Robert     Turnbull   Macpherson

(27 February 1814 - 17 November 1872)

(b Forfarshire [now Tayside], 1811; d Rome, 17 Nov 1872). Scottish photographer and painter, active in Italy. He studied medicine at Edinburgh from 1831 to 1835 before deciding to become a painter. In 1840, he settled in Rome, where he belonged to the literary and artistic expatriate community. Among his acquaintances were the writers Robert and Elizabeth Browning and the art historian Anna Bronwell Jameson, whose niece, Gerardine Bate, he married in 1849. Macpherson made a living as a landscape painter and supplemented his income by buying and selling paintings. By 1858, with Tommaso Cuccioni (1813-1864) and James Anderson (1813-1877), Macpherson was one of Rome's leading photographers, and was the first to photograph the Vatican interior, recording many of its sculptures. He maintained strong links with the Photographic Society of Scotland and the Architectural Photographic Association. His most notable act of connoisseurship was the identification and acquisition of the Entombment of Michelangelo, now in the National Gallery, London. 17 November 1872)

Robert Turnbull Macpherson was born on 27 February 1814, in Dalkeith, Scotland, outside the city of Edinburgh. Although family friend and author Margaret Oliphant described him as a close relative of Clan Macpherson chief Ewan Macpherson of Cluny and "the nearest male relative" of poet James Macpherson, his exact relations are ambiguous. Nothing is known of Macpherson's childhood until his study in medicine at the University of Edinburgh between 1831 and 1835. He apparently did not complete his medical studies, and subsequently studied art at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh, where he exhibited portraits between 1835 and 1839. His only known surviving work from this period is "Templar Knight at Roslin Chapel", an oil painting dated 1836. In 1840, he left Scotland for Rome, Italy. During his initial years in Rome, Macpherson continued to practice as a painter. While records exist of several works between 1840 and 1845, only one is known to survive from Macpherson's time in Rome -- a large oil painting of the "Roman Campagna", dated 1842.

In addition to painting, he worked as an art dealer. His most notable acquisition was a large, dark panel which he purchased in 1846. After cleaning the piece, it was identified as "The Entombment of Christ", an unfinished work by Michelangelo. Macpherson smuggled the painting out of Rome, and in 1868, sold it to the National Gallery in London for £2000.

In 1847, Macpherson met and fell in love with seventeen-year-old Louisa Gerardine ("Geddie") Bate, who had travelled from London to Rome in the company of her aunt, art historian Anna Jameson. Macpherson and Bate continued the relationship after Bate's return to England, despite her parents' and aunt's objections, and were married in September, 1849, in Ealing [outer borough of Greater London, SE England].

In 1851, having failed to achieve notice as a painter, Macpherson turned to the new art of photography, using albumin (sic) on glass negatives. By 1856, he had transitioned to collodio-albumin, allowing the easier transport of dry plates. He typically utilized large-format negatives and long exposure times to attain exceptional detail of Roman architecture, monuments, ruins, landscapes, and sculptures. His work emphasized careful composition of scenes to capture three-dimensional architectural relationships on the two-dimensional photographic medium. Macpherson emphasized the artistic ,aspects of his photography, stating in 1863 that "I remain a photographer to this day, without any feeling that by doing so I have abandoned art, or have in any way forfeited my claim to the title of artist."

By the early 1860s, Macpherson's photographic career was near its zenith, with exhibitions in Edinburgh and London. His work received critical acclaim, with "subjects chosen with fine taste and the pictures executed with skill and delicacy."

Macpherson was the first photographer permitted to photograph inside the Vatican, and in 1863, published Vatican Sculptures, Selected and Arranged in the Order in which they are Found in the Galleries, a guide book to 125 Vatican sculptures featuring woodcut illustrations carved by his wife from his photographs.

Although resident in Rome, Macpherson remained an active member of the Photographic Society of Scotland.

By the late 1860s, Macpherson's fortunes were in decline. His health had deteriorated due to malaria, and the increasing political instability in Rome reduced the stream of British tourists that made up much of his customer base. At the same time, technical advances in photography moved the medium from the realm of artists to that of a commodity.

Robert Macpherson died on 17 November 1872. His funeral was held at the artists' church Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, and he was buried at Campo Verano, though his grave has since been lost. He was survived by his wife Gerardine and children, William (who appears in the Italian record as "Guglielmo"), Joseph ("Giuseppe"), Ada ("Aida"), and Francis or Frank ("Francesco").

Over the course of his photography career, Macpherson cataloged 1,019 photographs. Today, significant numbers may be found at George Eastman House, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art, and the British School at Rome.

