Patrick Byrne (c. 1794-1863)
On or around 1st April 1845, Byrne was performing at the Waverly Ball, Edinburgh. He was installed as one of the “tableaux vivants”, to represent “The last minstrel striking his harp to the last lay”. Photographic portraits were taken of him by the Edinburgh photography pioneers, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.
The photographs show Byrne dressed in a plaid and blanket, with a laurel wreath on his head, seated on a high-backed chair, and with suitably gothic props around him - a tankard or jug, and a warrior’s helmet, and of course holding his harp.
Also in the sequence of photographs are some images of him similarly posed in the same chair, but without the props, and dressed in a formal evening suit. It is most likely that Byrne visited the photography studio at Rock House, Calton hill, where the scenes would have been re-created.
Staged photographs in costume, as a kind of historical high art a little like historical genre oil painting, was quite common in early photography, and I think we should see these blanket portraits in this light. Hill later wrote of the “costume, which, made of a blanket and plaid shows how simply one might get up pictures of the old world”.
The process used to make the images was the Calotype process. This was a two-stage process, with the exposed surface bearing a negative image, which had to be transferred onto fresh paper, to make a positive image. Therefore, multiple copies of each sitting could be relatively easily produced, and a number of collections hold original copies of different portraits from the series.
I have seen 8 different Hill & Adamson calotypes:
As if this was not enough, there are two other portraits of Patrick Byrne I am aware of. One is a 3/4 view, 3/4 length photograph, showing a much older Byrne sitting in a round-backed chair, playing his harp, and dressed in a dark suit. This portrait was published by F.J. Biggar with a brief biographical note, in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology XVII, 1911, and I do not know more about its provenance.
The other portrait is a somewhat crude engraving, which was published in the Illustrated London News, October 11th, 1856, p.371. A re-engraved copy of this portrait was published in in The Emerald vol 2 no.33, New York, Sept. 19th 1868, p.108, to accompany the description of Byrne by D.H.