In late 2017-early 2018, The Collection – a modern extension to Lincoln’s Usher Gallery – held a small exhibition of the photographs of Harry Burton. Who? You may ask.
The Story of Harry Burton.
Without doubt Burton, himself an Egyptologist, was considered the finest photographer of antiquities of his day. It was natural, therefore, for him to be chosen by Carter as the photographer who would document the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings near to Thebes – modern day Luxor.
Harry Burton – on the left of the picture above – is shown with Howard Carter at the dig site in the Valley of the Kings. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Who was Burton? Where did he come from?
This is from Wikipedia…
“Harry Burton (13 September 1879 – 27 June 1940) was an English Egyptologist and archaeological photographer. Born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, to a journeyman cabinet maker William Burton and Ann Hufton, he is best known for his photographs of excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings at the beginning of the 20th century. His most famous photographs are the 1400 he took documenting Howard Carter’s excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The Times published 142 of these images on 21 February 1923. He remained in Egypt after the tomb’s excavations, dying there in 1940. He is buried in the American Cemetery in Asyut.”
Harry was one of 11 children born in Stamford, Lincolnshire to a humble cabinet maker, William Burton and his wife Ann Burton (nee Hufton from Billinghay in South Lincolnshire.)
The house on the left with the green door is believed to be the Burton’s home in Burley Lane, Stamford. House numbers have changed over the years but there’s a picture of this house with Burton’s parents outside, which adds to its credibility as being the home of the Burton household.
Harry seems to have received a good education, possibly sponsored by Robert Henry Hobart Cust ( brother of the local MP who was also heir to the Belton Estate). At 17 Harry travelled to Florence with Cust, acting as his secretary and companion. Cust, a famous Art Historian of the Italian Renaissance had a house in Florence.
In 1910 Burton travelled with wealthy Theodore Davis on his first trip to Egypt, later working for the Metropolitan Museum in New York and Cairo and then subsequently working for Lord Carnarvon and Carter on the Tutankhamun dig.
We know Harry Burton today mainly for the work he did for Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter on that famous Tutankhamun excavation.
He travelled widely with his wife Minnie. Harry died in Egypt in 1940 where he is buried. He died a wealthy man, leaving the equivalent of nearly a Quarter of a Million Pounds in todays money in his will.
It has been suggested Harry Burton used a Gandolfi Wooden camera (see below). The process involved exposing emulsion covered glass plates held within the ‘wooden box’ that was the large format camera of choice in the day. The equipment was large and heavy. The emulsion speeds would not have been high, requiring long exposures in the darkness of the tombs – especially as the lens would have been stopped down to give greater depth of field so as to achieve greater focus and sharpness through the image – from foreground to background as it were.
Shutter speeds of around 4 seconds or more would likely have been used, making pictures of people particularly difficult. Consequently many of the “people” pictures within the tomb would likely have been staged with the subjects told to freeze. It’s possible to see slight blurring of the people in the pictures due to their very slight movements not being frozen by these slow shutter speeds.
Burton set up a darkroom in a robbed out tomb, KV55 just a step or two away from the dig in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
As all photographers who have used a darkroom will attest dust is the enemy.
Imagine the issues in developing extremely fragile glass plates in a lashed up darkroom in a dusty tomb in the middle of excavations in a desert! It’s as close to the definition of a ‘dust box’ as possible without working inside a vacuum cleaner bag.
How Burton managed to keep the plates as dust free as he did is nothing short of a miracle. The glass slides back in the 20’s were very thin and, as I’ve said, extremely fragile. It was a hazardous process. During later re-excavations of KV55, glass fragments were found in the floor as evidence of accidental damage to the work in progress.
Without doubt, Burton was an extremely capable photographer and technician.
- Using a light meter back then would have led to unpredictable outcomes, See note *1 below;
- He was working with very slow emulsion on fragile glass plates;
- He was working in conditions which define the word ‘dusty’;
- There was no ‘appropriate flash’ equipment. The operative word here being “Appropriate”. I am aware Magnesium powder flash existed See note *2 below;
- All lighting within the pitch blackness of the tomb was probably made using incandescent bulbs.
…and yet, somehow, he managed to produced extremely detailed, clean images which are still used today as reference material and their quality is not found lacking. Extraordinary.
Gandolfi type folding wood and brass large format plate camera.
As I said, there is a suggestion Burton used a Gandolfi camera, or similar. Gandolfi and Sons was a London based manufacturer of cameras. Established in 1885. It closed October 2017.
