Robert Turnbull Macpherson

Robert Turnbull Macpherson (27 February 1814 – 17 November 1872) was a Scottish artist and photographer who worked in Rome, Italy, in the 19th century.

Robert Turnbull Macpherson
A portrait of Robert Turnbull Macpherson.
Born(1814-02-27)27 February 1814
Dalkeith, Scotland
Died17 November 1872(1872-11-17) (aged 58)
Rome, Italy
OccupationArtist, photographer
SpouseLouisa Gerardine Bate

Early lifeEdit

Robert Turnbull Macpherson was born on 27 February 1814 in Dalkeith, Scotland, outside the city of Edinburgh.[1] 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,[2] his exact relations are ambiguous.[3] Nothing is known of Macpherson's childhood until his study in medicine at the University of Edinburgh between 1831 and 1835.[4] 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.[5] His only known surviving work from this period is Templar Knight at Roslin Chapel[1], an oil painting dated 1836.[6] In 1840 he left Scotland for Rome, Italy.

Early career in RomeEdit

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.[7]

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.[7] Macpherson smuggled the painting out of Rome, and in 1868 sold it to the National Gallery in London for £2000.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]


Forum of Trajan

In 1851, having failed to achieve notice as a painter, Macpherson turned to the new art of photography, using albumin on glass negatives.[11][12] By 1856 he had transitioned to collodio-albumin, allowing the easier transport of dry plates.[13] He typically used large-format negatives and long exposure times to attain exceptional detail of Roman architecture, monuments, ruins, landscapes, and sculptures.[14] His work emphasised careful composition of scenes to capture three-dimensional architectural relationships on the two-dimensional photographic medium.[15] Macpherson emphasised 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."[11]

By the early 1860s, Macpherson's photographic career was near its zenith, with exhibitions in Edinburgh and London.[16] His work received critical acclaim, with "subjects chosen with fine taste and the pictures executed with skill and delicacy."[17]

Macpherson was the first photographer permitted to photograph inside the Vatican,[13] and in 1863 published Vatican Sculptures, Selected and Arranged in the Order in which they are Found in the Galleries[2], a guide book to 125 Vatican sculptures featuring woodcut illustrations carved by his wife from his photographs.[18]

Although resident in Rome, Macpherson remained an active member of the Photographic Society of Scotland.[19] However, The Scotsman newspaper noted in his obituary that he was "the father of photography in the Eternal City [Rome]."[20]

Later lifeEdit

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.[21] At the same time, technical advances in photography moved the medium from the realm of artists to that of a commodity.[22]

Robert Macpherson died on 17 November 1872. His funeral was held at the artists' church Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome,[23] and he was buried at Campo Verano[24] though his grave has since been lost.[25] 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").[23]

Over the course of his photography career, Macpherson catalogued 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. Smaller collections are found worldwide.


  1. ^ Crawford 1999, p. 356. The date remains uncertain. Earlier references, for example Munsterberg 1986, often give Macpherson's birth as 1811 and either Inverness or Forfarshire. A family note gives 29 February 1816.
  2. ^ Macpherson 1878, p. xiii
  3. ^ Crawford 1999, pp. 356–357, suggests that Macpherson's father John may be the illegitimate son of James Macpherson.
  4. ^ Munsterberg 1986, p. 142
  5. ^ Crawford 1999, p. 357
  6. ^ Nisbet 2010, p. 2. There remains some doubt as to whether this work, signed "R T McPHERSON", is authentic or was painted by the subject of this article.
  7. ^ a b Munsterberg 1986, p. 143.
  8. ^ Crawford 1999, pp. 379–383.
  9. ^ Gerardine Macpherson would later write Memoirs of the life of Anna Jameson, a biography of Jameson.
  10. ^ Munsterberg 1986, pp. 145–146.
  11. ^ a b Macpherson 1863, Introduction
  12. ^ Crawford 1999, pp. 359–360.
  13. ^ a b Crawford 1999, p. 360.
  14. ^ Munsterberg 1986, pp. 147–148.
  15. ^ Crawford 1999, p. 365-368.
  16. ^ Crawford 1999, p. 362.
  17. ^ The Athenaeum, p. xxxvii, 9 August 1862, 181, as cited in Munsterberg 1986, p. 150.
  18. ^ Crawford 1999, p. 364.
  19. ^ "Robert Macpherson". Getty Museum. Retrieved 8 April 2011.
  20. ^ "Death of Mr. R. Macpherson, of Rome". The Scotsman. 26 November 1872. Retrieved 25 May 2009.
  21. ^ Crawford 2008, p. 35.
  22. ^ Crawford 1999, p. 395.
  23. ^ a b Crawford 1999, p. 401.
  24. ^ Crawford 2008, p. 46. Freeman 1883, p. 231, gives the burial location San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, which is adjacent to Campo Verano.
  25. ^ Crawford 2008, p. 44.


External linksEdit