Robert Turnball MacPherson: Maker of Photos, Maker of Myth

S. Alleyn Smythe

Photograph of Tiber and St. Peter's Basilica

Ansel Adams said, “[y]ou don’t take a photograph, you make it.” To no photographer do those words better apply than to Robert Turnball MacPherson—creator of the images accompanying select annotations of this edition of Arthur Hugh Clough’s Amours de Voyage—whose sun-dappled, sepia-toned images of Rome were both striking, and strikingly at odds with the harsh, gritty reality. Revealing none of the turbulence and turmoil of daily life in revolutionary Rome—a Rome plagued by illness, poverty, crime, and corruption—MacPherson’s “made” images masked the decay and decadence of a Rome with which Claude was much disappointed. If Claude discovered a land of little more than rubbish and ruins, his contemporary and compatriot Robert MacPherson discovered a land of opportunity.

Departing his native Dalkeith to pursue a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, but leaving prematurely in order to study art at the Royal Scottish Academy, Robert MacPherson arrived in Rome in 1840. Finding little success as a professional painter, and suffering from a premature dimming of his eyesight—a condition which, rather curiously, left him better suited to photography—he abandoned his first vocation and took up work in the burgeoning field of photography, supplementing his initial paltry income through a far more lucrative side-career as an art connoisseur and dealer. Mentioned by name in the “Murray’s” to which Claude so often refers, MacPherson “[h]ad not long been in Rome before he numbered among his friends possessors of some of the noblest names in Britain” (Munsterberg 143), enjoyed a reputation as an individual who “was gifted with that rare endowment, the art of pleasing,” and “was a remarkable observer of character” who “possessed a wonderful memory, great powers of description, and a natural ready wit” (Crawford 354-5). Through the connections of his wife, Louisa Gerardine “Geddie” Bate—niece of Anna Jameson, the first female art historian of note and member of an elite intellectual crowd that included the Brownings and the Byrons—and by virtue of the fact that “with all these attractive qualities…he was a delightful social companion” (Crawford 354-5), the “humorous, noisy Bohemian,” red-bearded Mac, as he was called by intimate friends, made for a colorful and convivial addition to the already eclectic crowd that frequented the “British Ghetto.” When in Canto II of Amours de Voyage Claude speaks disparagingly of the “Quidnuncs at Monaldini’s,” it is precisely the likes of MacPherson and the gaggle of British expat literati with which he kept company to which he is referring. As such, the social and intellectual circles in which Clough/Claude would have moved, are the very same in which MacPherson would have; the Rome through which Clough/Claude passed, was the same MacPherson captured in his photographs.

It must be noted, however, that MacPherson’s mission was at odds with Claude’s. As MacPherson’s friend and fellow painter James Edward Freeman observed, “Rome…at that period struck strangers as being in a perpetual state of masquerade” (Crawford 354). If Claude’s goal was to debunk myths of Rome and of travel through Italy, MacPherson’s was to perpetuate them—and with good reason. MacPherson’s main objective as a photographer—in addition to establishing himself as a significant and celebrated artist—was commercial viability. While in the mid-19th century the medium of photography was novel, the “souvenir” image was not. Previous generations of Grand Tourists would have returned home with miniature replicas of noted monuments, as well as large-scale oil-painting interpretations of the places they had visited and the things they had seen. MacPherson’s aim was to reproduce the popular views and attractions of the previous century’s vedute and capricci painters—artists such as Piranesi in Rome and Canaletto in Venice, who specialized in contrived monument-filled landscapes, and idealized sun-washed seascapes respectively—but in a more portable and more affordable format. And, in this endeavor he proved to be both greatly esteemed and financially successful; the novelist Margaret Oliphant wrote that his “[c]areer was very prosperous for a number of years, by means of this occupation he may almost be said to have invented” (Crawford 359). His prior training as a painter led MacPherson to consider not only the rendering of the subject itself, but how to place it in context, in relation to, and in conversation with its surroundings, as well as on a two-dimensional surface that reflected a three-dimensional reality convincingly and accurately—a consideration few other photographers of the period entertained.  

But achieving the aesthetic appeal of vedute equivalents required the taking of artistic liberties, and, again, MacPherson’s early training proved beneficial. Manipulation of light and shade by painting out and/or painting in backgrounds and highlights on the negatives prior to printing—like that in the photo “Monte Cavallo” in which “many tiny highlights on the bodies of the two men and on the horses…were invented” (Crawford 373)—was oftentimes necessary to delineate details not easily captured by the camera and/or lost in the developing process, but was more frequently employed to heighten the dramatic effect. So, for all of their historical truth, the visual verity of MacPherson’s images—photographed paintings and painted photographs—is somewhat more dubious; the objects themselves were fact, but the worlds they depicted were often fictions. Nonetheless, through the lens of MacPherson, one is afforded a glimpse of Rome in the mid-nineteenth century that is still more accurate and more authentic—no matter how contrived it may be—than any painting could ever be. 

As an anonymous critic observed of MacPherson’s work, “[i]n the light and shade of these ruins there is a sentiment which, with the stern truth of the photograph, affects the mind more deeply than the qualified essay in painting” (Crawford 353). In tandem with Clough’s verse, MacPherson’s images affect the mind more deeply than the qualified essay alone; together Clough and MacPherson present a reality that although physically rendered in black and white—ink on page, image on paper—invites the reader to explore the nuanced shades of gray between the lines and among the ruins. 

Works Cited

Crawford, Alistair. “Robert Macpherson 1814-72, The Foremost Photographer of Rome.” Papers of the British School at Rome 67 (1999): 353–403.

Munsterberg, Marjorie. “A Biographical Sketch of Robert Macpherson.” The Art Bulletin 68.1 (1986): 142–153.