Francis Frith & Co. in Athens

F. Frith & Co., Arch of Hadrian, c. 1850s-1870s, V&A
The Arch of Hadrian, with the Temple of Olympian Zeus beyond
F. Frith & Co., Temple of Olympian Zeus, c. 1850s-1870s, V&A
The Temple of Olympian Zeus

F. Frith & Co., The Acropolis 1850-1870s, V&A
The Acropolis

F. Frith & Co., The Parthenon, c. 1850s-1870s, V&A
The Parthenon
F. Frith & Co., Modern Athens, c. 1850s-1870s, V&A
A beautiful study of “Modern Athens”

Francis Frith (1822-1898) found his first fame as a photographer in the 1850s with a great series of pictures created during long tours of the Middle East. These views were both a technical and an artistic triumph: it was extremely difficult to achieve fine results with the wet collodion process in those dry and dusty climes; and he devoted a great deal of thought and effort to capturing the essence of his scenes and subjects while excluding extraneous elements from the frame. This achievement makes him perhaps the first and certainly among the greatest masters of the topographical view.

At the end of his travels Frith established Francis Frith & Co., the world’s first specialist photographic publisher, and embarked on an enormous project to photograph every town and village in the United Kingdom. The resulting images are still widely reproduced today and in the form of postcards are a staple of souvenir shops all over Britain, their ubiquity evoking the image of Frith as a sort of photographic Phileas Fogg, ceaselessly travelling the land while recording every stop along the way. In reality the growing size and success of his enterprise necessitated the hiring of many photographers as well as the wholesale purchase of existing archives, including images from many lands. Thus it is unknown just when and by whom these Athenian scenes were preserved. They form but a small part of the more than 4000 prints acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum directly from Francis Frith & Co. in 1954.

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