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'Ruins of Holyrood Chapel', by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851)


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About the artwork

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre is perhaps best known for his contribution to the history of photography. He invented the first photographic process, the daguerréotype in 1839. Daguerre was apprenticed to an architect at the age of sixteen while also training as a draughtsman. He also worked in the studio of the stage designer for the Paris Opera, Ignace-Eugene-Marie Degotti as well as assisting Pierre Prévost in designing panorama paintings for public entertainment.

Daguerre established his reputation as a stage designer for Parisian theatres, especially with the development of dioramas. These were buildings designed by Daguerre for displaying his and Charles-Marie Bouton's huge paintings. Most of the themes of the paintings were landscapes, chapel interiors and volcanoes. The paintings were executed on thin linen. Often real props were added to enhance spectators' experience. Lighting from the front and the back of the picture was used to suggest gradual passage from day to evening light as well the appearance and disappearance of actors and actresses. When one scene of the play was completed the auditorium was rotated to bring another view or picture on stage. These dioramas were in an early form of cinema and were very popular. The first diorama was opened in Paris in 1822. Its success was such that Daguerre was asked to design another one in London, which opened in Park Square East, Regent's Park in 1823.

Daguerre's fascination with dioramas stemmed from his interest in finding appropriate ways of capturing light and atmospheric effects in painting, as well as making perspective an expressive and dramatic medium. The increasing taste for travelling and particularly visiting ruins and picturesque sites in the 18th century made Daguerre's dioramas particularly popular among the people of his time. For those who did not have the chance to travel, dioramas offered an experience close to a real visit, while for the privileged it helped revive their memories and emotions.

'The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel' relates to the painting with the same title, which Daguerre exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1824. The only difference between the two was that the Paris Salon work included the figure of a comtess, who was visiting the tomb of her former friend, the Duchesse de Grammont. She died in exile at Holyrood in 1803 and was buried in the royal vault in the south-east corner of Holyrood Chapel. Daguerre exhibited dioramas of the same subject in Paris from 1823 until 1824, in London from March 1825 and in Liverpool from 1825 until 1827. Between 1822 and 1839 Daguerre exhibited twenty dioramas in Paris and three of the scenes exhibited were related to Edinburgh ('Interior of Holyrood Chapel', Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh and 'Edinburgh during the Fire of 15 November 1824'). There is no record of Daguerre's visit to the Chapel although the view by moonlight of the Holyrood Chapel was famous.

According to legend, Holyrood Abbey was founded as an Augustinian monastery by King David I in 1128. The abbey's symbol was a stag with its horns framing a cross since that was the vision King David I saw when attacked by a stag in the area. The abbey was later chosen as the residence of the Scottish royalty because of the beauty of the surrounding hills and the parkland around it. In 1501 James IV (1488-1513) cleared the ground of the abbey and built a palace for himself and his bride Margaret Tudor (sister of Henry the VIII). Further alterations were made by his successor James V (1513-1542). In the 18th century, following the reunion of parliaments, the palace began to be neglected in favour of Scotland's castles. It became a sanctuary for poor and distressed noblemen. Royalty returned to the palace with Prince Charles Edward Stuart and the Duke of Cumberland. In 1768 the roof of the Abbey church collapsed, leaving the royal chapel in ruins.

The Painting

It was precisely the fragmented nature of the chapel and its distinct architecture that appealed to Daguerre's imagination. The decay transformed the chapel into the perfect stage for a theatre production and a diorama. Looking at the painting, despite the fact that the scale of the ruins is minimised to fit the canvas, one can almost experience a sense of being there. The detailed painting of architectural details such as the vaults, columns and the arched window enhances the illusion. The grass growing on the ruins is a sign of time and decay. Daguerre was also interested in the contrast between light and shadow, which he also explored further in his dioramas and daguerreotypes. If the painting was made after the production of the same scene in a diorama, we can assume the diorama enabled the artist to study carefully the affect of light on the ruins and capture them successfully in the painting.

'The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel' was presented to the town of Liverpool in 1864 by Arnold Baruchson.