About Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society

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Project background

Photographic history has only recently developed as a formal academic discipline in Britain and elsewhere, its progress restrained by the lack of comprehensive reference works and standard texts of the type that underpin art history and other scholarly subjects. At De Montfort University we are developing a corpus of searchable, high quality, resources for researchers of 19th century photography working from primary materials such as exhibition catalogues and letters. These resources so far comprise:

Photographs Exhibited in Britain 1839-1865

is a research database containing individual records for over 20,000 photographic exhibits drawn from forty exhibition catalogues published between 1839 - 1865.


The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot

is a comprehensive database of all the known letters to and from Talbot (1800-1877), the Wiltshire polymath best known for his invention of photography. It contains over 10,000 letters.


Roger Fenton's letters from the Crimea

is collection of all 25 of the known letters written by Roger Fenton during his pioneering wartime photographic expedition to the Crimea.


In order to extend the range of these resources, we have turned to the comprehensive exhibition catalogues for the Photographic Society of London (subsequently the Royal Photographic Society), which after 1870 appeared in the 'Photographic Journal'.

Project methodology

The approach taken is modelled closely on Photographs Exhibited in Britain. We have transcribed accurately all the catalogue entries for the selected period, stored the data in a MySQL database and created a Web interface that allows browsing by broad topic (exhibitions, judges, exhibitors and exhibits and searching for specific information. However, there are some important differences between Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society and Photographs Exhibited in Britain. Firstly we have been able to scan all the catalogue pages and include them so that it is possible to view the data in situ and to see content, such as advertisements, not included in the database. Secondly we have, for the first time, been able to include pictures of some of the exhibits. In later years the catalogues contained images of some of the photographs exhibited so we can see what some of the exhibits looked like. Thirdly the information in Exhibitions of the Royal Photographic Society are much richer than in Photographs Exhibited in Britain. For example, we can access details about members of judging, selecting and hanging committees, membership of the Photographic Society, awards made to exhibits, and some of the exhibit entries are accompanied by detailed descriptions. This has created many more opportunities to exploit the capability of databases to cross-refer different kinds of information to produce patterns of information not easily observable from the original catalogues.

Selection criteria

From its foundation in 1853, the Photographic Society always considered itself as the 'parent society' and, after suffering several setbacks during the late 1860s, re-emerged to establish itself as the pre-eminent photographic society of Britain. During the years that followed, the Photographic Society changed its name, first to the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1874, and then in 1894 to the Royal Photographic Society, the name it still retains today.

Although other photographic societies flourished elsewhere in Britain and held their own annual exhibitions, catalogues from these societies have not survived in any significant number. In contrast, the 46 surviving catalogues from the Photographic Society's annual exhibitions, 1870 - 1915, contain around 30,000 individual records, including, from 1895 onwards, accompanying line or half tone illustrations of some of the photographs exhibited. Collectively, these exhibition records offer a unique insight into the evolution of aesthetic trends, the application of photographic processes and the response of a burgeoning group of photographic manufacturers, as well as the fortunes of the Photographic Society itself.

The society's exhibitions attracted a wide constituency of photographers, from Britain, Europe and America. Many individuals launched their photographic career by exhibiting at the Royal Photographic Society and a significant number went on to become leading practitioners of their day. After 1915, these annual exhibitions became smaller in scale and national in character as the First World War began to affect the progress of photographic culture throughout Britain and Europe.

In addition to the catalogues we have drawn on the exhibition reviews that appeared in the contemporary annual publication Photograms of the Year, in particular for additional pictures of the exhibits.

Editorial policy

All the catalogue pages have been scanned to a resolution of 600 dpi for archival purposes. From these, all the data relating directly to the exhibitions have been transcribed and entered into the database. Peripheral information, such as advertisements that appeared in the catalogues, has not been transcribed. Similarly, exhibition reviews that appeared in Photograms of the Year have been scanned but not transcribed. However, all the page scans are available for viewing.

