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In Photos: Remembering Robert Macpherson, the first to photograph inside the Vatican

February 27, 2016 /Photography News/ Born 202 years ago on February 27, 1814, Robert Turnbull Macpherson was a Scottish artist and photographer who worked in Rome, Italy in the 19th century.

During his initial years in Rome, Macpherson practiced his art as a painter. While records exist of several works between 1840 and 1845, his only known surviving work is a large oil painting of the Roman Campagna, dated 1842. In addition to painting, he worked as an art dealer.

In 1851, having failed to achieve notice as a painter, Macpherson turned to the new art of photography, using albumin on glass negatives. By 1856 he had transitioned to collodio-albumin, allowing the easier transport of dry plates. He typically utilized large-format negatives and long exposure times to attain exceptional detail of Roman architecture, monuments, ruins, landscapes, and sculptures. His work emphasized careful composure of scenes to capture three-dimensional architectural relationships on the two-dimensional photographic medium. Macpherson emphasized the artistic aspects of his photography, stating in 1863 that "I remain a photographer to this day, without any feeling that by doing so I have abandoned art, or have in any way forfeited my claim to the title of artist."

By the early 1860s, Macpherson's photographic career was near its zenith, with exhibitions in Edinburgh and London. His work received critical acclaim, with "subjects chosen with fine taste and the pictures executed with skill and delicacy."

Macpherson was the first photographer permitted to photograph inside the Vatican, and in 1863 published Vatican Sculptures, Selected and Arranged in the Order in which they are Found in the Galleries, a guide book to 125 Vatican sculptures featuring woodcut illustrations carved by his wife from his photographs.

By the late 1860s Macpherson's fortunes were in decline. His health had deteriorated due to malaria, and the increasing political instability in Rome reduced the stream of British tourists that made up much of his customer base. At the same time, technical advances in photography moved the medium from the realm of artists to that of a commodity.

Robert Macpherson died on 17 November 1872, and was buried at San Lorenzo fuori le Mura in Rome, though his grave has since been lost.

Over the course of his photography career, Macpherson cataloged 1,019 photographs. Today, a significant number of Macpherson works are held at the George Eastman House, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the British School at Rome. Smaller collections are found worldwide.

Roma - Trinita dei Monti, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Roma - Trinita dei Monti, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Tomba di Cecilia Metella, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Tomba di Cecilia Metella, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)

Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, ca. 1858, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, ca. 1858, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)


Rome - St. Peter's Dome in the Vatican, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Rome - St. Peter's Dome in the Vatican, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Rome - Loggia of Raphael in the Vatican Palace, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Rome - Loggia of Raphael in the Vatican Palace, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)

Rome - Trajan's Forum and column, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
Rome - Trajan's Forum and column, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)

The Chiaramonti Museum, one among the Vatican Museums, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)
The Chiaramonti Museum, one among the Vatican Museums, Before 1872, By Robert MacPherson (1811-1872)


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