Robertson, James, 1813-1888

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1813
Death 1888
Britons
English

Biographical notes:

James Robertson was a British photographer based in Constantinople, active in the period from 1853 to 1857. He photographed the architectural monuments and the people of the eastern Mediterranean region, as well as the Crimean War, working both independently and in partnership with Felice Beato.

From the description of James Robertson views of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople. ca.1853-1857. (Getty Research Institute). WorldCat record id: 166520871

James C. Robertson was a United States (U.S.) Army Reserve officer. He was in the Signal Corps and his duty during the latter part of World War II was with military governments in Europe.

From the description of James C. Robertson photograph collection. 1940-1945. (US Army, Mil Hist Institute). WorldCat record id: 49013469

Biographical/Historical Note

Although James Robertson's photographs have enjoyed broad popularity both in his time and today, until recently many details of his life and career have remained obscure. New research has significantly altered the facts presented in much of the earlier scholarship and helped to clarify the professional relationship between Robertson and Felice Beato, his collaborator.

Of Scottish descent, James Robertson was born in Middlesex outside London in 1813. He trained as an engraver, and by 1833 he was working at the British Royal Mint. In 1841, Robertson moved to Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, having been recruited as part of a group brought in to modernize the Ottoman Imperial Mint. As chief engraver and die-maker, Robertson was known for his elaborate and beautiful designs for Ottoman coinage and commemorative medals. In April 1855, he married Matilda Beato, cementing a relationship with her brothers, Felice and Antonio, who would follow Robertson into photography. Robertson worked at the Mint with ever increasing responsibilities, including appointment to the Imperial Coinage Commission, until his retirement in October 1881. He and his family then immediately left Constantinople for Yokohama, Japan, where Felice Beato had settled. Robertson died there on 18 April 1888.

By the early 1850s, Robertson was engaged in photography as a sideline to his work at the Mint. His short, intense photographic career can be roughly divided into three phases. In the years from circa 1853 to 1855, Robertson worked alone, photographing Constantinople and then Greece. From 1856 to 1857, he worked with his brother-in-law Felice Beato, first with Beato as an uncredited assistant, then as a full partner, and the pair photographed farther afield. After 1858, Robertson only sold prints from earlier negatives.

It is not completely clear when or how Robertson got interested in photography. He may have been drawn into the new medium through his general artistic interests. As well as his numismatic designs, Robertson produced sketches and paintings of life in Constantinople in his early years in the city. Whenever he began, by July of 1853 there is evidence of him selling individual photographs of Constantinople, and by October he had an album for sale. These early forays into photography were successful. By the fall of 1853, Robertson's photographs were being used for engravings in western publications like the Illustrated London News and his Constantinople album was favorably reviewed. He quickly expanded his catalog, photographing in Greece in 1853 or 1854 and publishing two albums of those photographs in 1854. Robertson continued to send his work out to the western market. In January 1855 he exhibited a selection of Constantinople photographs in London, and in May a group of photographs of Constantinople and Greece in Paris. Both venues led to critical acclaim. Also around this time, Robertson opened a studio in Pera, the European quarter of Constantinople, probably primarily as a sales outlet for his prints.

The turning point in Robertson's photographic career, however, was his coverage of the Crimean War. Robertson's location in Constantinople gave him easy access to the war zone. His earliest photographs of the war document the staging of troops outside the city in the summer of 1854, and he subsequently made several trips to the front in 1855 and 1856, documenting the aftermath of decisive battles. Robertson's war coverage brought him an extensive new audience for his work.

It was also at this time that Robertson started working with Felice Beato. By May of 1856 Beato was in the Crimea working as Robertson's assistant. Although the photographs of the Crimea were signed only by Robertson, contemporary documentation indicates that many photographs from the summer of 1856 were actually taken by Beato. Robertson and Beato's collaboration continued after the war. By late summer they were on Malta photographing the island and selling those prints, as well as Robertson's earlier work. They returned to Constantinople that December, soon to set out on their next photographic expedition to document the Holy Land and Egypt. When they arrived in Jerusalem in March of 1857, they were accompanied by Antonio, Felice's younger brother. Antonio Beato would later become an established photographer in his own right, but there is no evidence for his actual involvement in these photographs. It is also with this trip that the signature on the photographs shifts from "Robertson" to "Robertson & Beato." New photographs of Constantinople and Athens with this double signature further document the work of the pair in 1857.

