw it as a good business venture; thankfully that is how the camera came to me.
Bassano’s work and that of the studio is pretty overlooked in modern times and I would love for more people to know about it. The National Portrait Gallery does collect the studio’s images and it has sort of come full circle as now two of my own portraits from this project are in their collection.
I grew up in a house surrounded by Bassano’s pictures and I’m sure that’s how I ended up as a portrait photographer.This year I was able to find and visit his grave when shooting my project on the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, it was nice to pay my respects, I guess I owe him a lot!
Tell me more about the camera.
The camera is a Thornton Pickard Royal Ruby most probably dating from the late 1880s – it has clearly been changed over the years: a newer back was added so the camera could accept film holders as opposed to glass plates and someone has adapted it so that it can be used with modern tripods. This process has continued with me having to source new bellows for it as the original ones had tears in.
It’s great to be able to use a camera that was actually built in this country and people are always curious when I use it; it’s not something you see everyday. The camera is pretty tricky to use, as it pre-dates flash synchronisation so there is a fairly complicated process if I want to use it with flash, which involves photographing in the dark. When you want to use natural light the shutter, which is made of fabric, only has four speeds. The lens is physically screwed onto the shutter so it’s that or nothing. Luckily it’s an amazing lens.
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