The princely fine print



The princely fine print

PRINCELY India must seem almost a mirage to today's photographic sharpshooters. Who were these men and women in gorgeous finery? Can a palace ever feel like a home?

Photographs and paintings offer a peek into their elegant world. A world of mind-blowing gems and outr� expeditions. Of unusual allegiances and dynastic politics. Of international polo chakkars and shikar in the wilderness.

It is against this backdrop that the work of the Lafayette Studio on London's Bond Street proves riveting. James Stevenson of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where the archive is currently stored, notes in his foreword, "What makes this archive interesting for photographers is that it is entirely composed of photographic negatives. Very few contemporary prints made by the Lafayette Studio remain in existence today, so the vision of these portraits can only be achieved from modern prints. This means that the interpretation of the photograph is also dependent on the present-day printer."

Reconstructed from black and white glass plate negatives, the results are brilliant. On these pages, we make the acquaintance of an unusual assemblage of luminaries of the British Empire, each a subject at the studio of James Stack Lauder (a.k.a. Jacques Lafayette).

How did the studio enhance their luminosity? What did the lens capture for posterity? We are dazzled by the exotic regalia in which Indian rulers impressed the British court. We check out the plaster Corinthian columns and art deco nudes that appeared as props for these sittings. We are stunned by the exquisite turban jewels donned by royals from Nawanagar and Baroda, Bhopal and Pudukotta.

Among the most dramatic of these portraits is a 1902 one of Maharani Siniti Devi of Cooch Behar (1864-1932). Her perfectly coiffed hair and gentle smile are offset by an elaborate, French-designed white gown, enhanced by gold embroidery in an Empire wreath design. Juxtaposed opposite it is a 1921 shot, her beauty unruffled, her finery modified 10 years after her husband's demise.

Russell Harris — who researched this archive in depth — shares surprising nuggets of insight. The Lafayette Studio in its home city, Dublin, was so renowned that Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) kept one of their carte photographs close to his heart! He further reveals how the studio's highly skilled lady retouchers earned upto 400 pounds sterling annually in 1895! For they not only tidied up stray hair and waistlines, but are credited with skimming 20 years off the visages of select society ladies.

Lafayette was not known for photographic innovation. Instead, its winning formula wooed its ultra-conservative clientele. As is evident in an 1899 image of the stunning daughters of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Patiala. And the gallant Thakur Hari Singh, an aide to the Jodhpur regent, frozen in an 1897 stance. And an empathetic portrait of Bhopal Singh Bahadur of Udaipur, wheelchair-bound by illness.

The recent rediscovery of the Lafayette Studio was dramatic. In 1968, a foreman rummaging in a dusty Fleet Street attic pending redecoration stumbled upon images of Queen Victoria and Lloyd George in the thick of 3,500 glass plate negatives and 30,000 nitrate negatives. As Harris observes, its "list of sitters reads like a Who's Who of the British Empire, international politics and ruling families". After founding his first studio in Dublin in 1880, Lauder soon set up branches in Glasgow, Manchester and London. Rudimentary special effects photography followed. So did photo syndication to various publications.

Invited to Windsor Palace to photograph Queen Victoria, later the entire royal family, the Lafayette brand acquired leverage once recognised by the royal warrant. The fine print about these unusual portraits is summed up by its publicity: "M. Lafayette never poses his clients, but simply watches and selects some unconscious pose suggested by them that is calculated to display in a special manner elegance of figure and particular charm of drapery."

Is this volume, then, picture perfect? Almost. Except for the arbitrary introduction of pages 62 to 65 with portraits of European royals, cutting into the flow of both text and image. Couldn't designer Arati Subramanyam have thought of an alternate solution?

In our time of candid, instamatic and digital photography, this is a tome to treasure. To dip into at random for the joys of light and shade. And the distinctive signature notes of Lafayette photography.

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