International Women’s Day – Historic Women at the V&A

SABEL A. COWPER – First Female Official Photographer of the First Museum Photographic Service?

With March being International Women’s Month, and Friday, 8 March, International Women’s Day, we here at the Factory thought it would be nice to highlight the work of an overlooked female artist.  With this mandate in mind, we were happy to discover the work of the photographer Isabel Agnes Cowper (1826?-1911) in the course of cataloguing a large archive of photographs that relate to the development and construction of the South Kensington Museum (which later became the Victoria & Albert Museum). Little is known about Cowper, but in the course of our research it has become apparent that she is an important part of the early history of V&A and a seminal figure behind the Museum’s early uptake of photography to document the arts.

Early photograph of the V&A interior

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Isabel A. Cowper

South Kensington Museum (the ‘Brompton Boilers’), Educational Collection (?), showing school furniture and apparatus, albumen print, ca. 1869

Photographs and photographers were present from the very beginning of the Museum’s history.  Henry Cole (1808-1882), the founding Director of the Museum, was a pioneer in his appreciation of the multitude of uses of photography, and was very much aware of photography’s possibilities in terms of documenting and promoting the Museum’s collection, as well as a tool for art education.  Under his direction, the Museum sourced photographs from a wide range of suppliers and sponsored photographic campaigns abroad.  With the appointment of Charles Thurston Thompson (1816-1868), the Official Photographer of the South Kensington Museum, the first museum photographic service was established. (1.)

Early photograph of the interior of the V&A

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Isabel A. Cowper

South Kensington Museum (the ‘Brompton Boilers’), Educational Museum), albumen print, ca. 1869

The first reference to ‘Mrs. Cowper’ occurs in the diaries of Henry Cole, shortly after Thurston Thompson’s death in 1868.  Cole writes:  ‘In the E[venin]g Charlotte Thompson came and resolved to have nothing to do with Photography in future:  proposed to R. Thompson that Mrs. Cowper shd [sic] take up the Artistic work but not the Trade.’. (2.)

Who was Isabel Agnes Cowper and how did she land her position at the Museum?  According to the archives of the South Kensington Museum, in a letter Cowper wrote resigning her post as ‘Official Photographer to the Department [of Science and Art]’ there is a reference to the fact that she was the sister of Richard Anthony Thompson, Museum Superintendent, and Charles Thurston Thompson. (3.) As sister to both the Superintendent and Official Photographer her connections to Museum were widespread.  Where did Cowper learn her skill?  It is highly likely that Thurston Thompson would have taught Cowper photography.

Early photograph of a model for the V&A buildings

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Isabel A. Cowper

Model of the proposed South Kensington Museum buildings, completed according to the plans of Henry Scott, front elevation, albumen print, ca. 1870

The first entry in the Photographs register with reference to ‘Mrs. Cowper’ appears on 18 March 1868.  That entry catalogues six mounted albumen photographs of Hatfield House ‘Presented by Mrs. I.A. Cowper.’  At this point, shortly after Thurston Thompson’s death, Cowper is most probably acting as an ’administrator’ for her deceased brother, managing his negatives and his stock.  There is not another entry with her name until 9 May 1868 when in addition to the entries annotated ‘Rec’d from Mrs. Cowper’, there is the first entry, for 57 mounted photographs of objects lent by the Romanian Government, annotated ‘photographed by and rec’d from Mrs. Cowper’.

Around this time, there are also entries annotated ‘purchased of Mrs. Cowper’, implying that in the early days of her involvement with the Photography Department at the Museum, her role as de facto photographer was not yet official and she was being paid as an independent contractor.  By 1872, the annotations are consistently written as ‘Rec’d from Stores (Mrs. Cowper)’, inferring an official role within the Museum.  She remained in the post for 23 years, resigning at the end of 1891.

Sometime after 1863 and before 1871, Cowper moved into the Residences at the Museum alongside her brother with her three surviving children.  It would make sense that Cowper, widowed in 1860 with three children (and one on the way) at the age of 33, would be taken in by her unmarried brother, Richard Anthony Thompson.  The precise date when Cowper moved in (the Residences were completed in 1863) is still not known.  She very well could have moved in shortly after the death of her husband, perhaps assisting her other brother, Thurston Thompson, with his photography work until his death in 1868.  Most likely a ‘grace and favour’ arrangement due to her sibling connections, she remained in residence until the retirement of her brother, Richard, in 1891. (4.)

Another interesting aspect of Cowper’s work that deserves further investigation is the possible interaction between Julia Margaret Cameron, pioneer in the art of photography, and Cowper. We know that ‘sometime in the early [eighteen] seventies she [Julia Margaret Cameron] obtained leave to have the use of a room and the photographic equipment in the old ‘Brompton Boilers,’ where part of the official photographic work for the Museum was carried on’.(5.) This would be concurrent with Cowper’s residence at the Museum, working within the photographic department and managing the photography ‘Stores’. It seems likely that Cowper would have acted as ‘host’ to Cameron while she was at the Museum using the facilities.  A portion of Cameron’s correspondence to Henry Cole exists in the National Art Library and will be reviewed for mention of Cowper and any details of her time spent at the Museum.

Early photograph of a model of the V&A

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Isabel A. Cowper

Model of the proposed South Kensington Museum buildings, completed according to the plans of Henry Scott, view from the south-west of the Exhibition Road façade, albumen print, 1869

Cowper was buried in Kensal Green cemetery in 1911 alongside her husband and three of her children.  She’s in good photographic company, resting among other nineteenth century photography notables, including Frederick Scott Archer (1814-1858, the inventor of the collodion process), her brother, William Bedford (1846-1893) and Oscar Rejlander (1813-1875).

So not only is the V&A the first Museum to establish a photographic service, but also perhaps the first to employ a female photographer in the role of ‘Official Museum Photographer’?

1. Martin Barnes, Charles Thurston Thompson, in John Hannavy, ed., Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, p. 1385.

2. Diary of Henry Cole, 8 February 1868. Charlotte Thompson was the widow of Charles Thurston Thompson as well as Henry Cole’s sister-in-law.  R.A. Thompson was the Superintendent of the South Kensington Museum and Charles Thurston Thompson’s brother.

3.V&A Archives,  ED84/146.  Isabel A. Cowper, letter to Sir Philip Cunliffe-Owen, Director of the South Kensington Museum, 1891.

4. The 1871 UK Census lists Isabel A. Cowper living with her three children at 3, The Residences, South Kensington Museum, London, the official curators’ residences.  The head of household is listed as Richard A. Thompson, at the time, the Assistant Director of the South Kensington Museum and Cowper’s brother.  1901 UK Census data has Cowper residing in Surrey with her brother.

5.Alan S. Cole in a letter to The Times on 15 February 1926, as published in Anthony Hamber, A Higher Branch of the Art:  Photographing the Fine Arts in England 1839-1880, p. 452.   Alan Cole is Henry Cole’s son.

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