After this burst of activity, however, Robertson and Beato went their separate ways. In 1858, Robertson appears to have quit taking photographs, although he still produced prints of his earlier work until he finally sold the studio in Pera in 1867. The company name of "Robertson & Beato" would continue on new photography for a short while longer, used by Felice Beato, but with no evidence of Robertson's active involvement.

Unlike Robertson, Felice Beato pursued photography as his primary career. He was probably born in the 1820s, possibly on Corfu. After the work with Robertson in 1856-1857, Beato went off on his own. His training with Robertson, especially the experience of the Crimean War and the military connections he made there, set the stage for Beato's subsequent career, as one of the first photographers to serve primarily as a war photographer. From 1858 to 1860 Beato photographed the Indian Mutiny. Many of these photographs, although solely the work of Beato, bear the signature "Robertson & Beato," presumably to take advantage of the company's name recognition. After this initial solo enterprise, further series of military conflicts followed. Beato went to China with the Anglo-French expeditionary force and documented the Second Opium War in 1860. In 1871 he was the photographer for an American naval expedition against Korea. Finally, in 1885 he went on the Sudan expedition to Khartoum to rescue Gordon, although none of these photographs survive.

Between these military engagements, Beato was based in Yokohama, where he had settled in 1863. The following year he formed a partnership with Charles Wirgman, a correspondent and artist for the Illustrated London News who had travelled with Beato in China, supplying photographs for publications and tourist views. The partnership lasted until 1868, when Beato went off on his own. His non-military photographic work in this period included architecture, landscapes and genre scenes, many still bearing traces of Robertson's stylistic influence. By 1877, however, Beato sold his photographic business. He appears to have then been a general merchant until November 1884, when he went bankrupt due to currency speculation. By 1889 Beato had moved to Burma where he would run a photographic studio and furniture business until his death circa 1907.

From the guide to the Views of Greece, Egypt and Constantinople, circa 1853-1857, (Getty Research Institute)

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Subjects:

  • Vehicles, Military--Photographs
  • Architecture, Greek
  • Architecture, Mameluke
  • Architecture, Islamic
  • Excavations (Archaeology)
  • Parthenon (Athens, Greece)
  • Mosques--Turkey--Istanbul
  • Library of Hadrian (Athens, Greece)
  • Mosques
  • Architecture, Mameluke--Egypt--Cairo
  • Tanks (Military science)--Photographs
  • Erechtheum (Athens, Greece)
  • Architecture, Roman--Greece--Athens
  • Architecture, Ottoman--Turkey--Istanbul
  • Temple of Athena Nike (Athens, Greece)
  • Obelisks--Turkey--Istanbul
  • Architecture, Greek--Greece--Athens
  • Obelisks
  • Courts-martial and courts of inquiry--Photographs
  • Architecture, Roman
  • Military government--Photographs
  • Fountain
  • Mosques--Egypt--Cairo
  • Hephaisteion (Athens, Greece)
  • Architecture, Islamic--Turkey--Istanbul
  • Great Sphinx (Egypt)
  • Archaeology--Greece--19th century
  • Excavations (Archaeology)--Greece--Athens
  • Süleymaniye Camii (Istanbul, Turkey)
  • Architecture, Ottoman
  • Olympieion (Athens, Greece)
  • Archaeology--19th century
  • Soldiers--Photographs
  • Propylaea (Athens, Greece)
  • Fountains--Turkey--Istanbul
  • Arch of Hadrian (Athens, Greece)
  • Tower of the Winds (Athens, Greece)

Occupations:

not available for this record

Places:

  • Cairo (Egypt)--Buildings, structures, etc. (as recorded)
  • Aegina Island (Greece)--Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Ákra Soúnion (Greece)—Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Acropolis (Athens, Greece) (as recorded)
  • Istanbul (Turkey)--Buildings, structures, etc. (as recorded)
  • Greece (as recorded)
  • Germany (West) (as recorded)
  • Istanbul (Turkey)—Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Istanbul (Turkey)—Buildings, structures, etc. (as recorded)
  • Germany (as recorded)
  • Turkey--Istanbul (as recorded)
  • Cairo (Egypt)—Buildings, structures, etc. (as recorded)
  • Aegina Island (Greece)—Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Corinth (Greece)—Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Ákra Soúnion (Greece)--Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Corinth (Greece)--Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Greece--Athens (as recorded)
  • Egypt--Cairo (as recorded)
  • Athens (Greece)--Buildings, structures, etc. (as recorded)
  • Athens (Greece)—Buildings, structures, etc. (as recorded)
  • Athens (Greece)--Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Istanbul (Turkey)--Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Athens (Greece)—Antiquities (as recorded)
  • Acropolis (Athens, Greece) (as recorded)