A Mystery – Is this a Lost Portrait of Lord Byron?
(The story behind the photograph)
Last weekend I was lucky to attend a couple of fascinating photo shows in New York City including the AIPAD photography show in the Park Avenue Armory, featuring vintage and contemporary photos at amazingly high prices.
At another photo show nearby I did find some vintage photos I could afford, and one of them was a 1/4 plate ambrotype of an oil painting of Lord Byron in a half case. It even had tinted cheeks. (It’s at the top row above—both in and out of its protective case, metal mat, preserver and cover glass. Click on it to make it bigger.)
The dealer who sold me the image said he thought it was “some actor” but I knew that it was the famous English poet George Gordon Lord Byron. In fact I thought it was a photograph of some famous Byron portrait that I had possibly studied in college when I was minoring in art history. (Naturally I didn’t mention this to the dealer, and managed to negotiate a reasonable price for the ambrotype.)
So when I got home with the cased photograph, I started googling portraits of Lord Byron to see which painter had painted “my” image…I quickly learned that the most famous portrait of Byron, painted in 1814, was by Thomas Phillips. It’s the one in the second row above. He also painted the portrait of Byron in Albanian dress, in the third row.
Other images of Byron are in the row below. Most of them were done during Byron’s lifetime (1788 – 1824) --- or shortly after.
Lord Byron was, of course, sort of a rock star in his day. He created the idea of the troubled and troublesome Byronic hero. Lady Caroline Lamb famously called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Mothers of young ladies of London wouldn’t even let their daughters look at him because he was so notorious for seducing every woman who crossed his path – including his half sister — and then dumping them, causing heartache and madness. He liked young boys too.
Lord Byron clinched his fame by dying tragically in Missolonghi, Greece in 1824 as he was fighting (and donating his large fortune) to help the Greek people achieve independence from the Turkish occupation. (Today, March 25, is Greece's Independence Day. They finally succeeded in tossing out the Turks after 400 years. Zito Hellas!)
As the most famous Philhellene, Lord Byron is beloved in Greece. Streets and baby boys are named after him, and whenever I’m in the center of Athens I pass a large statue of the dying Byron, clasped in the arms of a woman representing Hellas -- Greece. When Byron died of the flu (and the lousy medical treatment by his doctors—especially the bloodletting) he was only 36 years old.
But the more I searched, the more surprised I was to see that --while the face of Byron in paintings and drawings was almost identical to that in my ambrotype, none of the portraits I found was identical. The flowing lacy collar of his open shirt and the hairline -- the way his curls fell on his forehead --were always different from the version I have. (But the way his hair is receding at the temples remains consistent in all.)
This led me to wonder if by any chance my ambrotype was a record of a “lost” oil portrait of Byron by some famous nineteenth century artist?? The ambrotype photographic process (the second kind of photography after daguerreotypes) was introduced in 1854, peaked in 1857-59 and waned in 1861 when the more convenient and inexpensive tintype became popular.
So my ambrotype of a Byron portrait was probably made around 1857. The painting really resembles the Phillips portrait and could even possibly be another portrait of Byron by the same hand??
If it really is a lost portrait, of course, it makes the ambrotype I bought more valuable.
You can see in my scan that there is a frame around the painting that was photographed. If this is a frame to the oil painting, it could help identify the original. On the other hand, it could be the metal preserver on another ambrotype or daguerreotype — which would make my image a “copy image” and therefore less valuable.
An ambrotype is a negative image on glass that becomes a positive image when you put a dark background behind it. Every daguerreotype and ambrotype is one-of-a-kind…and reversed — a mirror image of the sitter. The only way to make a copy of a dag or an ambro was just to photograph the image all over again—and that comes out less sharp.
I hope to solve the mystery of my “lost Portrait of Byron” by sending these scans to both the Byron Society of America and to the newsletter of the Daguerreian Society, of which I am a member.
In the end, I may find out that my “lost” Byron portrait is in fact a well-known image that everyone else can identify. And that’s okay, because I’m still delighted to have the striking image of a beautiful painting of one of our most famous poets.
If anyone has any info on this subject – please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.