With rapidly increasing technological advances, the 19th century was a boom time for exhibitions and expositions. One of the biggest and best was the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London which provided a model for exhibitions on a national and international scale. Not only did these exhibitions showcase art and technology to an admiring public, they also rewarded those who excelled in their respective fields, photographers among them.
Awards of certificates of merit and medals of bronze, silver and gold soon proliferated
among every area of photographic endeavour. Awards for portraiture and composition were eagerly contested at local, national and international level. Due to the number of medals being handed out it soon became fashionable among the photographic fraternity to adorn their ‘carte de visite’ photos with representations of the honours that had been heaped upon them. In so doing, those who had triumphed in portraiture, technical prowess or best portraits of children had a ready-made endorsement for the services they provided.
However, as with so many things, the medals that studios so proudly displayed on the backs of their photographs were not always what they seemed. At first glance it might be assumed that some photographers had gained many more awards than was the case. It was common practice to display both front and back of each medal, thereby implying that twice as many had been awarded. Other studios added medal-like designs to their cdvs, which at a cursory glance would pass as the real thing, and an example of this can be seen on the reverse of a photograph by Naudin & Co. of London. Others showed depictions of medals while neglecting to state what the award was for. Netterville Briggs, though, made sure that his clientele knew why his work had been praised. Awards for best portrait, best portraits of children, large portraits and best series of portraits, were awarded to his studio between 1865 and 1870.
Garrett Cocking of Peckham, near London, gained a medal at the London International
Exhibition of Inventions in 1874 as well as at the Photographic Society of London exhibition in 1877. However, Mr H P Robinson of Tunbridge Wells outshone most of his competitors by gaining awards from the Paris Universal Exhibition as well as from displays in Scotland, Bengal, Vienna, America and more prosaically, Cornwall, between 1862 and 1877. F. Whaley too distinguished himself if the number of medals on his cd is anything to go by. The Royal Cornwall exhibition appears to have been a favourite with many photographers as their medals appear on many cards from across the British Isles. Other regional exhibitions that featured frequently in photographic adverts were those held in Bristol, Dundee, Newcastle and Falmouth. This trend reflected the numerous regional photographic associations that sprang up in the middle years of the 19th century as photography for the masses continued to grip the imagination of the public.
The logistics of transferring photographs safely halfway round the world or even across the country must have been fraught with difficulties. No doubt the burgeoning railway networks played their part but there must have been much forward planning and sturdy packaging needed to make sure work arrived at the right destination and in good condition for each exhibition. Evidently photographers thought it was worth the time and trouble as the medals and other awards that were gained show another side to the life of the nation’s photographers. However, by the end of the 19th century, the use of medals as status symbol and design feature was fading. As the 20th century arrived it was no longer necessary to present photographs on highly decorated cards. By this time, the public had begun to take its own photographs and the age of the carte de visite photograph was almost over.