Macpherson, Robert (1814–1872), photographer and painter, was born in Forfarshire, Scotland, probably on 27 February 1814, and spent most of his professional life in Rome. Little is known of his family background, though it is likely that he was a grandnephew of James Macpherson (1736–1796), author of the fraudulent Ossianic publication, Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760). The generally accepted view of his early life is that he studied medicine at Edinburgh University (1831-1835) and later -- possibly about 1838 -- attended classes at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art. Towards the end of the 1830s he left Scotland for India with the intention of practising as a surgeon; for health reasons, however, he settled in Rome, abandoning his career in medicine to become a painter.

Only moderately successful as an artist, Macpherson found it necessary to undertake freelance work as a journalist, producing articles for The Times, the Daily News, and The Athenaeum. He also practised as a dealer in antiquities and was responsible for the discovery of Michelangelo's Entombment of Christ, which he retained as a hedge against financial difficulties, eventually selling it in 1868, to the National Gallery in London for £2000. Gregarious and outgoing, he became a central figure in the community of expatriate artists and intellectuals who congregated in Rome in mid-century, with the sculptor James Gibson and the German painter Peter von Cornelius among his personal friends. In appearance he was the quintessential Scotsman abroad, with flaming red hair, large flowing beard, and full highland costume. In 1847, he became a Roman Catholic, and in the following year fell in love with Gerardine (Geddie) Bate (1830/31-1878), the niece and protégée of the renowned art historian Anna Jameson, with whom she had travelled to Rome in the company of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Despite her aunt's disapproval, the couple were married on 4 September 1849, in Ealing, Middlesex, Geddie Macpherson converting to Catholicism the following year.

In 1851, Macpherson began experimenting in photography, which he found to be a more lucrative profession than painting. He quickly established himself as one of the leading interpreters of Roman topography, producing nearly 300 views of the city's architectural treasures, as well as numerous reproductions of paintings and sculptures from the papal collections in the Vatican. He used both the albumen and collodion processes, often combining the two, with glass negatives measuring 30.5 centimetres by 40.5, and exposure times varying from two minutes to several days. He also experimented with photolithography, which he tried, without success, to use commercially. Although his work was produced chiefly for sale to the burgeoning tourist trade, it was also regularly included in major exhibitions in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. In 1858, he contributed 120 prints to the exhibition of the Architectural Photographic Association. His earlier experience as a painter proved invaluable in the choice of effective viewpoints, and his interpretations of classical architecture were unsurpassed in their aesthetic power and sophistication.

Unlike many of his major rivals, such as the Alinari brothers, Macpherson's commercial activities never grew beyond the scale of a small family business, with many of the practical tasks such as printing and mounting, often performed by his wife and mother-in-law. His book Vatican Sculptures (1863), was also illustrated with woodcuts by his wife. From about 1865, his career began to falter, and the last years of his life were marked by a steady decline in both his reputation and his health. He died in Rome on 17 November 1872, leaving his wife and their four surviving children, William, Francis, Ada, and Joseph, in a state of acute financial distress. He was buried in the churchyard of San Lorenzo, Rome. [Ray McKenzie]

G. Macpherson, Memoirs of the life of Anna Jameson, ed. M. O. W. Oliphant (1878); British Journal of Photography (6 Dec 1872); Elizabeth Barrett Browning: letters to her sister, 1846–1859; J. E. Freeman, Gatherings from an artist's portfolio (1883); Photographic Notes (20 Dec 1862); Murray's handbook (1896), xv. Rome; Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, Canada, photographs collection; ‘Macpherson, Robert (1814–1872)’, Ray McKenzie, © Copyright Ownership: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Born: 27 February 1814, Dalkeith, Scotland
The date remains uncertain; references often give Macpherson's birth as 1811, and either Inverness or Forfarshire. [A family note gives February 29, 1816.]
Died: 17 November 1872, Rome, Italy
Nationality: Scottish
Occupation: Artist, photographer
Spouse: Louisa Gerardine Bate

Art Encyclopedia; Photography Encyclopedia; The Athenaeum, August 9, 1862; Gatherings from an Artist's Portfolio in Rome, Vol. 2. James Freeman, 1883; Memoirs of the life of Anna Jameson, Gerardine Macpherson, 1878; Vatican Sculptures, Selected and Arranged in the Order in which they are Found in the Galleries, Robert Macpherson, 1863; Dewitz, B. v., Siegert, D., Schuller-Procopovici, K., (eds.), Italien sehen und sterben: Photographien der Zeit des Risorgimento (1845- 1870); National Galleries of Scotland;; en.wikipedia


RETURNING to Rome in 1841, I found, among other students of painting who had arrived during my absence, a young Scotchman, Robert Macpherson, by name, with whom I afterwards became intimately acquainted. He, like myself and many others who came to Rome with the intention of spending only a brief winter, remained here for the rest of his life. His name occurs frequently in my first volume of "Gatherings" under the abbreviation of Mac, -- a familiarity permitted me by my close friendship for him, and which I shall still continue to use in this chapter.