I asked the Griffith Institute of Oxford – who hold all his images in the UK – what sized plates they have? This is their reply…
“The bulk of the glass negatives we have from Burton are 10 x 8; though we also have some quarter plates, mainly of individual objects rather than set piece tomb scenes, which must have been taken on a different camera.”
And yet when the plates themselves were measured the size was 18cm x 24cm. This is close to 10inches x 8 inches but is not quite the same.
How can we explain why the Griffith Institute call their plates 10 x 8 when they are not?
You can see from this advertisement, contemporary with Burton’s work, Gandolfi made a range of cameras. Gandolfi had what they called a “10 x 8 or 24 x 18cm” Perhaps the only difference was the internal size of the plate carriers; one size for the Imperial inch and one for the metric centimetre. I haven’t yet determined if that is the case. So, it is perhaps an easy mistake to make on the Griffith part. 10×8 being a verbal shorthand if you like.
Talking to photographer Jo Gane who has experience of these type of cameras she said there wasn’t much standardisation of plate size back in the late 1800’s, adding “Wet plate supplies list this size for tin, so it must have been a camera size that was once in production – and still used by some today.”
Having checked with Harry Cory Wright, the photographer using a 10×8 Gandolfi in the BBC film, modern day 10×8 film is indeed that specific size.
It’s all very confusing and leads me nowhere in my attempt to specifically identify the manufacturer of the camera/s used.
It was suggested Burton used a Sinclair. You can see from the advertisement above that Sinclair did not make a 10 x 8 or equivalent – at least in the model mentioned, so we can rule that out as camera used to produce the large format plates.
He was pictured, as you can see, using a Sinclair Una at some time in his life in Egypt. Remember he also worked in Egypt before his time with Carter so it’s not certain this image was contemporaneous with the Carter dig.
The Griffith Institute mention smaller glass slides in the collection and them being used for pictures of items removed from the tomb. The way these items would have been photographed was; the camera would have been mounted above the item, which would have been perhaps on the floor or a table, the image then being shot vertically downwards. There would have been no need for the use of a large 10 x 8 camera. That would have been overkill, not to mention awkward with such a large device. It is possible therefore, the smaller images were shot using the Sinclair Una half or quarter plate camera or similar. We know he had one.
It’s worth remembering there were a few British manufacturers of similar cameras at the time. One such was The Lancaster range of cameras made by J. Lancaster & Sons of Birmingham. At the turn of the 20thC, Lancaster and sons were reputed to be the largest camera maker in the world. In 1898, for example, they produced 200,000 cameras. Thornton Picard of Manchester also made similar, fine quality equipment.
So, have I determined what make and model of camera Burton used for the large images? Sadly not. Nevertheless, what is undoubted is Burton was an extraordinary photographer who produced wonderful images under the most difficult circumstances. How he rose from such humble beginnings to having such worldwide acclaim is surely a reflection of an innate talent which he employed with dexterity and tenacity.
I’m surprised he is not more lauded in his home town.
I discounted the use of light meters for the reasons mentioned within the first section of the piece on ‘early photographic light meters’ here… namely the inconsistency of speed etc of emulsions of the day.
Because of the huge importance of getting this right my guess would be he would have taken a test shot with every new batch of plates and processed that before he made the critical exposures. Money spent on that would not have been as big a problem as getting it wrong would have been. Besides, my guess would be nothing was removed before the shot of the original was made and seen by Carter. Only then would they progress to removing items and dismantling the scene.
Individual items, once removed, could be photographed at leisure.
I did think about the possibility of Burton using magnesium powder as a lighting source. On balance I decided against the possibility of Burton using it for 2 reasons.
- The environment was closed and airless. The fumes/smoke would have lasted for hours, if not days and would have become overpowering in such a confined space.
- If you look here… you will see there is a considerable fire risk to the tinder dry objects in the tomb.
- Blog about Harry Burton’s work by Prof. Christina Riggs. More >>>
- Web site for Harry Cory Wright – the photographer in the BBC piece on the photographic work on Harry Burton. More >>>
- “The Man who shot Tutankhamun” the piece on BBC 4. This is time sensitive as it’s only up on the web for a limited period. More >>>
- A link to a previous exhibition at “The Collection” about Burton’s work. More >>>
- The Griffith Institute Oxford and the collection of Burton’s images. More >>>
- Images by Harry Burton for sale. More >>>
- Article in the i. More >>>
- Article in Lincolnshire Live More >>>
- For a more academic insight here’s a link to the book by Prof. Christina Riggs. More >>>
- And in case you want to know more about Tutankhamun himself. More >>>