Spelling variations and typographical errors have been reproduced rather than corrected. For example, "Marjory T Hardcastle" appears also as "Margery". It may be necessary to try more than one spelling of a word to locate all its instances in the database. Where additional information, not in the original, has been added this is shown in square brackets [like this].

The way the search engine works is to look for sequences of letters that match the search query. It will look for each sequence at the begining or end of a word. So the search query 'port' will also return hits such as ports, portraits, Davenport, but not sporting. This way searches will return more results than you are likely to want but will include plurals and other variations without you having to specify them exactly. On the other hand, if you search for "portrait" it will not find "port" because it searches for a match for the whole search query. For the same reason, a search for "autochrome" produces 1055 hits whereas "autochromes" only 594. It follows from this that you don't always need to type the whole word.

Some of the words in the database include non-English letters and accents such as á and ç. To preserve the integrity of the data these have been left unchanged, which means that, for keyboards lacking these characters, special key combinations have to be used. We have provided a simple look-up table for the most common special characters at earthlink.net.

All the pictures of exhibits that appear in the catalogues have been reproduced here, supplemented by additional pictures from the contemporary annual publication Photograms of the Year. Most of these are relatively poor quality due to the limitations of printing technologies at the time. The database has not been supplemented with high quality images of the photographs from other sources because it is essentially an archive of catalogue data, not a photographic archive.

File names

Each page scan and image scan has been allocated a unique identification number that allows it to be related unambiguously to the original source page. While most pages in the Exhibition Catalogues and Photograms of the Year (POTY) have Arabic numbers, many have Roman and some have none at all, so the file numbering system needs to reflect this. Since all line drawings and half tone reproductions of exhibited photographs were scanned and saved as separate files, to allow them to be viewed full size, the file numbering system needs also to be able to reflect the parent-child relationship between pages and the pictures printed on them in the originals.

We have followed the 8.3 standard (eight characters followed by a three character extension denoting file type) to ensure interoperability with other similar databases constructed from these elements:

Therefore, a page in an Exhibition Catalogue from 1892 will always start E92, whereas a POTY from 1905 will commence P05. The next character depends upon the style of pagination used for the pages being scanned - Roman, Arabic, plate number or unnumbered, represented by an R, A, or S respectively. The next part of the sequence is numerical, comprising a three digit reference to the page on the right of the double page spread being scanned, for example:

If the pages scanned are from the 1870 Exhibition Catalogue, and numbered iv and v, the file number is E70R005.

If the pages scanned are from the 1870 Exhibition Catalogue, and numbered 4 and 5, the file number is E70A005.

If the pages scanned are from the 1870 Exhibition Catalogue, and numbered Plate iv and Plate v, Plate 4 and Plate 5, or are unnumbered half tone illustrations chronologically in fourth and fifth position in the run, the file number is E70S005.

Finally, the last digit is only used when a half tone or line image is scanned and saved as a separate file from the page contents, to denote a link to the original file, for example:

If three half tone images from page 59 of the 1892 Exhibition Catalogue are saved separately, their numbering sequence is E92A059A, E92A059B, E92A059C.

In the case of POTY, the majority of pages scanned have Arabic numbers. The main exceptions are the years 1912-1915, when the format of the publication changes. These issues have the illustrations collected together as separately numbered plates.


If the pages scanned are from the 1895 POTY and numbered 4 and 5, the file number is P95A005.

If the page scanned is from the 1912 POTY and numbered Plate v, the file number is P12S005.

In addition to the double page spreads copied from POTY, there are also a number of relevant individual illustrations, which appear throughout the publication. These have been scanned as double page spreads and cropped and saved using the addition of the eighth digit to indicate that they are a child file, for example:

If the illustration required appeared on page 5 of the 1895 POTY, pages 4 and 5 were scanned (to save time adjusting the scanner to each individual illustration), and the image cropped and saved with the file number P95A005A.

Data preservation

Archival copies of all the page and image scans have been lodged with the British Library, Birmingham City and De Montfort University libraries and the National Media Museum.