Mac made his appearance among us wearing the costume of his clan. Even in Rome, which at that period struck strangers as being in a perpetual state of masquerade, his dress was a very unusual and novel one. But it became him admirably. His figure was of a good height; his limbs were well-formed, elastic, and graceful. He had abundant auburn hair, which he wore long. His eyes were blue, his features fine, and his complexion was fresh and clear; and apart from these personal attractions he was gifted with that rare endowment, the art of pleasing. He was a remarkable observer of character, and possessed a wonderful memory, great powers of description, and a natural ready wit. With all these attractive qualities it may well be supposed that he was a delightful social companion. He had not been long in Rome before he numbered among his friends possessors of some of the noblest names, in Great Britain, -- the Marquis of Northampton, the Duke of Hamilton, and the present Earl of Dudley. Being a Catholic, he also found entrance into the most exclusive Roman society, where neither wealth nor title could always procure an introduction. This social success would have turned the heads of many young men; but it had no such effect on Mac, though it certainly was not advantageous to his progress in his studies. It consumed too much of the precious time which should have been given to his art, and I sincerely believe barred his way to a fair success in his profession. He had intellect and a very decided artistic organization; but he was not partial to patient and unflagging exertion, and too often, when he should have been combating the difficulties of anatomy, perspective, and composition, he allowed his friends, for the sake of his agreeable companionship, to allure him off upon excursions to various parts of Italy, or to accompany them to their picnics, dinners, suppers, and sight-seeing. They were ready enough to purchase the few unstudied pictures which he had time to put upon canvas, not because they found any particular merit in them, but because they had an affection for the genial young artist.

Two or three years of this kind of life passed away with Macpherson, when a change was brought about by the arrival in Rome of Mrs. Jameson, the well-known authoress. She was accompanied by her niece, Geraldine Bates, a young lady whose education had been the particular care of her distinguished aunt. Geddy, as we familiarly called her, was exceedingly bright and fascinating; and Mac, making her acquaintance, lost his heart to her. She, on her side, fell in love with the handsome Scotch artist, and the romance finished by a marriage, which took place in England. Lady Byron, upon the occasion, made the bride a present of a silver service for the table; the Duke of Hamilton entertained the newly wedded couple at his magnificent seat; and when after the happy honeymoon they returned to Rome as a permanent residence, many other flattering attentions were shown them by Mac's distinguished friends in this city.

The battle of life was now to begin in earnest, for the young artist had no resources but those which his pencil might procure for him. It does not suit the brevity and plan of these reminiscences to enter into a minute account of the struggles which, under the circumstances, naturally followed. It was now that he saw his mistake in having allowed opportunities so important for improvement to escape him. However, he made strong and laudable efforts to retrieve the misfortune. He launched boldly both into figure and landscape drawing; but, unfortunately, the mistake he had made in not mastering the rudimentary principles of his art rendered him unequal to success in it. He found it difficult to meet with purchasers for his pictures. The present was disheartening, and the future offered a very unpromising prospect.

"It was at Macpherson's I met Thackeray, Longfellow, Browning, Sala, Lowell, Story, and many more notables." Nor did the painter lose his position in society by descending from a higher to an inferior grade of art. It was the man and the genial Geraldine, his accomplished wife, not his profession, which made his house so attractive to these distinguished people. All were sure to find there a kind welcome, sympathy, amusement, and generous cheer.

Mac was a very shrewd and clever connoisseur in old pictures. In Florence he discovered a painting, valued by the vender at a small price, but which he afterwards found to be the veritable portrait of Vittoria Colonna by Sebastiano del Piombo. This picture he disposed of to the present Earl of Dudley, and it now makes part of that nobleman's fine gallery.

Mac did not entirely confine his ability to art. He was at one period a correspondent for the Times, and was also for a short interval engaged upon the columns of the Daily News. Well informed and actively observant of what was passing politically or socially in Rome, he was ever a ready and willing reference for many journalists and others of the scribbling vocation, who did not hesitate to pick his fertile brain for communications to the press.

To readers in general, I am aware that Macpherson's name will not be known; but in regard to the time, place, and things with which these pages are concerned, he holds a prominent place. He was the personal friend of Crawford, Rogers, Ives, Read, Dix, Story, Rhinehart, Vedder, and many other American artists whose names are "household words" in their country. His house in the Vicolo Aliberti was their frequent rendezvous. They ever met with a cordial welcome there, and, remembering his wit, good-humor, and rare spirit, will, I am sure, hail as pleasant old friends a few of the many amusing stories with which he was wont to divert his visitors.

Robert Macpherson was trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh, but took up landscape painting after moving to Rome in the early 1840s for health reasons. A noted connoisseur and art dealer, a friend of many artists and writers, Macpherson learned photography in 1851 and quickly became successful as a photographer of Roman architecture, antiquities, and scenic views. During his twenty year career, he made more than three hundred large-scale views of Rome and the surrounding countryside.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
National Galleries of Scotland
Macpherson, Robert

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